2013 Distinguished Scholar Session
Nora Griffin is an artist and CAA assistant editor.
Wen C. Fong
The 2013 Distinguished Scholar Session, taking place at the 101st Annual Conference in New York, will honor Wen C. Fong, professor emeritus in the Department of Art and Archeology at Princeton University in New Jersey and a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Chairing the session will be Fong’s former student, Robert E. Harrist Jr., the Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History at Columbia University. Four additional participants—Yukio Lippit, Harvard University; Shih Shou-chien, Academia Sinica; Amy McNair, University of Kansas; and David Rosand, Columbia University—will join Harrist to explore and celebrate Fong’s many contributions to art history. The Distinguished Scholar Session will be held in the Trianon Ballroom at the Hilton New York on Thursday, February 14, 2013, 2:30–5:00 PM.
As the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Art and Archaeology from 1971 to 1999, Wen C. Fong produced prodigious scholarship that has both defined his specialty and shaped the broader discipline of art history. A concurrent career, from 1971 to 2000, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the Douglas Dillon Curator of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, has allowed him to bring his knowledge of East Asian art, scholarship, and connoisseurship to a wider public.
Much of Fong’s scholarly life has revolved around Princeton. He entered the school as an undergraduate and later earned an MA and a PhD, in 1954 and 1958, respectively. His dissertation, “The Lohans and a Bridge to Heaven,” which analyzed two Chinese Buddhist hanging scrolls in the Freer Gallery of Chinese Art in Washington DC, formed the basis for a book of the same title, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1958. As a faculty curator of Asian art, he helped to build Princeton University Art Museum’s substantial holdings of Chinese art, perhaps most significantly the John B. Elliott Collection of Chinese Calligraphy. In collaboration with his Princeton colleague Frederick W. Mote, Fong established the country’s first PhD program in Chinese art and archeology in 1959; three years later it expanded to include Japanese art and archeology. For his achievements in the classroom, CAA honored Fong with its 1998 Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award. When nominating the professor, his former students—many of whom now occupy senior positions in academia and museums worldwide—described how his teaching instilled in them a long-lasting commitment to art.
Born in China in 1930, Fong has been precociously involved with art from an early age. As a teenager in Shanghai, he studied painting and calligraphy with the master calligrapher Li Jian, spurring a lifelong interest in the two subjects. In 1948, at the age of eighteen, he moved to the United States to begin studies at Princeton. In 1953 Fong spent a summer studying Chinese Song Dynasty paintings under the tutelage of Sherman E. Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Lee was an important mentor, offering living quarters in his family home to the younger man and later collaborating on a book based on Fong’s research, called Streams and Mountains without End (Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1955).
Fong’s scholarship is exemplary in that it combines rigorous historical research with a progressive understanding of how pedagogy is a shifting terrain, shaped by the current work of colleagues, students, and artists. In his 2003 essay in The Art Bulletin, “Why Chinese Painting Is History,” Fong discusses the “crisis” of postmodernism in the discipline of art history and offers a comparative analysis of the history of Chinese painting as a prism through which to analyze art in today’s pluralistic world. He writes, “In titling this paper ‘Chinese Painting Is History,’ I am saying that early Chinese paintings—such as the Admonitions scroll attributed to Gu Kaizhi (ca. 344–ca. 406) or The Riverbank, attributed to Dong Yuan (active ca. 937–76)—as historical objects, must be adequately dated and described. Style and connoisseurship as modes of knowledge must be defended not only as vital and rewarded challenges but also as the only means to understand a different visual language.” Fong cites the Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar’s paper, “On the Universality of the History of Art,” which appeared in a 1982 issue of Art Journal, as a turning point for art historians who sought a more expansive approach that was not tied to the Western canon. Fong is an adroitly diverse art historian, as comfortable discussing Brice Marden’s work in the context of Chinese calligraphic brushwork as he is in deciphering the meaning and provenance of an ancient Chinese handscroll painting.
Fong has explored this comparative approach to Chinese art history in eighteen books and exhibition catalogues, including Sung and Yuan Painting (1973), a volume that celebrated the Metropolitan Museum’s milestone acquisition of twenty-five landscape and figurative paintings dating from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. The following exhibition, Summer Mountains: The Timeless Landscape (1975), traces the development of landscape painting from the war-filled years of the Northern Song period in the tenth century to the Mongol and Chin tartar rule of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The catalogue for Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th–14th Century (1992) covers the immense changes in the art form spanning the early Song Dynasty to the literati landscape painting of the Yuan Dynasty. Fong’s dexterity as a historian shines in the book for Between Two Cultures: Late-Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2001), an overview of Chinese painting in the modern era, from 1860 to 1980, and its relationship to Western art and traditional practices. With his coauthor Maxwell K. Hearn, Fong composed his most recent book, Along the Riverbank: Chinese Paintings from the C. C. Wang Family Collection, in anticipation of a promised gift of twelve major works to the museum. Last year Princeton University Press published Bridges to Heaven: Essays on East Asian Art in Honor of Professor Wen C. Fong following a 2006 international symposium on East Asian art honoring the scholar’s legacy at Princeton.
Fong’s tenure at the Metropolitan Museum witnessed unprecedented expansion in all areas of the Department of Asian Art, including the collection, gallery space, and especially curatorial staff. The department’s showcase grew from a single gallery of early Chinese sculpture in 1971 to the present series of more than fifty majestic rooms displaying works from the fourth millennium BC to the twentieth century. Under Fong’s guidance, the museum has proudly exhibited its growing Asian art collection in a succession of spectacularly popular exhibitions, including The Great Bronze Age of China in 1980; Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei in 1996 (which attracted a record 800,000 visitors, the largest average daily attendance of any art exhibition worldwide for the year); and The Artist as Collector: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C .C. Wang Family Collection in 1999. In addition, Fong was instrumental in developing a specialized studio for the conservation of Asian art at the museum.