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Five Magnificent Millenniums

The Guggenheim has gathered archeological treasures, melding traditional and modern, in 'China: 5,000 Years.'

January 25, 1998|Scarlet Cheng | Scarlet Cheng, an arts writer based in Hong Kong, traveled to New York for this story

NEW YORK — Early next month, the long, spiraling gallery of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York will be filled with Chinese art--no, not the Political Pop or conceptual installations so au courant and so in line with the museum's image, but rather Neolithic jades, ritual bronzes of the Shang and Zhou periods (1600-256 BC), landscape paintings from the Song (AD 960-1279) and vases from the Ming (AD 1368-1644).

Confounding as it may seem, the Guggenheim, known for its take on modern Western art and itself a modern architectural classic for its revolutionary Frank Lloyd Wright design, has undertaken a show called "China: 5,000 Years." Numbering some 500 objects, the exhibition, opening Feb. 6 at its uptown and SoHo venues, ambitiously spans five millenniums of Chinese culture, from 3000 BC to our century. It is being billed as the first major museum show to unite the traditional with the modern, and the archeological treasures could well be the finest assembly ever shipped from the People's Republic of China.

As Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim's unapologetically self-confident director, says, "I predicted that I could get official [Chinese] cooperation at unprecedented levels." And he has. The majority of the works come from 50 museums and institutions in the People's Republic, with only a handful from private collectors elsewhere.

But the question sticks: Why the Guggenheim? Krens credits himself with thinking up the idea and pursuing it doggedly since 1994. His explanation is long, almost professorial, beginning with a discourse on the evolving role of museums and how the Guggenheim, with a limited but famous collection and space, had to finds its new identity in the global community. It takes a prompt for him to get to the China part.

"The big story is China's emergence as a superpower at the end of the 20th century," he says across the conference table in his expansive, bustling office. "In the relaxation of let's call it the Socialist-imposed isolation, China's a fascinating subject that has the attention of a lot of people. Point No. 2, if you know a little about China, you come to the old saw that it's the oldest continuous civilization on earth."

Superlatives come naturally to Krens, especially when discussing the Guggenheim and its projects. "We have over the last few years, I think, become one of the most--if not the most--powerful exhibition-organizing engines anywhere in the world," he announces. "We organize 14 major exhibitions a year--on a big scale." Pinned up on the long wall behind him is a series of illustrations and photographs of motorcycles from many nations and many decades--one of the exhibitions to come. "We have over 45 projects in development at the same time."

Nor is the wide span of history covered in the China show daunting to his museum, he says, mentioning its previous compendium shows on Italian and African art.

"There is a strategy in place to truly embrace the international notion, to break the expectation that somehow us Western museums--the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art--only do Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse to Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg." With such a philosophy, a museum need no longer be limited to its own collection or, in fact, its own expertise. Even though the Guggenheim had no Asian or antiquities department--and does not plan to create them--they simply went outside for organizers, curators and writers for this show. To put together the traditional part (Neolithic through Qing dynasty [17th century to 20th century]) to be shown at the Guggenheim uptown, they hired Sherman Lee, the dean of Chinese art history and retired director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. To curate the modern (mid-19th century to 1980s) section to be shown at the SoHo branch, they hired Julia Andrews of Ohio State University.

The tougher task, at least logistically, was Lee's. He and a team visited China a dozen times before drawing up a "wish list" of objects from 50 institutions in 17 far-flung provinces. And what a list it is.

Some items are de rigueur basics of exhibitions of this genre, such as life-sized terra cotta warriors from the tomb of the Qin emperor (221-206 BC)--including a general with his hands folded elegantly in front of him--or a painting of an emperor on a horseback outing--in this case, the Xuande emperor of the Ming dynasty. But other works will be more surprising, such as the life-sized terra-cotta horse that goes with those warriors or the beautiful Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) gilt belt buckle in the shape of two lively dancers holding cymbals. Also, there's religious art from the Sui (AD 581-618) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties, stately stone and gilt metal heads and torsos of Buddhist deities.

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