Sometime in 1929, the American artist Mark Tobey and the Chinese artist Teng Baiye were visiting New York together when they came across a goldfish in a tank. Teng asked Tobey why Western artists only painted fish when the fish were dead. Tobey was struck, and later recalled, "He also asked why [Western artists] made pictures that looked like holes in a wall, which was a serious reflection on Renaissance art." The two friends would come to an agreement: that Eastern art was concerned with line, Western art with mass. A dead fish was a heavy, solid mass. A live fish was a series of linear movements through water. The cosmopolitanism of both early modern artists depended on seeing things through each other's eyes.
Teng had already studied Western art by the time he arrived in Seattle in 1924 to earn his master of fine arts degree in sculpture. He was one of the first Chinese artists ever to study sculpture—not a field of great importance in Chinese tradition—in the United States. And his arrival brought on a flurry of attention by local newspapers to the "finger painter." His great facility with both brush and finger was reduced to something of a primitivist curiosity by writers of the time, but at UW, Teng was respected and soon taught his own class in Western art history. Shortly after arriving—I wish we knew exactly how and where—Teng met the painter Mark Tobey, a Midwestern native who'd come to Cornish College of the Arts after spending a few young years working as a fashion illustrator in New York. Tobey, who would go on to become a favorite son of Seattle as his career rose, was 10 years Teng's senior and already a teacher himself by the time they met, but Tobey studied under Teng, not the other way around. Teng's teachings in Chinese painting and calligraphy changed Tobey's life and art. Tobey recalled emerging from a session with Teng: "I came out and I saw a tree and the tree was no longer a solid."
At the entrance to the exhibition Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai at the Frye Art Museum, there's a black-and-white photograph of Teng—a very handsome young man—with a written dedication below it to Tobey. After time spent together in Seattle and traveling to New York, Teng eventually returned to Shanghai, and the two continued corresponding. In 1934, Tobey traveled to Shanghai to visit Teng and stay with him in his mother's house. Tobey recalls Teng's mother badgering Teng to get married and give her grandchildren, leaving Teng "very depressed." Were the two in love? If so, there is no documentation. Tobey was gay; Teng later married. The last surviving letter between them is dated 1938, at which point China was under siege by Japan, Nanking having fallen in 1937. Teng told Tobey he'd stopped making art and joined the refugee-aid effort. After the war, during Chinese nationalism and the Cultural Revolution, Teng's art was deemed "polluted," and eventually he was forced into manual labor until 1976. He died in 1980.
Most of his art was lost.
Tobey went on to become famous—in his own right, as the man behind the man behind modern American painting, or so the story goes. Shortly after leaving Shanghai, Tobey began painting little fields of white calligraphic marks on colored backgrounds. The calligraphy was illegible, made strange, but bore the marks of a highly knowledgeable student. Each line's texture captured the gesture that made it, just as in the written Chinese of the literati. (Tobey was also referencing the interconnected basis of his Baha'i faith.) In 1944, a New York gallery showed Tobey's small, electric "white writing" paintings, and he was launched. The day's most powerful critic would crown Tobey innovator of the "all-over" composition method, meaning that the marks stretch evenly across the painting, more like a printed pattern than Teng's "hole in the wall."
Jackson Pollock saw Tobey's work in 1944, and described Tobey as the "exception" to the rule that "real" American painting took place only in New York. Soon, Pollock unveiled big, new all-over drip paintings that became a sensation. Historians battle over how much credit Tobey should get for ideas popularized by Pollock. I'm sympathetic to the West-Coast-underdog story, but "all-over" composition may also be considered in the context of much older traditions, say Australian aboriginal painting or Navajo sand painting.
Seattle/Shanghai is a small, meditative exhibition, dimly lit and buzzing with a low and warm frequency, in stark contrast to the Frye's last exhibition of brassy paintings by Franz von Stuck. (It shares the museum with a larger but also understated traveling exhibition of paintings by Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi. The Japanese American was influenced by the Chinese master during a largely forgotten trip to Beijing. Both exhibitions help fill gaps in the lost era of early Chinese modern art, overrun first by history and politics, later by the spectacle of global Chinese contemporary art.)
Seattle/Shanghai comprises nine paintings by Tobey and only three paintings by Teng. A side gallery contains ephemera from Teng's time in Seattle and, projected on the wall, a marvelously goofy 1952 color video featuring Tobey walking the streets of Seattle and the halls of museums. As small as it seems, the exhibition was a major research undertaking; curated by Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, it comes with an important, helpful catalog.
And the paintings make a tremendous impression. Tobey's, borrowed from local private collections, are by turns impressive and eccentric bordering on goofy, as usual, mostly from the 1950s and '60s. A majestic, roiling white-writing painting is as dense as a field of lines can be while resisting forming a solid mass. In terms Teng might have used, those fish are alive. Magic Eye, a swirling wall of pastel marks from 1966, is a cheerfully hammy hippie dream with an eyelike encircled dot in the center. Two turbulent sumi ink paintings from 1957 were made in communal painting sessions after Sunday-night dinners at sculptor George Tsutakawa's Seattle home.
Teng's three paintings are tender, delicate, and traditional, and feel painfully precious. (While he knew Western art well, he found European-based modernism too intellectual.) There are two vertical paintings mounted on scrolls. One is a portrait of a wispy, plump bird atop a pillar of rough pinkish stone surveying a cherry tree beyond the picture. We see only the hot-pink blossoms jutting into the picture on fingery branches. The second, larger vertical is Cranes and Pine Tree, and it's stunning. Three cranes careen down under explosions of needles on the branches of a pine tree. Their necks and wings and toes are deeply arched in viscerally suspended mid-glide, and a faint waterfall in the background echoes their cascading motion while the pine needles hang like fireworks. Birnie Danzker does not know whether these were made by brush or with fingers; she believes Teng's fingers alone made the third, smaller painting in the exhibition. It's a gentle portrait on silk of boughs of white flowers. The two mature vertical paintings came from a collector in Shanghai. The discovery of the third was a little revelation. It wasn't originally in the show. Reading the newspaper, Carl and Pat Olander noticed a review of Seattle/Shanghai and called the Frye. Would the museum like to borrow the Teng painting they had hanging in their Seattle home?
As far away as this exhibition reaches, it also restores Teng to local history.