In Conversation with Met Curator of Asian Art, Maxwell K. Hearn

To celebrate Asia Week, I sat down with Maxwell (Mike) K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to talk about his current exhibition “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China.” The Met is hosting this year’s Asia Week reception on March 17. Having worked with Mike years ago on the Mellon Foundation Chinese Museum Director’s Program at the Met, it was a pleasure to hear his thoughts on the power of mixing contemporary art with traditional art, why collectors are so important, and his vision for one of the largest and most important Asian art collections in the West. 

Christine Kuan: This exhibition is a big move for the Met, right? This is an exhibition that examines contemporary art in China and its relationship to the past, but in a way it gives the Met an opportunity to examine its own relationship to the present.

Mike Hearn: Maybe ten years ago, I really didn’t think I had any obligation to study or exhibit contemporary art; there’s a whole department that does that. That view started to change as I discovered [contemporary] works of art, starting with Zhan Wang’s stainless steel scholar’s rock, that I saw as a wonderful connection to the traditional arts. I thought it would be striking and engaging for an audience that came to see traditional art but might be surprised, or maybe slow down or look a little harder, once they saw that kind of juxtaposition. A Chinese reporter who saw people looking at an 11th-century handscroll by Huang Tingjian asked me, “How can Westerners appreciate calligraphy? They can’t read it!” I had put Wang Dongling’s abstraction of 1999—so 1,000 years later—right next to the Huang Tingjian. I said, “Westerners know how to read this. They know about gesture, they know about action painting, they know about figure-ground relationships, they know about positive and negative space, and form. And if they can read this, they can also read calligraphy; calligraphy is more than just a text.”

CK: Absolutely. Displaying traditional artworks alongside contemporary works makes the experience so much richer.

MH: My favorite example is a taxidermied deer with crystal balls all over it. It’s by Kohei Nawa, an artist who grew up in Nara, Japan. At the great Kasuga Shinto shrine there, the deer is the vehicle of the gods. There are mandalas that show the deer with a crystal ball or a mirror on its back with an image of the deity. And here was this deer with a large crystal ball on its back, and I said, “You put this next to the mandala and there’s going to be this ‘a-ha moment.’ I wanted Wang Dongling’s abstraction next to Huang Tingjian for the same reason: I wanted people to feel permission to look at calligraphy like abstract art. I cannot teach everybody how to read Chinese, but I can teach them something about how to appreciate Chinese art. Xu Bing’s “square word English” also serves this purpose of breaking down cultural barriers—everybody is delighted when they discover they can read it.

CK: How did you come up with these four main sections for the show: The Written Word, Landscape, Abstraction, and Beyond the Brush?

MH: I started out thinking that I would focus on the medium of ink. And the title, Ink Art, came to me very early on. I liked it because I felt it was a contradistinction to Art, Inc.—the commercialization of art. I wanted to see how traditional formats like the handscroll had been transformed by Ren Jian, or Liu Dan, in works that grew in scale and complexity and didn’t look very much like traditional Chinese painting at all, but clearly had their roots in that tradition. Then I discovered Yang Yongliang’s wonderful photographic montage of buildings emulating a 12th-century landscape painting. How could I resist? There was a clear example of somebody using a traditional form. Not only was a new medium being involved—computer-generated imagery (and after all, it was an inkjet print, so I thought: That’s ink art, isn’t it?)—but there was this new landscape. It was the urban landscape. And that gave me a whole new direction to follow.

When I first encountered Shi Guorui’s camera obscura image of Shanghai back in 2006 it caught my eye because it looked like an idealized Northern Song landscape painting. And then the magic realism of an eight-hour exposure in which all of the people, cars, clouds, and boats in Shanghai disappear creates this perfect image of the city, but one that has been chillingly dehumanized. Yang Yongliang’s vision of a landscape composed entirely of buildings and power linesis similarly devoid of  human beings . From there, it was a short leap to Xing Danwen’s photographic handscrolls and her later photographs of architectural maquettes, or models of planned developments. Ai Weiwei’s images of buildings being bulldozed and new structures going up are another vision of how landscape is being transformed in China. All of these things came together for me as an extension of landscape, but with a new theme: the urban landscape as a dystopia.

CK: What are the advantages of doing it in the Asian Art galleries rather than the Modern and Contemporary wing?

MH: There was this gradual recognition that I couldn’t ignore contemporary art because it was a continuation of tradition and in dialogue with tradition. I felt my colleagues in the Modern and Contemporary department would be looking at Chinese contemporary art from a very different perspective, and that they wouldn’t necessarily know the references and sources that were important to understanding these works of art. Also, there was a real dichotomy in contemporary Chinese art between those practitioners who are very much engaged with the Western tradition, and those who aren’t—who work in traditional media, such as handscrolls, albums, and hanging scrolls, using subject matter and making cultural references that wouldn’t be comfortable in a Western Modernist setting like the white box. Finally, we were missing a whole array of museum visitors who habitually don’t find the Asian galleries. I had met an important collector of contemporary art and taken him through my galleries, and he was looking around and said, “I’ve never been here before!”

CK:  I think the scholar’s garden turned out beautifully. With the integration of contemporary art, you look at everything for longer. I wonder if there were challenges there in installing those pieces?

MH:  My favorite example was the silicone rubber rock by Zhang Jianjun. I thought: This is great, it will be a wonderful thing to have in dialogue with our Taihu rocks in the garden. Well, when the rock arrived, a) it was seven feet tall, b) it weighed 700 pounds, and c) it couldn’t be tilted or lifted from itself because silicone rubber is very brittle. And then the rock was too tall to fit into the half pavilion without removing the lattice work. Fortunately, we had two people from the Palace Museum in Beijing who were architectural woodwork specialists, so they came up and helped us to install it. And to me, that was a tribute to the Met and the fact that this museum tries to do what the curator’s vision is regardless of how much trouble it is, how expensive it is. Most institutions don’t have that kind of support system; it’s an enormous commitment.

CK:  I wonder if you saw any connections between contemporary artists and the traditional Chinese scholar-artist. It seems many artists like Ai Weiwei or Cai Guo-Qiang are highly educated, very knowledgeable about Chinese history, poetry, and calligraphy.

MH: I think it’s very likely that many of these artists are deeply interested in and engaged with aspects of their own past; it’s part of looking for one’s identity. I’m looking at Zhang Huan’s face on the cover of the catalog, and for me, his statement that when he came to America he was no longer an artist but a Chinese artist, meant that he had to grapple with his Chinese identity. The piece that I chose for the show is about calligraphy and writing, but it’s about writing as a cultural marker that can actually obscure one’s identity. And that, to me, is one of the challenges that all artists face when you have a 2,000-year-old or 5,000-year-old tradition: How do I extend that tradition, how do I contend with it? One way is to break away from it and embrace the “other,” which in this case would be the traditional contrasts between Guohua—national painting, if you will—and Western painting. So this issue between choosing or blending has been around for over a hundred years, if not since the 17th century when Jesuit missionaries were already introducing concepts of Western art.

CK:  There are a huge number of works from M+ and the Sigg collection. I wonder if you could talk a bit about how that relationship developed to secure those loans.

MH:  I had seen Mahjong and other exhibitions of the Sigg collection. So I knew I had to meet Uli, and he turned out to be just a delight. His passion for the art, his ecumenical taste, and his commitment were very inspiring to me. So [Uli] was a real inspiration; there are several other collectors who have been equally prescient in their collecting. And that’s really what enabled me to do this show without going to the artists themselves. I really have depended on the vision and taste of collectors. I’m used to doing that because the Met’s collection is 90% made up of private donations and private collections. A museum has to try to cover a broad range of things, but a collector can be passionate and collect multiple examples. And it means you have an ability to see an artist’s work in-depth.

CK: Asia Week is getting bigger and bigger in New York, with more galleries, auction houses, and cultural institutions each year. Why is Asia Week important?

MH: I think dealers and collectors are an essential part of what becomes the museum’s collections. You cannot have a museum without art, you can’t have art without collectors, and you can't have collectors without dealers.  When I started at the Met [in 1971], the Asian Art department consisted of only two galleries. Now we have over 50 galleries of Asian art.  In four decades the collections have grown enormously and it's because of New York City collectors. It’s that kind of commitment to public philanthropy and to sharing collections with a wider audience that has made the Met the institution it is. So we are actually thrilled this year to be hosting the opening reception for Asia Week on March 17th. Ultimately, it’s those passionate people that make museums great. Without the extraordinary energy of the art market and collectors, art would go somewhere else. And we’ve seen that already: it is now almost impossible for American museums to compete for works of Chinese art, because the biggest buyers and the biggest budgets are in China. So I think challenges and opportunities are constantly changing. That’s the advantage of an institution over an individual: in the course of 140 years different opportunities come at different times. And the Asian Art department has a responsibility to constantly be open to new things because all art was contemporary art at one point.

Interview conducted on February 14, 2014. Maxwell K. Hearn; photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Explore on Artsy: “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China.” Now on view through April 6, 2014 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Selected Publications

Maxwell K. Hearn: Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Maxwell K. Hearn: How to Read Chinese Paintings, 2008. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.