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 Chen Chi  (1912 - 2005)

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Lived/Active: New York / China      Known for: modernist-leaning landscape, urban imagery

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Ad Code: 3
Chen Chi
from Auction House Records.
Loi Pond
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is submitted by Cornelia Seckel, publisher ART TIMES

Profile: Chen Chi

ART TIMES July 1989

With the Eastern mind:
Peace, freedom, harmony, tranquility,
joy, humility
I paint.
Chen Chi

HIS NAME MEANS "journey achieved," yet, at seventy-seven, he readily acknowledges that the "way" still lies before him and that whatever accomplishments he has made along the journey, there are yet more surprises to come. A painter with the mind of a philosopher and the soul of a poet (although he only admits to the title of painter), Chen Chi's work seems of a piece with his life. Primarily a landscapist and, above all, a watercolorist, there is in his work a sensitivity and reverence for nature that has only deepened since his early training in China.

Chen Chi's "On a Tightrope" could well represent the artist himself. Born in Wusih, Kiangsu, Chi studied in nearby Shanghai where he was imbued with the all-encompassing approach to art that is distinctly Eastern, an approach that expects the artist to have "travelled 10,000 miles" and to have read "10,000 classics." The Eastern "Master" is called so because he is first a man of virtue and his works are admired not only for their aesthetic value but for their virtuous character as well. The collector of Chinese art does not take pride so much in the dollar value of his collection as he does of its placing him in the company of such great and virtuous masters. Chi himself taught these same principles to his pupils when he taught painting in Shanghai at both Wu Pen (a girl's high school) and at St. John's University where he served on the staff from 1942 to 1946.

Yet, from as early as 1930, when he became a member of the avant-gardist "White Swan Art Club" in Shanghai, Chi was influenced by Western art and ideas. And, although his first major one-person shows took place in China, he was to travel to the United States through a cultural exchange program in 1947, having many exhibits over the next several years, garnering accolades and honors along the way. Ultimately, this most Eastern of painters would take out US citizenship in 1964. Yet, Chi, the man "on a tightrope," hovering over East and West, feels that he never lost his balance, convinced today that he has successfully avoided the label of either by merging the two distinct influences in his art.

This balancing between cultures seems to be reflected not only in Chi's approach to watercolor painting but also in his ability to thread a path between objective and non-objective work. Never totally figurative nor abstract, Chi's subjects, often Western, are thoroughly transformed by an Eastern turn of mind. His landscapes often with a figure or two unobtrusively included are less replications of a particular scene than distilled generalizations of a locale or motif. Thus, a hill of blooming azaleas in Central Park becomes a swirling blend of pastel hues evoking a general feeling of "azaleaness." This, of course, is the very essence of Eastern art to capture the essential feeling of tree or mountain or blossom rather than this particular tree or mountain or blossom.

Despite this leaning towards abstraction, Chi usually begins in nature, and in a specific part of nature. Until recent years, he would paint en plein air (or "on the spot" as he phrases it), choosing a motif as a foundation for his finished painting. Today, he will make on site sketches and do his painting at the studio, usually working on the floor since he tends toward large paintings. Even in early days, however, when his work was more representational, he sacrificed literal 'truth' for artistic 'truth.' While at his studio at the National Arts Club in New York City, he recalled an event that brought animated laughter to his retelling of it. During Japan's occupation of Shanghai during the early 40s, Chi was painting a landscape "on the spot," in a field not far from town. He attracted the attention of a Japanese soldier who wandered over to look over his shoulder as he worked. After some moments of silent watching, the soldier, who could not speak Chinese, excitedly pointed out four trees in Chi's painting and five plainly standing in front of them. Chi, who could not speak Japanese, thought about the soldier's question for several moments and then hit upon the idea of first pointing to the leaves in his painting and then at those on the trees. Immediately, the soldier's face broke out in a grin, thereby showing that he understood (perhaps for the first time) a cardinal rule in composition: all art begins in abstraction.

Even at his most abstract, however, Chi begins if not with nature than with an idea. A student of Lao Tse (among other Eastern philosophers), he will develop a painting from a line, a thought or a teaching from this great thinker's works. Thus, we have paintings such as "The Realm of Zen," "A Thread of Fire," "The Tao," "Realm of Chuang Tse," "The Great Sea Takes All" or "The Galaxy." If these paintings stand alone as pure abstractions, they yet gain in a far more complex dimension when we learn (and comprehend) their titles.

It is perhaps when we look at Chen Chi's approach to art and to his materials that we find the quintessential Eastern Master. An effusive and animated speaker, the years seem to fall away from his countenance when he speaks about his work. Not even the heavy topic of current events in Beijing which came up during our sharing lunch could stay the obvious delight that Chi takes in speaking about his art. Not even the fact that this political turn of events meant the cancellation of a major show planned for China this year (last year, he had a retrospective at the relatively new Taiwan Museum of Art). Not that these events were taken lightly. If such events saddened him, somehow the idea of art transcended such transitory happenings. Art has a life of its own, only vaguely connected to the affairs of man, abstractly tethered to history as one of his paintings is to a particular locale.

Art, for Chen Chi, is timeless and more concerned with other arts than with the ways of the world. The other arts, in fact, are much in evidence when he speaks of his painting. A dancer performing in "The Sleeping Beauty" lingers in his memory because her toes, gracefully pointing this way and that, recall the delicate touch of the painter's brush on canvas. The pianist's fingers, crashing upon or gently caressing the keyboard, also evokes the painter's handling of the brush. Attending a recital, the singer's voice suggests the image of a painted line of fire. Such analogies merely touch the surface of Chi's conversation when he speaks about the technique of the brush. Thus, the lightness or heaviness of applied pressure, the thickness or thinness of a line, the lightly or heavily loaded brush and the duration of its contact with the paper all must be considered, weighed and carefully executed in the painting of a watercolor. This, of course, after one has meticulously prepared the colors with special attention to viscosity, tone and hue. Nor is this all, for there is yet the properties of the paper upon which one paints that enters into the total composition. For Chi, there can be no substitute for Chinese papers which possess a range of absorbency far surpassing that of all others. The painter, therefore, must intimately know the properties and idiosyncrasies of all of his materials before he can even begin to consider his subject.

Yet, not even knowing all of this can guarantee that you will attain the status of master. One's own sensibilities, garnered from those 10,000 travelled miles and 10,000 studied classics, must govern the hand and eye so that one does not end up, as the Chinese say, "painting a snake, finishing it but wanting more, and so adding feet to it. Then it becomes nothing not even a snake." This wisdom to know when a painting is done can only come to that artist who tempers the control of his craft with a cosmic overview which considers all aspects of the act and object.

One must have the virtue of being able to look in all directions back as well as forward when trying to capture the elusive mysteries of art. In one of his several books, Chi writes: "I was painting a snow scene. The second wash spoilt the picture some colors blotted the white blank paper left as snow and delicate textures on the background. I was sad. How true it is that in art the meaning of HOW is so important. It is not only the end that counts, but HOW that end is achieved. It is as in life, what is important is How To Live, not just what one gets at the end. I tried to paint a second one, it was not good; then I tried another, the third one again not good. I got weary. I looked at the one I started. It was lying wounded. I gazed at it, I felt tears in my heart. I gazed at it again I placed it on my easel. I used white to paint heavy snow and so covered the blotting. Then painted trees, branches Finally, I completed it. It came out not bad. I was happy! So this is life. Art is full of contradictions!"

And, apparently, chance. For, over and above all the painter has learned about his craft and his life, there yet remains that Lord of all, Fortune. Again, I can do no better than to use Chen Chi's own words from his poem, "1967 Summer:"

A year has passed.
I took out paper
brought back from Peking
by my friend Ida Pruitt.
I made a first try
Poured a pot of blue
to paint a sea
The paper crinkled
Heaven formed natural waves.
I felt great joy!

To know when Fortune is working with you is perhaps the greatest secret of all.

Although Chen Chi has used several "chops" to inscribe his paintings over the years, one of his favorites is a seal he once found in a Friendship Store in China. Its character reads: "I use my way." For Chi, his way is in reality no way for it is not a method one can transmit to another. Indeed, each painting is an adventure which brings into play all the various elements: the paper, the paints, the brushes, the subject, the mood, the point of view, and, of course, chance never the same as before and, thus, requiring a brand new "method" each time. One must admit that for Chen Chi, this has been a highly successful approach.

Not only has he exhibited in a great many group- and one-person shows in the great cities of both the United States and Asia, but he has long been gathering honors along the way. Among his gold medals and awards from many national annual exhibitions in the US are the 1955 American Watercolor Society's Special Award for the Watercolor of the Year, the American Watercolor Society's 99th Annual Grand Award with Gold Medal of Honor in 1966, the National Academy of Design's Samuel Finley Breese Morse Medal and Saltus Gold Medal of Merit, the American Watercolor Society's Bicentennial Gold Medal in 1976, the Artist's Fellowship's Benjamin West Clinedinst Medal in 1976 and the Gold Medal from the National Arts Club. His most recent recognition was the Medal of Honor in 1988 from the National Museum of History, Taiwan, Republic of China.

Chen Chi's works are included in the collections of most of the major museums in the country as well as in the collections of universities, foundations, corporations and private individuals. He is a member of the National Academy of Design, the Century Association, the American Watercolor Society and the National Arts Club.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Chi was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China in 1912.  He first began exhibiting his work at the annual art exhibitions in Shanghai in 1940.  In 1966 he received the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Chi's works have been shown extensively throughout the United States and he was the first living Chinese artist to be honored with a one-man retrospective of his oeuvre at Versailles, in conjunction with the first World Cultural Summit in June 2000.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, II:
Chen Chi (b. 1912)

Born in Wu-sih, Kiangsu, China, Chen Chi enrolled in an art school that emphasized Western techniques rather than traditional Chinese painting. During this time, Chi sought new aesthetic expressions and ideals at a time when China was searching for a new life. From 1942 to 1946, he was an Instructor of Watercolor at St. Johns University in Shanghai. In 1947, he came to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1964. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Chi was a visiting professor at Pennsylvania State College and Utah State University.

During his long and successful career, Chi has received numerous honors, including the National Art Club Medal of Honor. A member of the American Watercolor Society, Chi earned their 1955 Special Award for the Watercolor of the Year, as well as the 99th Annual Grand Award with Gold Medal of Honor in 1996. Chi is also a member of the National Academy of Design, and a former director of the Audubon Society.

Louis Zona, the director at the Butler Institute of American Art stated "Chen Chi is the undisputed world master of the watercolor medium and has held the distinction since World War II. Every watercolor artist in the world not only reveres his work but has at one time or another been influenced by it. He is to the medium of watercolor what Olivier is to the theater."

Chi now lives in New York City, a town that has inspired some of his best-known work, including his watercolors portraying performances at the Metropolitan Opera House and paintings of Central Park at different times of the year.

His work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in California.

In a letter commemorating Chi’s contribution to the art of New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wrote “Your ingenuity and amazing watercolors have inspired generations of artists, and your paintings of New York’s great treasures, including the Metropolitan Opera House and Central Park, are especially meaningful to our City.”

Reference: Tribune Chronicle 8/9/2001,,,

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