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Asian Art at the Met

Equestrian Portrait of a Noble, attributed to Bakhta, ca. 1775

With James C. Y. Watt soon to step down as head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian art department, the NYT devoted a long article last Thursday to his successor, Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s longtime curator of Chinese art. As some readers know, I have a certain interest in Asian art, and so I read the article closely. Holland Cotter summarizes well the enormous expansion in the Met’s collections that have moved it from an Asian art backwater to a major center.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian art galleries are some of the most reposeful spaces in New York City. It’s hard to imagine that they were banged into place, room by room, from practically nothing over the last 40 years, though they were. Or that they continue to mirror changing times, a changing museum and a changing Asia, though they do.

. . . [Watt and Hearn] witnessed and participated in an astonishing phenomenon: a catch-up act of acquisition, construction and exhibition-making on a grand scale.

From the early 1970s to the late ’90s, under the direction of the art historian Wen Fong, who was Mr. Hearn’s mentor, a room of sculpture gradually and laboriously turned into 50 galleries. Thanks to the beneficence of a generation of gift-giving New York collectors, a bunch of pots became many thousands of objects representing every major Asian culture. And thanks to the prestige its new Asian wing brought, the Met got some huge Asian loan shows.

Both Mr. Hearn and Mr. Watt refer to the period as a golden age. And both acknowledge that it is over.

Private collections of the kind that came to the Met can no longer be assembled in the West. China and India, now economic colossi, have a corner on the market. Museum loans from Asia are increasingly tricky to negotiate, and to pay for, now that the Met, like most museums, is economically pinched. And while Asia is constantly in the news, Asian art remains a hard sell. Foot traffic in the Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Southeast Asian galleries remains light.

Clearly, Mr. Hearn, in his new job as curator in charge of the Asian department, has confounding issues to contemplate when he takes over in July.

In describing the growth of the Met’s Asian art collections, Cotter mentions the role played by John Crawford:

John M. Crawford Jr., who in the 1950s had formed what Mr. Hearn called the most important private ensemble of Chinese painting and calligraphy in the West, lived virtually across the street from the museum, but had never exhibited his art there.

“When the Crawford collection was shown in New York in 1962,” Mr. Hearn said, “it was at the Morgan Library. That’s how out of it the Met was.”

When the museum’s Chinese painting galleries were finally finished in 1991, Mr. Crawford was invited to take a look. “At last you have a space big enough to hold my collection,” he said, and gave the Met everything.

Attractive though this story may be, the timing is a little off, what with Mr. Crawford having died in 1988. A few years before he died, I had the good fortune to visit Mr. Crawford in his apartment, which was not so much “virtually across the street from the museum” as a few blocks down, and to see some of his collection. I’ve long cherished the memory of that day.

I recommend that in addition to reading the article, you have a look at the charming video that accompanies it, in which Mr. Hearn sits down at a table with a 14th-century Chinese painting and proceeds to scroll through it (it is, in fact, a scroll), explaining both the art and the text within.

Cotter closes by quoting both Watt and Hearn on how far the Met’s Asian collection has come:

One by one, the galleries that now form the Asian wing — China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia, Korea — were carved out and built in what Mr. Watt refers to as “the last major event in the development of the museum.” Mr. Hearn, despite time out for language and graduate school, was there for every step.

“It took 27 years,” he said. “Now we have the most comprehensive collection of Asian art anywhere.”

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