Yun Gee: A Rediscovery by Judith Tannenbaum

The following article contains misinformation about Yun Gee’s personal life.  There is no evidence found that he suffered from mental illness or had any major breakdowns. Furthermore, Yun Gee continued to paint, write and invent throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Trained in China, schooled in San Francisco of the 1920s, galvanized by Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, Yun Gee’s work suggests both personal discovery and acuity to the cultural terms of painting of the period.

The career of the Chinese-American painter Yun Gee (1906-1963) is extraordinary, even within a field where the uncommon or singular has come to be expected as the norm.  Not only does the precocious body of work that survives from the late 1920s and early 1930s deserve attention and study, but Gee’s life story is equally compelling for the unique set of cultural cross currents it embodies – from China to San Francisco, Paris, and New York.

Gee achieved considerable success and recognition as a very young artist. For example, in 1929, he had a one-man show at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris and in 1932 he was invited to participate in the “Murals by American Painters and Photographers” exhibition, organized by the Museum of Modern Art to inaugurate its new quarters at 11 West 53rd Street.  But the complex and difficult nature of Gee’s experience as an individual who quickly absorbed and adopted the ideas and techniques of advanced Western art, but who, at the same time, remained devoted to and identified fully with his native Chinese culture, may have contributed to an increased sense of alienation and to the mental illness that tragically and prematurely thwarted his art.

Consequently, although Gee is represented in major collections in Paris and the United States including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, his oeuvre has remained relatively unknown. To remedy this situation and to encourage further examination of the artist’s particular place in the history of twentieth-century American art, the William Benton Museum of the University of Connecticut recently organized a major traveling exhibition of Gee’s paintings.

Yun Gee was born February 22, 1906 in Gee village, K’ai P’ing county, Kwangtung (Canton) province. In order to support his family in rural China, Gee’s father, Quong On Gee, emigrated and settled in San Francisco; his wife remained in China but, in time, he was able to bring over three sons and a daughter. Yun Gee received a formal education and studied traditional watercolor painting in China before he arrived in San Francisco in 1921.

Although Quong On Gee had entered the country illegally, as did most Chinese immigrants, he subsequently claimed his papers had been destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Yun Gee was thus granted citizenship as the song of a United States citizen and thereby circumvented the highly restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act. Consequently, Gee was also able to acquire an American passport, which would allow him to travel in Europe and return to the United States, whereas illegal aliens had to remain as invisible as possible and their movements were therefore severely limited.

From 1924 to 1926 Gee was enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) where he studied painting and drawing with Gottardo Piazzoni (1872-1945) and Otis Oldfield (b. 1890). Through Oldfield, who had worked in Paris for fifteen years before returning to San Francisco in 1924, Gee was exposed to recent developments in modern art and in particular to the work of Cezánne and to Cubism and the related movements of Synchromism and Orphism that grew out of Cubism. Also an important spokesman for experimentation, Piazzoni had studied in Paris and was directly associated with Futurism.

The influence of Oldfield’s “color-zone” teaching method, which seems to have incorporated the nineteenth-century French color theories of Chevreul and Rood, as adopted by Neo-Impressionism and subsequently by Robert Delaunay’s Simultanéisme or Orphic Cubism and by Morgan Russell’s and Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s Synchromism, is apparent in Gee’s earliest extant paintings of 1926 and 1927. Gee was taught to compose paintings based on a “nucleus key-tone” by juxtaposing distinct strokes or planes of pure color. Without using preliminary sketches, pigment was to be applied methodically but rapidly to an absorbent paper surface. Oldfield thus encouraged his students to retain the freshness and strength of unmixed color and not to be concerned with details of form. But whereas in Paris the experiments with color as the primary element of painting had led to abstraction, Oldfield’s students retained representational subject matter.

During this period, Gee concentrated on portraits and San Francisco street scenes. Most are small-scale works (i.e., no dimension exceeds 20 inches) in oil on paper board. In accordance with Oldfield’s method, the direct application of color is inseparable from the structure and form of the subjects. Vibrant, luminous tones overlap as well as converge, and there are contrasts between warm and cool, dark and light values as well as subtler gradations of related hues. Many of these early paintings are confident, lively, intuitive works rather than the self-conscious exercises of a student trying to master a prescribed technique. Predominant hues range from intense reds, blues, and greens to light, airy pastels in the open street scenes, to darker, more sober browns and greens in Where is My Mother (1926-27), a painting that expresses a pensive, somber mood and personal emotional content, indicative of a direction Gee’s work will take in Paris. In the street scenes, which are marked by a particular sense of movement, buildings, sky, and roads are depicted with broad rectangles, triangles, arcs, and irregular wedges of color, while featureless figures are indicated by quick calligraphic lines and highly simplified shapes.

Gee is most daring and bold when his figural subjects become integrated with backgrounds – for example, in Park Bench I (1927) and Chinese Musicians (c. 1927), which is perhaps his most abstract composition. Unrecognizable until one knows the title of the work, the two musicians and their instruments are indistinguishable from their setting; instead of volumetric forms, here Gee has created a rhythmic, allover surface of irregular arcing planes, shapes, and triangular facets. It is in these semi-abstract compositions that Gee’s work is most closely related to Synchromism and Orphism.

Since Macdonald-Wright was living in Southern California during the 1920s, it would be significant to know if Gee had any direct contact with him or if he had seen any Synchromist or Cubist paintings. An exhibition of Synchromist works by Russell and Macdonald-Wright was held at the Los Angeles Museum in February 1927, but there is no evidence that Gee saw it. Moreover, his mastery of contrasting and simultaneous elements of color was highly developed by that time. Gee clearly shared a conscious and profound interest in music with the Synchromists and Orphists and, conversely, Macdonald-Wright had a longstanding interest in Asian art, culture, and philosophy. But without further information, one can only recognize these links and assume that Gee learned about Synchromism and Orphism indirectly through Oldfield, who had been in Paris in the early 1910s when these movements developed.

As a very young man, Gee played an active role in the San Francisco art community. The painter John Ferren (1905-70), a friend from the period, remembered Gee and the difficult conditions for artists living there at that time:

He had a square-headed intensity, was hell-bent to revolutionize Chinatown and the world with modern art . . . Admit genius and carefully placed this young man in context. In San Francisco the Mexicans ran the roost. River was god and more ‘modern’ one could not be. The words ‘modern art’ now that the battle is won (lost again – won again, etc.) signify nothing today. Then they did, and the blank stare, apathy or violent rejection were real. One of two elders who had seen a Matisse encouraged Yun . . . Macdonald-Wright was somewhere about, but he was painting sexy Orientalia . . . The omniscient Kenneth Rexroth was friend and counselor. Beyond that – silence.

While he was still a student at the California School of Fine Arts, Gee organized and taught classes at the Chinese Revolutionary Artists’ Club, which was established to introduce advanced Western art to Chinese immigrants. And he and Oldfield were among the founding members of The Modern Gallery, a cooperative where Gee had his first one-man show in November 1926. He sold a number of paintings from that exhibition, including several to the Prince and Princess Achille Murat. The Murats encouraged Gee to leave San Francisco for Paris, which in fact, he did in July 1927.

Through Princes Murat’s salon, Gee was soon introduced to and befriended by many prominent figures in the art and literary world of Paris. By December 1927 he had a one-man show at the Galerie Carmine, followed by two more solo shows in 1928. In 1929 he exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants, and in June he had a one-man show at Bernheim-Jeune for which the author Pierre Mille wrote the catalogue introduction.

Noticeable changes took place almost immediately in Gee’s first Paris period from 1927 to 1930. Working in somewhat larger scale, often on canvas rather than paper, he moved away from distinct faces, shapes, or zones of color to more clearly delineated, broader architectonic forms – as exemplified in Pantheon and Workmen (c. 1927) and several landscapes with houses where Gee seems to have been closely studying Cézanne. Color contrasts are more muted and brushwork is softer.

The youthful exuberance and energy of the San Francisco paintings, as well as their occasional awkwardness, have given way to more subdued, integrated, self-contained, or personal images such as the thoughtful self-portrait The Flute Player (c. 1928) in a palette limited to ochers, deep blue-greens, and accents of red and white. In the more eccentric and unsettling How I Saw Myself in a Dream (c. 1929), the artist presents himself as a somewhat distorted figure in the middle of a deserted street, finding his way with a stick like a blind man although his eyes are open. Oblique brushstrokes in predominant yellow ochers draw attention to the surface of the picture plane, countering somewhat the odd architectural perspectives and spatial distortions. Here Gee’s use of such a highly personal dream image seems to reflect the influence of Surrealism in Paris at that time.

His more introspective and mystical bent is also underscored in several large paintings based on particular Chinese subjects and themes including Confucius (Chinese Sage), Butterflies: Dream of Chuang-Tze, and Lao-Tze. Unfortunately, in the 1950s Gee repainted and destroyed a number of works, often singling out those with Chinese themes, so that softly brushed planes of luminous color were replaced by hard linear contours and dark, heavily varnished surfaces. The major painting of Confucius remains intact, however, except for the removal of the original poetry text in Chinese calligraphy at the upper left of the canvas.

In 1930 Gee married a poet, Paule de Reuss; but only several moths later, he returned to New York because the very difficult economic conditions in Europe made it impossible for Gee to support both himself and his wife, who had been disowned by her wealthy, aristocratic family when she married the Chinese artist. The Great Depression, however, also prevented Gee from bringing his wife over to join him in America. Consequently, after several years of separation, the coupled was divorced so that de Reuss could regain her family’s financial support. Nevertheless, they would see each other again when Gee returned to Paris in the late 1930s, and they maintained a life-long correspondence after he settled permanently in New York.

Despite the poor economic conditions in New York in the early 1930s, once again Gee was able to devote himself to painting and found opportunities to exhibit his work. In the summer of 1931, nine of Gee’s paintings were included in “Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings by American and Foreign Artists” at the Brooklyn Museum, and in 1932 he exhibited with the Society of Independent Artists, and in a two-man show at the Balzac Galleries. Most significant, however, was his participation in “Murals by American Painters and Photographers” at the Museum of Modern Art in May 1932.

Even before it opened, the mural show generated considerable interest and publicity. A news item describing its purpose appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on February 1, 1932 quoting Lincoln Kirstein, who directed the exhibition organized by the Museum’s Advisory Committee:

We feel that mural painting in America has suffered from a lack of opportunity to assert itself. Hitherto, murals decoration has been for the most part in the hands of the academic painters. This show will attempt to give younger painters a chance to show their work before a large public. . . it would be particularly valuable for the information of many interested architects in New York who are in search of competent decorators for buildings proposed or in construction.

Edward Alden Jewell, in The New York Times, Sunday, February 7, looked forward to the exhibition as a positive measure to give mural commissions to American ran than to foreign artists.

Put in historical context, the great interest in mural painting at that time was a response to the recent success and recognition of the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera in particular, to the anticipated selection of artists for major mural commissions at Rockefeller Center, and the growing influence of Social Realist art. Nelson Rockefeller’s foreword to the catalogue, on behalf of the Advisory Committee, directly acknowledged or alluded to these factors; he went on to outline the conditions of the show:

Some sixty-five American painters and photographers, few of whom have made their reputations as mural designers, were invited to submit examples of their work in order to approximate the difficulties of an actual commission, each artist was asked to design a horizontal composition in three parts, the whole to measure twenty-one inches high by four feet wide. One section of the study was to be carried through to completion on a large panel to measure seven feet high by four feet wide. Any practicable medium was permissible. The subject was to be some aspect of “The Post-War World.”

Gee received a letter from Lincoln Kirstein dated February 5, 1932, inviting him to participate in the exhibition and stating that “the exhibit must be in the hands of the hanging committee by April first, 1932.”

Controversy preceded the opening of the exhibition when murals by three artists – Hugo Gilbert, William Gropper, and Ben Shahn – whose particular political subject matter was objectionable to trustees of the Museum, were going to be withdrawn from the show. But because a number of other artists threatened to withdraw in protest, the Museum backed down and allowed the controversial works to be included.

Thirty-five painters participated, including such well-known artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and Reginald Marsh. In addition, the photo-mural section, which was directed by Julien Levy, presented twelve works. Each photo-mural was designed for a space 7 feet high by 12 feet long (with the exception of Edward Steichen’s George Washington Bridge). Berenice Abbot, Charles Sheeler, George Platt Lynes, and Luke Swank were among the photographers represented. Popular themes for both the paintings and photographs were skyscrapers and building construction, the industrial machine age, and aspects of modern living. Social Realist and Precisionist modes were prevalent.

Unfortunately, critical response to the exhibition was overwhelmingly negative so that opportunities for mural commissions by American artists may have been temporarily set back rather than advanced. In general, the photo-murals were more favorably received than the paintings and the newly renovated building was praised. Although the reviewers were disappointed with the overall quality of the show and criticized artists for simply transferring their easel styles to larger scale, Yun Gee was singled out by several writers for favorable comment. For example, Jewell stated that:

Careful reexamination of the murals on the second and fourth floors of the museum . . . leaves me prepared to assert that to six of the artists represented – George Biddle, Reginald Marsh, Henry Varnum Poor, James E. Davis, Kimon Nicholaides, and Yun Gee – I would gladly. . . entrust walls today. . . If Nicholaides’ grandly conceived “Merry-Go-Round” strikes one as possibly a shade too cool, there may be those who will object that Yun Gee’s gorgeous fugue on a similar theme is conceivably a shade too warm.

Rose Mary Fisk wrote, “Yun Gee, a young Chinese painter working in this country, has a study full of movement, incident, and fresh, if not consistently pleasing in color.”

As several critics pointed out, a major problem was the limited time the artists had had to execute their works. Consequently, a number were not finished in time to be photographed for the catalogue. Also, some artists may have felt restricted by the mandatory, elongated vertical format, whereas Gee was particularly comfortable with the scroll-like dimensions because of his Chinese background. AS one of the youngest artists in the exhibition (he was only twenty-six at the time), Gee benefited from the exposure with more established painters and it seems that he welcomed the opportunity to work on a large scale. Contrary to Brodsky’s analysis that Gee was hurt by the experience of the mural show, he received good notices, and in all probability, his painting was not reproduced in the catalogue simply because of time limitations.

Gee’s three-part study presented a Merry-Go-Round on the left, Sun Bathers in the center, and Modern Apartment on the right. His large mural panel Wheels Industrial New York (1932) was thus an independent work rather than an enlarged version of one of the small paintings. This mural, which is Gee’s most important extant work, is unified by a vibrant palette of predominant yellows and reds and by a wonderful sense of movement created by the relationships between diagonal, circular, and vertical compositional elements as well as by the active paint handling. The top half of the painting is dominated by the imposing skyline of lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers and the Brooklyn Bridge and features a dazzling pink sun that emits faceted rays of warm light; a sequence of lower, older buildings across the middleground sets off the circling wheel of polo players prominent in the lower section of the canvas.

A number of integral images becomes apparent upon closer viewing – for example, a discus thrower in motion at the lower left corner, boats in the harbor, a woman and child who stand to the right of the polo players – while under the bridge, the outlined figure of a man, with arms raised, is enigmatically suspended in mid-air. Moreover, in Wheels: Industrial New York, Gee has masterfully fused some distinctly Chinese elements with Western techniques and subject matter. The small scale of the human figures in contrast to the tall buildings and landscape elements, the use of bird’s-eye views and aerical perspective, calligraphic drawn lines, and the monochromatic yellow palette with accents of red, mint green, and white all seem distinctly Chinese in origin; whereas the brushwork, overlapping simplified planes of color, and complex, multiple images are related to Cubist modes. Moreover, Futurist painting seems particularly relevant to the artist’s treatment of an industrial theme and the dynamic movement of the wheel of polo players.

Gee has also set up a contrast between human or natural energy – as embodied by the discus thrower, who recalls ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, and the polo players on horseback (the sport of polo was introduced to China from India in the seventh century) – and the power of modern industry and technology represented by the modern skyscrapers, bridge, and airplane. Perhaps the enigmatic figure below the bridge is a poignant symbol of modern man’s dilemma, as he is caught between the forces of past cultures, human values and traditions, and the progress of modern industry and technology.

Soon after the mural show at the Museum of Modern Art, Gee was commissioned to paint a large mural of The Last Supper for St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the Bronx. The work was dedicated in June 1933, but was removed shortly thereafter because the congregation objected to the artist’s nontraditional treatment of the subject. Although it seems that Gee stopped painting for a period from 1933 to 1935, he continued to teach private classes in his studio and gave occasional performances of Chinese dance and music. In 1935 Gee joined the WPA Easel Project, which further indicated his acceptance as a painter in New York.

Surely the 1930s was a very difficult time for artists as well as for the population as a whole, and, as Brodsky suggests, Gee had to contend with the added burden of racial prejudice. Yet he managed to live as an artist; at the same time he took an active role in the Chinese community, as he had earlier in San Francisco. For example, in September 1931 Gee contributed a 17-foot-long mural to the Chinese Flood Relief Campaign, which was sold to benefit that cause; and he was prompted by the Japanese invasion of China to consider political events in several paintings and in political cartoons.

In 1936 Gee returned to Paris, and again he had numerous opportunities to exhibit. He participated in several shows with major School of Paris artists; among his work of the late 1930s are portraits of Ambroise Vollard, André Salmon, Paul Valery, Paul Guillaume, and Pierre Mille. It is difficult to evaluate the works of this period since most are available only through photographs, although it appears that Gee favored a more linear style with heavy contours and looser, expressionistic brushwork. Because of the outbreak of war in Europe, he returned to New York in 1939.

During the early 1940s Gee had solo shows of recent New York paintings and earlier works from Paris at the Montross Gallery, Milch Gallery, and Lilienfeld Gallery; he participated in a number of group exhibitions to benefit the war effort and Chinese relief organizations, and taught a WPA painting class at the Museum of the City of New York. He also married again and had a daughter. But in 1945 Gee suffered a mental breakdown from which he never recovered. Although there would be periods when he painted again, he had lost the experimental fervor that distinguished the early work. Moreover, he tried to obliterate many fine pictures by painting over the original subjects. Consequently, this artist who had shown such great promise would be all but forgotten for twenty years until a posthumous exhibition was held at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in New York in 1968.

Because of the unevenness and loss of later works, the Benton Museum exhibition concentrates on paintings from 1926 to 1932. Yet, despite the tragic brevity of Gee’s career, his life was not without elements of joy and professional success, as underscored by the activities previously discussed. In a very affecting memoire for the exhibition catalogue, Helen Gee, the artist’s [ex-wife], further describes the range of Gee’s interests and thought. In addition to painting, Gee wrote poetry, was a skilled musician, and surrounded himself with dozens of songbirds. Moreover, his concerns about overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, and the necessity to develop new food supplies would prove to be prophetic. Nor was his intellectual acumen, curiosity, and resourcefulness ever completely lost, as exemplified by the nationwide publicity he received in 1954 for the invention of a highly challenging four-player chess game.

Most significant, however, is the dynamic legacy of Yun Gee’s paintings. From the youthful charm and energy of the San Francisco paintings to the more mature, poetic Paris pictures and the major achievement of the New York mural, which integrates the universal and persona, traditional and modern, Easter and Western modes, Gee’s sensibility is distinct. Notwithstanding the limited time frame, it is a legacy that once rediscovered can no longer be overlooked.

Judith Tannenbaum
Arts Magazine
May 1980