CHICAGO — In 1958, Leo Castelli mounted the first solo exhibition of paintings by the American artist Jasper Johns. Johns challenged the hegemony of the brushstroke by paralyzing it in thick encaustic, shaking the pillars of the reigning Abstract Expressionist movement and deflecting the course of modernism. That same year, in the region of Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River near Bangkok, the self-taught Thai artist Tang Chang (also known as Chang Sae-tang) made his first abstract painting. To our knowledge, uninfluenced by his Western contemporaries, he created vigorous compositions infused with poetic gestures. Eventually foregoing the brush altogether in favor of the dynamism of his own fingers, hands, and arms, he also pioneered a new, verbally sparse style of poetry characterized by successive iterations of words and unconventional spacing that coalesced into visually recognizable forms — typographical poems redolent of Apollinaire’s calligrammes and e.e. cummings’s staccato rhythms.
Of these two origin stories, the latter is rarely told by Western art historians, a lapse that the exhibition Tang Chang: The Painting that Is Painted with Poetry Is Profoundly Beautiful at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art aims to correct. This presentation of more than 60 of Chang’s paintings, drawings, and poems (accompanied by English translations), the artist’s first in the United States and his only solo exhibition outside of Thailand, acknowledges undeniable parallels between Chang’s works and coeval art movements that developed internationally, such as action painting, concrete poetry, and Japanese Gutai. Yet, curator Orianna Cacchione shifts the focus, elaborating alternative — and arguably more elucidative — methodologies for interpreting Chang’s oeuvre. Cacchione’s curation veers away from the criteria of progress and linearity according to which Western art is typically evaluated, instead refracting Chang’s works through the lens of his own bilateral practice, an infinitely yielding dialogue between painting and poetry.
Chang was born into an ethnically Chinese family of limited resources and worked as a portraitist to make ends meet before pursuing abstract painting. Trained in the tradition of Thai Forest Buddhism and dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, he viewed the act of painting as a meditative process. It helped him reach the ekaggata state of concentration, shutting out the world around him and losing himself in gestural expression on the canvas. The results of his meditative state are apparent in two untitled paintings from 1965 and circa 1963 on view in the first gallery. As Cacchione discusses in her essay for the exhibition, Chang’s poems diverged from his abstract paintings in their reference to the world around him. The poems invoke themes of violence and changes to civilian life during the period of rapid modernization following Thailand’s military coup of 1946.
Although the exhibition roughly isolates three distinct techniques within Chang’s practice — purely abstract painting, poems and “poem-drawings,” and a hybrid of both — it insists on the abiding influence of poetic strategies on his paintings and of painting on his writings throughout his life, rather than positing that one discipline led to another. Cacchione achieves this by deviating from the chronological curatorial model in several instances, displaying works from different periods side by side to illustrate the extent to which paint and verse were intertwined. Adjacent to the aforementioned oil paintings from ca. 1963 and 1965, for example, is a wall of ink on paper works dating from 1971 and 1972; on the other side of the same partition hang two additional ink works of similarly lush contrast painted in 1960, a return to the beginning of Chang’s experiments in abstract painting.
Three paintings of striking bravura are installed near the end of the exhibition. The paintings bear the characteristic trace of the artist’s hands and fingers as they dragged paint across the canvas, but they are atypical as they invert Chang’s habitual format of dark pigment on light ground. Two of the works are undated; the other is circa 1965. While it may seem natural to assume that all three works belong to the same period, this is exactly the kind of assumption that Chang turns on its head. Formal affinities dart back and forth across his production, such that intimate links are forged between works otherwise distanced by time. A poem drafted in pen on a small piece of paper, “Different Groups of People” (1978), depicts separate clusters of the Thai word for “person” (khon, คน). Its structure echoes that of “Untitled,” a sophisticated canvas of blue and black abstracted calligraphic marks on a white background painted three years earlier; it is one of the exhibition’s most alluring works and emblematic of Chang’s formal brilliance, embodying both poet and painter.
A quote from one of Chang’s journals that provides the exhibition’s title suggests the artist, himself, did not conceive of painting and poetry as two autonomous practices. Rather, he believed fervently in their cross-pollination. At the Smart Museum, the question of causality is subordinated to a deeper analysis of interdisciplinary enmeshment. Instead of asking, “Where does painting end and poetry begin?,” the show seems to ask, “How do language and painting embrace each other? How do words, so loaded with meaning, become marks on a page? How do abstract gestures convey the communicative power of script?”
Tang Chang: The Painting that Is Painted with Poetry Is Profoundly Beautiful does not uproot Chang’s work from its context in order to ponder aesthetic and philosophical questions. A timeline of Thailand’s history enables a diachronic reading that relates developments in Chang’s production to corresponding moments in time, such as his hiatus from painting triggered by the 1974 clashes between student-led protesters and the military government, during which his son went missing. Still, something about Chang’s work inspires a biographical interpretation, removed from his historical context, perhaps because he worked outside of Thailand’s official art system: he never received formal art training; he refused to sell his work or become involved with the art market; and he staged exhibitions of his works in his own home, sidestepping both the Thai and international institutional circuits, with very few exceptions (in 1967, Chang’s works were shown in Singapore and Malaysia, the first and only time they were exhibited outside of Thailand during his lifetime.) As Cacchione notes in the coda to her essay, “he was never named a ‘national artist’ by the Culture Ministry, a designation that would have brought with it a monthly pension and a provision for funerary biography.”
In the current era of historical revisionism, marked by efforts across cultural entities to correct racial, ethnic, and gender imbalances in the representation of artistic voices, it does not suffice to rediscover forgotten artists in order to recalibrate the canon. Curators must develop new ways of seeing, advocating for strategies of interpretation beyond the well-trodden narrative of sequential progress that sees one “-ism” give way to another, like toppling dominoes. Tang Chang was a contemporary of the founding Concrete poet Haroldo de Campos, and his forays into abstraction immediately succeeded Jackson Pollock’s death; his work brings to mind the bulbous shapes of Robert Motherwell’s Elegy series and the elegance of Lala Rukh’s drawings, another artist who mined the formal qualities of calligraphic notation. Yet Chang worked independently of these and other figures, more established in Western narratives. The Painting that Is Painted with Poetry Is Profoundly Beautiful recognizes his practice as a uniquely fertile ground for the development of new and important critical devices.
Tang Chang: The Painting that Is Painted with Poetry Is Profoundly Beautiful continues at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago (5550 S. Greenwood Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60637) through August 5.