Visible from the lobby above, the underground Bartels Gallery is one of the most memorable spaces in late architect I.M. Pei’s 1973 Johnson Museum tower. Composed of concrete framing, white walls, and wood flooring, the big room is currently host to a remarkable installation: an enormous horizontal expanse of ink-on-paper Chinese calligraphy fitted to temporary walls that curve gently around the corners of the space.
Arranged by the museum’s Asian art curator, Ellen Avril, and Cornell art historian An-yi Pan, “Tong Yang-Tze: Immortal at the River” (up through June 7) features one finished work as well as a smaller preparatory “sketch” behind glass. Done in 2003, the piece—the artist’s largest—interprets a Chinese poem by Yang Shen (1488-1559), later adapted as a preface to the separately authored “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
Tong Yang-tze is one of Taiwan’s best-known contemporary calligraphers. Working in large formats with a bravura cursive that strains legibility, she renews the millennia-old “shufa” tradition—long central to East Asian culture. Influenced by European and European-American modernism, yet grounded in classical Chinese literature and aesthetics, her work is both erudite and physically demanding. Working from a modest home studio, she pieces together large sheets of paper into pieces of epic scale that immerse the viewer in worlds of writhing energy. She is Cornell’s 2020 Wong Chai Lok Calligraphy Fellow.
Born in Shanghai in 1942, Tong practiced calligraphy from childhood, copying Yen Zhenqing (709-785) and other historical masters. Moving to Taiwan a decade later, she later studied calligraphy and Western art at the National Taiwan Normal University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the 1970s, she gained notice as a graphic designer while exhibiting both calligraphy and oil painting. Towards the end of the decade, she returned to Taiwan to focus on the art for which she is known today.
Since the 1990s, her work has increasingly incorporated the influence of American Abstract Expressionism as well as European modernism. Working at an expanded scale and with a newfound improvisatory daring, her late style is both free and structured. Over the past two decades, she has participated in numerous “crossover” collaborations: with dancers and choreographers; jazz and popular musicians; fashion and product designers; architects and curators. Still, her own art proper is relatively old-fashioned. Tong works alone in her studio with black ink on white paper, writing (more-or-less) legible characters, and interpreting classical texts.
It would be a mistake to regard Tong’s work as pure abstraction. Even rudimentary familiarity with Chinese writing—like my own—reveals attention to her characters’ intricate structures, as unchanged over centuries. Even her freewheeling distortions are grounded in traditional cursive script: abbreviated character forms, overlapping and transposed elements, the running of one graph into another.
Also building on tradition is her expressive use of visual metaphor rooted in literal meaning. The physical act of calligraphy allows for a range of possibilities: from a clean or messy saturation of ink to airy “flying white” drybrush. Characters can be bold or thin, large or small, curvaceous or angular. Crucially, Tong keys variation of such elements to a playful interpretation of her sources. For example, here the character for “hero”—occurring about a quarter of the way through—is emphasized in dramatic bold: an abundant pool of ink bleeding into the paper.
Nonetheless, most visitors to the museum will best be able to appreciate “Immortal” as a piece of visual music. Starting by the gallery entrance and working from right to left in a spiral: the piece is full of crescendos and decrescendos, fascinating rhythms, a submersion of meaning into sound and feeling.
Exhibitions at the Johnson focused on contemporary East Asian word art typically emphasize conceptual, postmodern approaches. Shows dedicated to Mainland Chinese artists Gu Wenda and Xu Bing are characteristic, with their anti-traditional approach to media and fixation on deconstructing linguistic meaning. In contrast, Tong Yang-tze can be seen as an unrepentant modernist: determined to find new directions both within and beyond traditional constraints.