LETTERS TO A CHINESE ARTIST
All my life the image of China has shimmered and danced before me, and not the image of a Romantic Cathay, but the true humanity I glimpsed in the poetry of Li Po, as we spelled him then, and Tu Fu, Po Chui, and Wang Wei. In the phrases of Chinese that I learned from a New Jersey teacher, Simon Chasin, who loved the language of the Tang poets and who taught them at a club at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey around 1963, I felt the truth of Chinese poetics and poetry. Of course, I was not alone, and in the generation older than me, many poets such as James Wright and others found themselves and their truest tones through the poetry and painting of China. How amazing to be merely a student of Chinese. Ezra Pound translated better than anyone, even before he understood an ideogram. And it is Pound who said, hauntingly, it is not as important to know or learn Chinese as to WANT to know Chinese. Pound understood this globalization by 1908. He understood better than anyone that Western poets must learn from the Tang the way Western impressionists had already learned from Asian perspectives. It is in Pound's great book Cathay that English poetry was pushed to the clean and clear limits of a legibility discovered in China, not in Paris or New York or London. In beginning my praise for your wonderful paintings, dear Mr. Cong, I want to start with the image of a Russian-Jewish pedagogue leaning over my poems and teaching me as much as he could about the values of learning Chinese.
I raise this image in our first letter so that we have a sense both of our nearness and our distances. We are near, because we not only work together the last twenty years in New Jersey, the "garden state" so full of technology and the splendors and miseries of technology, but we also are near, because we are both part of a world tradition that culminates in Mao's revolution and the complexities of all nation-states. My people come from Russia, Latvia, and Poland, and I have always noted the difficulties of nation-states. My father was a great admirer of the Chinese genius of Mao, and nothing could ever revise his estimation of Mao's greatness. Then I have met in you a person who has learned about the Western religions of athleticism and of entertainments. You have made of this learning something curiously grand and synthetic. Instead of laughing over the trivialities of Western art, you have been one to learn from Matisse and Pollock. You have not done this by giving up your own traditional learning. In you, we see the astonishing moment and momentum of Chinese art and Western art fused into a new unity. Let us begin with the image of you and I emerging from our matrices into a friendship that is based, like Tu Fu and Li Po, on mortal differences and the difference that is extolled in their friendship. Two different poets, different temperaments and fates, and yet together, we hope, even in Heaven, as Frank O'Hara jokes in a poem to his friend John Ashbery. O'Hara cannot think of any higher image of friendship between artists and poets than that between Tu Fu and Li Po.
The first thing to be noted about your great art is its multiplicity. The book that you have been creating, the large world that stands in your work, is a transformational dream of what we used to call, reductively and laughingly, East and West. We must now emerge with new words for new arts, new poetic terms to discuss your global expansion. One person can be discerned here as author, and yet the work is so productive and even eclectic that the exposition of your entire oeuvre is almost impossibility. Like Pablo Picasso, who was said to be able to wake and paint in one style, to lunch with another style, and to paint at evening in a third style. You too have a work that looks like a "group show," because of the multeity of your work. You are orderly, you are energetic, and you are never chaotic. And yet we must praise first the diversity at the very core of your enormous changes.
I have let you know that even your drawings, which in your tradition might be thrown away, entrance me. Your watercolors and preparatory studies are a hint, for me, of that disciplined progress, which keeps you on certain scrolls for years. Let it be said that you have learned from calligraphy to be bold and dancer-like. But in the great basketball scrolls, you have created mural-size works that exercise themselves with two typologies, two symbol-systems. You have often told me that you wanted to create a religious painting, but of the real religions of secularism in America. In these fantastic works you test the very limits of Chinese traditional icons. You have made your audiences into bodhisattvas, and you have turned athletes into leaping priests. And you have transformed the basketball into a luminous sun. And all of this you have done in a disciplined, even severe joy. Just as I have learned from your flexible humor, so I think of these as your own great Chinese contribution to a "pop" art that is most truly popular. You have ascertained what is the enormous role of crowds in the powerful civic ceremonies of American life.
But I am also surprised by the depth of your feeling for the history of China, and your ability to transform this curiosity into something more than a stiff devotion. In your work on history, you have perceived subtly the social fate of China over millennia. No one could do your thoughtful work around the Arches and Walls of China without your utter fusion with that history. You have an ironic sense of the tragedy of history, and you have more than just a foreboding. You are willing here and elsewhere to expose the splendors of empire and the dangers. Part of you sings the fusion of religions, and part of you knows how difficult it will always be to erase the social walls.
Your love of Nature has been shown to me when we walk and talk in New Jersey about the simplest parks and lakes, a tree, a birch-tree, a detail. Your contribution to landscape painting is again filled with curiosity, learning, and observation. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking of Chinese art as typological and symbolical, but in you there is also a constant taste for the optical process as well as the tactility of paint. You observe, and you abstract; you pay attention, and you create. Your colors are always subtle, and your natural facts gather precisely, like a snowfall. These natural works are, again, both very traditional and yet sometimes seem to me to be your wry reflections on what is left of landscape in a wounded New Jersey.
You are not someone who is frightened of the largest themes. When many of us were cowed by 9/11 into giving up, almost, into a depression from which no art could emerge, you attempted again and again, to express that day, that attack and that amazing sense of vulnerability that ensued. Thus your series of that terror is perhaps particularly interesting, because you are able to seize the American dilemma and even agony with a freshness born of your status inside and outside.
Zhiyuan, in your work there is truly what you have called Nature and Spirit. You have told me that your real influences can be summed up by the canonic phrase of your kingdom: you have been inflected and changed by Tradition, by Nature, and by your own Heart. This means that you are not a follower of the excessive school of imitation. Nor do you aspire to be one who is only an original or madman. There is a moderate sanity in your work; there is something that we who know you see immediately, like a perfume in Indian music. This perfume is indeed the fragrance of all your work. In some, I find (pl. 53) that I see something as abstract as anything from our movement of Abstract Expressionism. And yet that very panel may be exactly where you have placed most emphasis on Chinese worship of Nature and the green tree. It is not for nothing that you have learned from Zhang Daquiang and from Liu Haisu, in truth, the teachers who have taught you have also been the students of Matisse and of their whole tradition. You have learned a compositional genius that never deserts you. You are proud to know the poetry, the calligraphy, and the art of seal-making, all of them "perfections" of your culture. And so we delight when in works (pl. 54) you show your wit about the very theme of the seal and the subject and subjectivity. In many of your works, I simply delight in your delight, and like a fountain they pour out: in works (pl. 55, 56) that resist the dark wincing of our epoch and show the courage to sing happiness. It was my teacher Kenneth Koch who extolled this theme of freedom, permission, and the right to be courageous about human happiness.
In your work, which can be filled with empathy and a sense of suffering, I think some of the greatest achievements come from your willingness to paint joy. The green explodes; the red implodes. The whole magnificent scene is outside and inside. I cannot tell, at the whirling moment, whether the center of this work is American or Chinese, though we may both tease ourselves about that.
Dear Mr. Cong, should we not say that the religious tie between us does exist? I am Jewish, but my Judaism comes out of many generations in which a secular socialism abides. And, I must say, my favorite philosopher Spinoza was excommunicated for his bravery even in tolerant Holland. Spinoza said: Nature or God. God or Nature doesn't sound explosive today. But it links me always with the great pantheists of your tradition: Lao Tse and Chuang-tse. The reason I studied so intensely the Asian classics in my youth, even though now I see how superficially I delved, was in part to satisfy my thirst for a pantheism that is not apologetic. When in 1968 I studied with the great Chinese scholars at Columbia, I was drawn not to the neo-realists among the Confucians, but to Confucius who loved the Odes. I remembered each day the great translation of Confucius: "Without character you will be unable to play that instrument or execute the music fit for the Odes." In Pound, I found confirmation of an experience of God in nature that the great Chinese oracles had underlined. In the Tao, in the great watery images of that classic, I drew a strength that there was, as Vera Schwartz of Wesleyan has it, a bridge between Chinese suffering and Jewish, that there is a bridge of pantheism between the universalism of Spinoza and the universals of Mencius, Confucius, and the Tao.
This is what you paint for me: the emptiness after all particulars. The joy in the particulars is strong, and you are tough and charming always about the particulars, whether in sky, basketball, nature, or the demonic dangers of our day. And yet some of your most vagrant paintings of joy (pl. 56, for example) are to me paintings of sheer energy, what has been called in Pollock "energy made visible." I think of your love of the scholar rock. Both of us are petromaniacs. Both of us look to rocks as to brothers. We both know that the quality of rocks--Lou tou shou zou are qualities of the earth's bones and of spirits. We bow down to space, light, and the very structure of the earth. You have done this in your art again and again, because we might say that you are always throwing the dice for the I Ching of your art's changes. Despite all changes, will you accept from me, dear Zhiyuan that we are religious painters in secular ways? We find with Spinoza that geometry and grammar create for us a rare perspective. You see things as if from an eternal perspective, and this is the glory of Spinoza. Confucius and Spinoza can be seen together as certain scholars have, as perfected philosophers when man is no longer merely superstitious or afraid. Both of them try to free us from mere anxiety. Both of them see the truth of art not in emotive states but in the worship of knowledge. We think of both as loveable, peaceful, and wise beyond all dogmas. In your work, in your essential fusion of traditions, you bring together the best of West and East without dogma or church. The spirit of these works is magnanimous; these are free gifts.
Zhiyuan, so much keeps needing to be said about your colors and composition. In your basketball series, we get the flash and wit of wind, as if we were at a party for Tang friends, disappearing. I love the way your angelic hosts swoop around the basketball team, as if and truly from another world. The worlds collide; basketball and Buddhism coincide. We have the joy of racial diversity without languor or correctness. Time is on the board, and time is running out. This is the moment of joy. My own son once said that nothing was as vivid for him as the last moments of the basketball game. Here, at the highest thrill of competition, is the no-win, no-lose happiness of bodies. You are a painter of space and bodies, and you are attracted to strength not meanness or weakness. Like a classic Greek who sings the praises of heroes in sports--one thinks of Pindar--you extol strength. And we cannot forget that just as Picasso was attracted to the acrobats, you are attracted to the artisanal in these sports heroes. Your saturated reds give a loud harangue behind all this. It is as if we could hear these great soaring multitudes. This is where color and Chinese music coincide, without ever forgetting how tonal the very least parts of the Chinese language are. No one who is tone-deaf can understand meaning in Beijing. No one who is colorblind or tone deaf can hear the red of your work.
And yet, turning one page or looking at another work (see pl. 4), we see how you can calm down through colors and create a melancholy glyph. Here the night yields to another kind of dance. Here, bodies are almost abstracted and are like the ghosts in the stadium. You are a craftsman not just of line but of the vitality of color, and in pl. 5 a decorative shirt can become as important as a Moroccan moment in Matisse. Matisse grew up with a love of deep dyes and textiles. We must say that your work also speaks of the enormous pride of artisanal China, of the ceramics that are the supreme accomplishment of the Ming, and of the lack of a separation between the great purposive crafts and the seemingly less purposeful meditative arts. In you, one feels the traditional blurring of these boundaries. In your work, the archaic and the purposely archaistic come together. I have learned from you the honor in which you hold funerary rites. From you, I know how important the family is among the religious themes of your art. And so, the spirits in your work are like the living layers of that philosophy which you have so refined. Like goblins and witches in Shakespeare, you believe and do not believe, but you know the vitality, again and again, of the tradition of belief. You scorn nothing; you have accepted a vast burden. But to you, dear Zhiyuan, such is not a prison or burden, such is indeed what animates (as in pl. 48) the fiery spirits of a sensual dance, like lava in Hawaii on your travels.
You have refined your sensual art so that it can speak of the most intimate things. Like great poets with their details, you are as particular as Tu Fu, when he speaks of the rain falling like unbroken flax and of his wife and children restlessly kicking their feet. Though Arthur Waley once said that Romantic love was not as important in China as in Hollywood, we can laugh but cannot refuse your vision of beauty at the bath. In a great composition, (pl. 43) you bring together seven figures at least that make an oneiric vision as perfected as an Ingres. This is one of the most unforgettable of your images, and perhaps comes out of your teacher's own original way with Matisse. But there is not a note of this work that does not seem your own voice. We observe these as if we were overhearing our own voice. We pay attention but with a kind of easy guilt, as we were the Greek Acxtaeon looking at Beauty for the first time. The water swirls and is somehow a perfect representation of what is most difficult to represent. Leonardo daVinci himself said hair and water were impossible. Leonardo suggests painting hair like water and water like hair, but this is just a kind of academic dream, until you have shown us. The hanging floating hair, the water into which these nymphs are plunged--all unites to make almost a ghost-film of spirits somehow always beyond us. This is joy, but a joy the film-maker Mizoguhci comes close to in his ghostly film Lady Kwang Fei, where a statue begins to speak to her grieving King-husband. Anyone alive to your painting begins to feel this "speaking" likeness. No, we have never seen these ravishing groups, these abandoned beauties. But this almost secret work is just reticent enough to disclose the postures of ecstasy.
Imagine, after these disclosures of ecstasy, that in part you had to bear the burden of living through one of the most terrible moments in our history, the attack of 9/11. I was at school at William Paterson and wasn't even able to digest the first comments--I thought it must be a minor event of a helicopter say meeting a skyscraper. It took me most of the morning before I showed my students Guernica and fled and saw the black cloud over New York. Never before had I seen what I saw. And never before did I feel so plunged into the uselessness of art. We see that nothing stifled you, that you were able immediately, with the directness of a poster and the mist of a great landscape, to show the wreckage of our time. You were able to seize in the ruin a symbol of hope. And there is an amazing forlorn hope in the work in which your proud red seal competes to flicker in the darkness. Walter Benjamin has said that allegories are in the realm of ideas what ruins are in the realm of things. In your portraits of our ruin, you have also seized something beyond thing-ness. You have discovered in ruins a nostalgia for all order and a reckless desire for order, again. Your work on New York in ruins would be merely terrified, and terrifying, if it did not also speak of a misty order (pl. 29) that must emerge. As many people found themselves turning to great poetry such as Auden's famous ode of September, 1939, so you turned with a clear brush to make us feel the oceanic terror of the event, but also the power of the artist to describe these things. Akhmatova the Russian poet was famous for saying Yes when someone said to her about a terrible scene of mourning mothers and prisoners: "Can you describe this?"
Zhiyuan, your marvelous duty has been to describe this terrible moment of ruin and allegory, of real human suffering and the impossibility of forgiveness. And yet your work speaks of forgiveness and cosmopolitanism, as in the philosopher Derrida, who says we must forgive the unforgivable, and we must have cities of refuge. Let your art stand for our city or cities of refuge. Let your journey to America be an allegory of cosmopolitanism. And let your wild rootedness overwhelm any accusations of syncretism or mere eclecticism. Your purity and your pluralism combine to be a lesson in international relations.
After the darkness of your protracted and clear vision of 9/11, it is poignant to see those works, as in The Milk of Heaven and Earth, which return us to peacefulness and an almost bucolic satisfaction in earth tones and the rhyme between silo and sky, between roof and cloud. In your most quiet works, we have a poetry of the earth that competes with the poetry of language and learning and also with the disastrous reports of our dark era. These are images of something without corruption. They are perhaps even images that make a subtle critique of corruption. But they return me, if it is not too subjective and Western to propose this, to some of the happiest moments in my childhood with Chinese paintings hung by my doctor-father-sculptor in his office. There I dreamt of what the Yellow Mountains might be. There I dreamt even without names of the endless and seemingly fantastic skies of the Chinese distance. There was perhaps the most profound ignorance of the child, but also the willingness of the child to say, with the Chinese poet:
"Oh that I could shrink the surface of the world
So that suddenly you would be standing by my side."
These were lines that came up to haunt me in my adolescence, and I put them into the epigraph of my first book of poetry in 1960-61. I had discovered the greatness of Chinese compression and compactness. I had discovered that the landscapes are about suffering and infinity juxtaposed. In your great towers of arches, and gates you create (pl. 12) a public art as distinguished as our great land artists or political artists, such as Christo from Bulgaria and Jean-Claude from Paris. You set your gates upon one another with the stark loneliness of an infinite series of disclosures. We find in your work that complex art of the screen, as in your entangled figures (pl. 11). Wang Wei is a poet who discovers both screen-painting and a great new nature worship. Isn't it possible, dear Cong that you are finally a worshipper of Nature, that science of Spinoza and Confucius in which the fundamental geometry of the family and the fugue of states and offices combines to an extraordinary realism of ideals?
You are faithful artist, and faithful to your history. You use space and light to remind us of this overlap of religions. You are a genius of the ideal of frames and framing devices, and you use your art of painting and of prints to keep art fresh, like poetry. You are "mainstream" and global, you are Chinese and Western. You understand the changes of the ages, and your country surrounds you, like a wall. And yet you have destroyed brutality in your self and your paintings inside and outside the temple are conjuring, for me, the image of peace and human rights in our time. You are a mural painter of the magnificence of scale, and in your great work, the heroes leap above the lotus and capture all prizes. And the music that we hear is jazz and the tradition of the heart. The sacred is seized in the secular, and a new mysticism of the Tao comes back to haunt these landscapes, these ruins, these courts, these gates, these New Jersey scenes of snow and desire.
In a letter, dear Zhiyuan, we have the right to an addition or an addendum. I would like to say how much my life has been inflected by your wonderful family, by your wife, an expert in frames and cooking and much more, by your child Lin and her clear English and her evident love of imagery and learning. We have learned not to doubt you, as when you knew that a painting in the Metropolitan Museum was a copy but a good copy but only a copy and mislabeled. You have shown us again the living tradition of Chinese art. All this is a gift from you, and so I hope you will accept these notes just as the beginning of a gift of response to your work. Perhaps, after my visits in China, after learning some few words and phrases, I will become a person in a better position to begin to describe your work. So let us bearer of these little annotations. It is like the seal of an amateur or a student, not worthy of what it is trying to claim. I know that criticism of your work should be learned and subtle like the work itself. So I confidently apologize to you and know that you will forgive me, in the spirit of forgiving the unforgivable. And I will always remember the work of your teacher on your living room wall, a work of bright food and bright things and with an injunction to love the earth as you leave your teachers. In your case, tradition, nature, and your own heart permit us to say that you have never left your home.
September 10, 1992