Asia Week may be in London right now (Nov. 9-20) but two important new shows in New York galleries will spark your appetite for Asian art. The real payoff comes with the super colossal show of Tibetan art, interiors and attire at the Newark Museum, a short hop from Manhattan. Not to mention, the Sackler in Washington, D.C., has received a major gift.
Tibet in Newark
How did a relatively small regional museum become the major American repository for the art of Tibet? A bit of luck, ingenuity and a wealth of funding.
The main impetus was a chance encounter in 1910 aboard the steamship Mongolia en route from Yokohama, Japan, to an American port. Edward N. Crane, a founding trustee of the Newark Museum, met Dr. Albert L. Shelton, a medical missionary who had amassed a sizable collection of Tibetan artifacts during a six-year stint in Western China and Eastern Tibet.
As a result of their meeting, Crane arranged to have Shelton's collection put on display at the fledgling Newark Museum. More than 17,000 people -- an enormous number at that time -- came to view it. In the summer of 1911, Crane died unexpectedly and his family arranged to purchase the collection and present it to the museum.
Newark's Asian collection, which is currently on display at the museum as part of its 90th birthday celebration, has grown to some 300 pieces. Displayed on two floors, it features a Buddhist altar consecrated by his Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, on Sept.15, 1990. The Buddha is flanked by the 11-headed Avalokiteshvara (the lord who looks down with compassion). Behind the Buddha is a series of thankas (painted hangings). Silver bowls across the lower steps of the altar hold water, barley and rice, and special offering bowls contain incense and flowers.
Two huge tents are vivid reminders of the summer festivals, when Tibetan nobility lavishly entertained members of the royal family and important foreign visitors.
The upstairs galleries display many Buddhist gods and saints made in cast brass and copper, often with silver parts and jeweled inlays. Completing this rich display are musical instruments, scepters and painted tables of all kinds.
The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and the show will be up until Jan. 20, 2000.
Take a train at New York's Penn Station to Newark's Penn Station, an 18-minute ride to the 15th century in Tibet. A shuttle bus travels the five minutes from the station to the museum.
A great menagerie of the first millenium
The Chinese Porcelain Company, located on Park Avenue and 58th Street, is extending an invitation to visit the first millennium with a show of beautiful material from the Warring States period, 600 BC, to the Liao dynasty, 1100 AD. Take your fill of Han dynasty (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD) attendants whose serenity, grace and quiet elegance have a soothing, reassuring effect.
Here, you can follow the evolution of the representation of the horse in China, from the small squat pony to the majesty of the Ferghana steeds, which originated in Samarkand (what is now Uzbekistan). The horses were traded for silks and spices. Their replicas are found in Imperial tombs.
From the Liao dynasty, about 1100 AD, comes a set of glazed pottery flasks, an upgraded version of what would normally be a leather accessory. A dragon design is augmented by an overall floral pattern carved into the flasks. On leather pouches, these patterns would have worked in stitching.
A second object of interesting design is a stone stupa, a cone-shaped Buddhist monument with an opening for a seated figure. A hand gesture indicates that the Buddha, flanked by two Boddhisattvas, is giving a public sermon. Above him are row upon row of Buddha figures in identical costume, pose and size. Eight somewhat larger figures dominate the level below the seated Buddha. The majestic design of this 41-inch-high sculpture packs a powerful impact.
The scholar's startling universe
Kaikodo, which is located in a stately East 64th Street townhouse, has established itself as an important member of the New York gallery scene. It currently features a presentation of "Scholar's Articles." The concept of the scholar is an important thread in Chinese history. Scholars served as civil servants for the Emperor almost continuously from the Tang dynasty to 1912.
Scholars were usually the sons of local landowners, civil servants and the educated classes. They spent their days memorizing the Confucian Analects (on which the civil service exams were based), painting and doing calligraphy, writing poetry and playing the Chinese zither.
Their studios were in the gardens of parental villas, or in remote mountain regions where they were free to contemplate the whirling rivers and raging storms, and to taste the splendors of the countryside.
The scholar's accoutrements included brushpots, often with intricately carved landscapes, inkstones for preparing the ink used in delicate landscape drawings and elegant calligraphy, brushwashers, waterdroppers, brushrests, painting tables and other furniture. Scholar's rocks, those strange stone formations mounted on highly polished bamboo bases, were an important component of the scholar's study.
Over the years scholars' materials have attracted quite a following among collectors, with objects often sold for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. In China some signed rare porcelains have on occasion gone as high as $20,000.
Singer's treasures at the Sackler Gallery
Donations of collections to U.S. museums are an everyday occurrence. But when a collection has an estimated value of $60 million and its sheer quantity of objects can fill a major gap in a museum, it's news.
The 5,000 objects comprising this particular treasure, recently gifted to the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., are from the Chinese state of Chu, which existed from about 800 to 223 BC and was a satellite of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. Chu artists worked in bronze, wood, iron and unglazed earthenware.
The collection was previously housed in a most unlikely site: a modest two-bedroom apartment in Summit, N.J. The collector was Dr. Paul Singer, a psychoanalyst. Singer began his all-consuming hobby in Hungary at the age of 17, and continued his acquisitions for some 50 years. He received encouragement and financial assistance from Arthur M. Sackler, but when it came to the purchases, Sackler relied fully on Singer's fine eye and diligent research. Included in the collection is a Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 950-850 B.C.) bronze he, a ritual wine server with a bird-topped lid, which is on view indefinitely along with 17 other objects in the Sackler's entrance pavilion.
FRED STERN is Artnet Magazine's Asian art columnist.