How Did You Two Meet? Artworks from the M+ Vaults
How did you two meet? is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our spin on this recipe at M+. Our How did you two meet? recipe goes like this: Pick two seemingly disconnected objects in the M+ Collections, and narrate a story that connects them.
Like most museums, ours will not put all of our Collections on view once we open. So we challenged Lesley Ma, M+ Curator, Ink Art, to connect two of the oldest and latest works from the depths of the M+ Visual Art collection that, upon our opening, will still be stored in our vaults. Below, we share the results of this theoretical encounter.
One of the oldest visual artworks from the vaults: Peking Brush Drawing (1930) by Isamu Noguchi
Lesley Ma: The older work I’ll be talking about is Peking Brush Drawing from 1930 by Japanese-American artist and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988). This ink painting on paper depicts a baby with its eyes closed, knees bent, and arms flailing.
Noguchi is known as a designer and artist who favoured abstract shapes. This, however, is a figurative work from early in his career. To understand it, I must dive into the artist’s biography. Noguchi had an American mother and Japanese father. He was born in Los Angeles, spent some of his childhood in Japan, and lived in the United States during his adolescence. Part of his artistic trajectory involved reconciling his Western self with his Asian heritage.
Early on in his career, Noguchi planned a trip to Japan to reunite with his father, Yone, who hadn’t been part of his life growing up. While en route, he received a letter from Yone telling him that he was no longer welcome; that he did not recognise him as his son. Nevertheless, Noguchi decided to realise part of his original travel plan and visited Peking (now Beijing). Through his network there, he met the master painter Qi Baishi (1864–1957), one of the most prominent artists at the time and a proponent of the modernisation of Chinese ink painting.
Noguchi took lessons in Chinese ink brush painting with Qi, a medium that he never worked with before or after. In Qi, Noguchi found an artistic father at a moment when his biological father had abandoned him. During this productive six-month period in Beijing—from the middle of 1930 to early 1931—he made about a hundred ink brush works, all called Peking Brush Drawing or Peking Brush Painting. This little known history between Noguchi and Qi was recently explored in a touring exhibition organised by the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Noguchi Museum and Foundation in New York.
Qi Baishi was known for his vivid lines of varied thickness as used to depict figures, which is echoed in Noguchi’s Peking Brush Drawing. In Noguchi’s work, you can see that the baby’s contour is created through a thin line accentuated by broader brushstrokes. On top of that is a circular stroke that envelops the figure and generates movement through the technique of feibai (‘flying white’), a fast sweep of the brush that leaves white spaces in the ink line.
One of the latest visual artworks from the vaults: 90°C (2017) by Cao Yu
This is a marble sculpture by Beijing-based Chinese artist Cao Yu (b. 1988) called 90°C. It depicts a section of a male body from just above the belly button to the top of the thighs. There is also a pair of women’s stockings draped casually on top of the abdomen and tied around the sculpture. The combination of the marble—a hard material meant to last forever—and the elastic, soft, feminine, disposable silk, immediately creates a strong contrast.
The frontal view of the male pelvic area, especially with a stocking bound around it, has suggestive associations. The primary reference for this sculpture is Michelangelo’s famous David, an idealised male form of a biblical figure known for his heroism. So Cao Yu, a young Chinese artist, makes a replica and literally pulls it off its pedestal, using her own methods of intervention by adding the stockings. She both cites and subverts the sculptural practice of making copies, inserting her feminist subjectivity into the art historical canon.
Cao often uses her own body in her work. The video Fountain shows her squeezing her breasts after giving birth to her first child, evoking a classical water fountain as a way to scrutinise a historically male perspective of grandeur and poke fun at Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, Fountain (1917).
In I Have (2017), she addresses the audience with descriptions of her material possessions, her enviable figure, and her status in Beijing, taking on a pompous female persona—as opposed to the reserved femininity that most people would expect. She subverts such gendered expectations in order to challenge precedents and societal stereotypes.
How are these objects connected?
These pieces couldn’t be more different, but we can still draw similarities between them. Both works deal with the body. Both artists engage with art history and traditional forms and techniques in their own ways. Interestingly, both works were made in Beijing, when the artists were very young in their trajectory—Cao Yu made 90°C when she was twenty-nine, and Isamu Noguchi made Peking Brush Drawing when he was twenty-six. These two pieces, created almost ninety years apart, forge a really unexpected but interesting dialogue within our Collection.
Image at the top: Left to right: Isamu Noguchi, Peking Brush Drawing, 1930. Ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. Cao Yu, 90°C, 2017. Marble, silk stocking. M+, Hong Kong. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile. © Cao Yu