Landmark Asian American art book shatters wall of silence


Chang Shu-Chi’s Messengers of Peace was presented to FDR in 1940, on his third inauguration. The artist was the father of History Professor Gordon Chang.

Courtesy Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum Party on the Roof

New York City served as the backdrop in Bumpei Usui’s 1926 Party on the Roof, where the artist was most active (Usui was originally from Nagano, Japan)

Courtesy Gyo Obata Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley

Chiura Obata’s Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley, was highlighted in a 1926 Palace of the Legion of Honor exhibition and chosen for the cover of the new book Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970.

Courtesy Carlos Villa Tat2

Filipino artist Carlos Villa’s iconic 1969 self-portrait, Tat2, uses ink on Itek photograph.

Gordon Chang

Gordon Chang

Professor Gordon Chang describes himself as an "old-fashioned historian"—more precisely, a professor of American history. He's neither an art expert nor an artist.

But he was drawn into the world of art history when Mark Dean Johnson, an art professor at San Francisco State University, appeared at his office 12 years ago to ask questions about Chang's father, who had died when the historian was a 9-year-old child. Chang's father was the Chinese artist Chang Shu-chi.

That meeting and the events it triggered have resulted in Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, published this fall by Stanford University Press. Chang is senior editor for the book; Johnson is principal editor. They co-founded, and now co-direct, the Stanford Asian American Art Project.

Their work also spurred the current exhibition at the de Young Museum, Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900-1970, which continues through Jan. 18, 2009.

Asian American Art, however, is more than a 547-page compendium of a century of art. According to Stanford University Librarian Michael Keller, "It's a historic undertaking."

"It's a really informed interpretation of a long-neglected history," he said to a small group in Green Library's Bender Room on Nov. 6.

Speaking to the group, Chang said his presentation would be easy, because "no one knows what I am going to talk about."

Unlike World War II or Abraham Lincoln, he said, "no one knows anything about Asian American art."

When Chang and his colleagues began their endeavor, "the assumption was that there was no Asian American art history," Chang recalled. He had joined a team of researchers that included not only Johnson but also Paul Karlstrom ('64), former West Coast regional director of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art and eventually a consulting editor for Asian American Art, and Sharon Spain, now associate director of the Stanford Asian American Art Project and managing editor for the book. They set out on a project that was initially expected to last a few months, to find an anticipated five to 10 artists to study.

Instead, the project found "over 1,000 professional artists working in California alone," said Chang, adding that these were not Sunday afternoon artists but "professionals, who lived by their art." They worked in the world of art as teachers, illustrators and scholars. They were critically reviewed and many had solo exhibitions at the de Young, the Palace of the Legion of Honor and other major venues. One of them, Tyrus Wong, is even credited with inventing Disney's Bambi.

Over the years these artists' names disappeared from art history, said Chang, leaving the project's researchers to "excavate knowledge, because the knowledge wasn't there." It was "an undercover, hidden history—a history hidden before my eyes."

Most names were "erased," he said, as people who live on the margins of society often are. Hence, the researchers combed old newspapers, art school rosters and museum catalogs from a bygone era. They hunted down families and looked for artwork in "attics, basements, garages."

Among their finds is the spectacular cover of the new book, Chiura Obata's 1925 Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley.

Recalling the dramatic skies of the Central Valley, Chang said of the large (4-1/2 x 7') painting, "For us, it was a new imagining of a familiar sight."

This particular work was "so magnificent," he said, it had been given a place of honor at a Palace of the Legion of Honor exhibition in 1926. The artist, a faculty member at the University of California-Berkeley, was recognized by Time magazine in 1938 as "one of the most accomplished artists in the West." Nevertheless, he was interned at the Topaz Relocation Center, where he co-founded an art school; he was released in 1943 after he was beaten by a fellow internee who disagreed with Obata's pro-American politics.

"I dedicate my paintings, first, to the grand nature of California, which, over the long years, in sad as well as in delightful times, has always given me great lessons, comfort and nourishment," Obata wrote, in one of the many artists' statements included in the book. "Second, to the people who share the same thoughts, as though drawing water from one river under one tree."

Obata died in 1975. Chang said that the celebrated canvas had been "rolled up, put in the family basement and forgotten."

"This extraordinary painting has been in the family basement for over 40 years," he said.

The artists covered in the volume—the 159 biographies in the appendix make up about half the book—faced discrimination, social dislocation, political isolation, the 1906 earthquake, two world wars and, in the case of Japanese Americans, internment. In Seattle photographer Chao-chen Yang's 1951 Apprehension, we don't know what is alarming the young man on the telephone, bathed in a red-orange glow that suggests a fire, police car or ambulance. Two Asians are weeping in the foreground of the 1926-27 painting, Where Is My Mother, by the avant-garde modernist painter Yun Gee, who came to the West at 15 to join his father, but left his mother behind in China—or does the painting refer to his motherland, China?

For Chang, one painting tells a very personal story. Without the large (7 x 3-1/2') 1940 silk painting Messengers of Peace, Chang said that he would not have been born.

The elder Chang was the most widely known Chinese painter of the his time in America—his work was the subject of films, a national radio broadcast narrated by Pearl Buck and a feature in Life magazine.

In 1940, Chang's exquisite painting of 100 doves was presented to Franklin Roosevelt for the third presidential inauguration. The elder Chang was a goodwill ambassador for Chiang Kai-shek. The painting was displayed at Hyde Park and, by report, at the White House, too. Chang Shu-chi stayed in the United States for several years, mostly in the Bay Area, where he met his future wife. They were married in China in 1947, Gordon Chang was born in Hong Kong, and the family returned to the Bay Area during the Chinese Civil War.

Because so many were involved in the effort, Paul Karlstrom said it was not immodest for him to confess his own "sense of amazement" about the project, which he called "a historic event."

"This is a coup—a major event in the field," he said. "It's a great collaborative effort on something clearly crying out to be done."

Chang pointed out that the field of Asian American art history wasn't even an area of study when they began their work.

"This is just the beginning," he said. As for the book, "I have a feeling it's really going to take off."