Now until May 25, the Frye Art Museum in Seattle offers viewers the chance to compare the art of Isamu Noguchi and Mark Tobey with work by two Chinese artists, showcasing their mutual influence on each other. This is the first time these pairings have been exhibited, and it offers new insights into both Noguchi and Tobey.
Noguchi is primarily known as a sculptor, but here we see ink and brush drawings created during a six-month sojourn in Beijing in 1930. There, he was introduced to Qi Baishi, a self-taught artist who is now regarded as one of the most important painters of 20th-century China. Unlike the painters of the more aristocratic school who focused on the subjects conventionally seen in scrolls, such as craggy mountains, Qi took on humbler subjects encountered in rural life: shrimps, grasshoppers, daffodils. And he treated these with a liveliness and originality that opened up the range of scenes and techniques for other ink painters. On one of his paintings, Qi has written "I waved my brush in the morning delight and there it is."
That liveliness spills over into the drawings Noguchi created while studying with Qi. They shared only the language of art but that was enough for one critic to say that in this period Noguchi found "a language of abstraction that informed his entire career." While Noguchi focused on human figures, not nature, his ink drawings have the same sense of free-flowing strokes that we see in Qi's work. The animal hair brushes they used could hold enough ink for long lines and create both fine and heavy lines in one stroke just by directing the pressure. Qi was a master at this and Noguchi's work often features broad free abstract strokes whose volume is then surrounded by thin lines depicting wrestlers, mothers with children, voluptuous females.
Also included are a few crayon sketches of nudes done by Noguchi just before his visit to China, which illustrate how much his time with Qi influenced his work. These are also fine drawings, but more heavily detailed and less full of motion than the Beijing creations.
A smaller exhibit connects the Northwest's Mark Toby with Shanghai artist Teng Baiye. The two met in the 1920s when Teng was studying at the University of Washington. Tobey studied calligraphy with Teng and though his work is not strictly calligraphy, it is rife with his own language of calligraphic shapes. In one pairing of their work, it is movement that connects them. Teng said, "Chinese artists paint the flight instead of the birds only." In Cranes and Pine Tree, Teng's cranes swoop down in a rush of movement that resembles the downward sweep of abstract shapes in the Tobey painting next to it. Unfortunately, while several more Toby pieces are featured, there are only two by Teng so the pairings are quite limited. Teng was a highly respected artist but fell out of favor in the Cultural Revolution. He was consigned to manual labor and few of his paintings survived.
Admission to the Frye is always free. For more information, http://fryemuseum.org/