Dragons on the March: The Guggenheim Brings 5,000 Years of Art from China to New York

By Plagens, Peter | Newsweek, February 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

Dragons on the March: The Guggenheim Brings 5,000 Years of Art from China to New York


Plagens, Peter, Newsweek


Last October the Guggenheim museum opened a breathtaking branch in Bilbao, Spain -- and managed to get the credit while having the whole thing paid for by the Basques. Now the museum has pulled off another international spectacle that's almost as much about the art of the deal as it is about art. It's "China: 5,000 Years," a huge show that has ancient art on display in the museum's upper-Manhattan Frank Lloyd Wright building and 19th- and 20th century work on view in its SoHo galleries. (The exhibition runs through June 3.) Since the Guggenheim is a showcase for modern art and has never acquired so much as a Chinese vase -- and since it sits only blocks away from the Metropolitan Museum with one of the best Chinese collections in America -- the show is quite a coup. Director Thomas Krens claims it's greatest exhibition of Chinese culture in a single institution." With most of the work selected by Sherman Lee, the eminence grise of American scholars of Chinese art, and lent from 17 different regions of the mainland, it may well be.

Consider, too, that after four years of negotiations between the Guggenheim and the People's Republic of China, the museum has a network of Chinese curators and bureaucrats to he it take what Krens calls its "global approach to culture" into China. The Shanghai Museum opened "Masterpieces From the Guggenheim" last June, and other shows are planned. In sending its national treasures to the United States, China gets more than public-relations benefits; the country may be trying to trump Taiwan, which sent a major show from the imperial collections to the Met in 1996.

That exhibition was heavy on paintings, since the Nationalists had spirited away most of the good pictures to Taiwan in 1949. "China: 5,000 Years" relies more on objects. On the Guggenheim's famous spiral ramps, a Tang-dynasty (618-907) dragon in gilt bronze shows a flair for action, while a Yuan-dynasty (1279-1368) floral porcelain jar displays characteristic Chinese gracefulness and attention to detail. And a two-foot-high, earthenware "Squatting Performer With a Drum" -- at least 1,700 years old -- is as insouciant as a Disney character. Several ancient paintings, such as the panoramic Ming-dynasty scroll "The Xuande Emperor on an Outing" (circa) 1450), hang serenely in galleries that the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki has reconfigured to feel as timeless as the art. Even Maxwell Hearn -- the curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum, whose turf some think the Guggenheim is invading -- says, "I'm bowled over by the beauty of the selections." The exquisiteness of the work, in fact, obscures the exhibition's greatest-hits the objects are grouped not history, and viewers are left to get by with only minimal labels.

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