What is Chinese American art?

Author:Johnson, Mark
Position:6E Panel Summary - Discussion


Our current exhibition "Remembering C. C. Wang" sparked the question for the panel--"What Is Chinese American Art?" Is C. C. Wang, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen living and working in New York for many decades, a Chinese American artist, or is he a Chinese artist living in America? This was the question posed to the three panelists, Mark Johnson, Jade Snow Wong, and Lo Ch'ingche.


Professor and University Art Gallery Director, San Francisco State University

The question for today's panel, "What is Chinese American art," was raised by Lorraine Dong during a conversation with Irene Poon. It was posed in relation to the exhibition of C. C. Wang, being planned for the Frank H. Yick Gallery at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center. Although C. C. Wang spent virtually his entire professional artistic career in New York and studied at the Art Students' League there, his work is often discussed and appreciated within the context of "Chinese literati painting" or "Chinese Diasporic art"--and not Chinese American art. At the opening of the exhibition of his work, Wang's friend and student Arnold Chang wondered if anyone had ever asked Wang if he perhaps considered himself a "Chinese American."

Rather than comment on possible subtleties that these definitions imply, I would like to comment more generally about the long history of art produced by persons of Chinese ancestry in the United Stales. For the past fifteen years, I have been part of a community of scholars that have researched Asian American art in California from the Gold Rush until 1965. That community has included faculty, staff, and students from diverse institutions including San Francisco State University, the University of California in Los Angeles, Stanford University, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art. In California alone, we have identified more than one thousand artists active during this time period, and a significant number were of Chinese ancestry. However, as citizenship was not available to these immigrant artists in early periods, the words "Chinese American" must be qualified. They are here meant to imply simply that artists of Chinese ancestry were working in the United States even in the mid-nineteenth century.

Two important figures from that period were Lai Yong and Mary Tape. Yong was a successful portrait painter and photographer who was active in the 1860s and 1870s. Today, his works appear as very skilled, displaying photographic verisimilitude and fine glazing techniques. His portraits of Caucasian subjects do not hint that...

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