My office, part of the State Department’s public diplomacy efforts, was responsible for enlisting museums to assemble art exhibitions that would be presented overseas, creating cultural links and displaying art that would “tell America’s story.” So after discussing whether we should send American Indian artifacts or a survey of American paintings, we decided on the survey approach, but with a strong emphasis on contemporary abstract painting. We hoped to inspire the Chinese artists and members of the public who had never seen original American painting of any kind and, through the most current works, to underscore free artistic expression.
It worked, even beyond our expectations: Chinese artists described it as a “shock wave.”
Picture China in the 1970s. Merely to paint or display any experimental works that did not conform to the rules dictated by the government put Chinese artists in serious jeopardy of being arrested for opposition to the state.
For the daring few who deviated from mandated style and political subject, exhibitions were held out of sight of the authorities, in artists’ apartments, at great risk. All training in the newly reopened art academies in 1978 served up a restricted diet of socialist realism from Russia. Western art was still barely a trickle in the publications.
This fall, on the 30th anniversary of the exhibition — when Chinese contemporary artists now break the $10 million mark at auction — I returned to China to find out for myself what our exhibition accomplished. I hired a cameraman and crew to make a documentary of these artists, curators and critics, who would tell me in their own words what it meant to them in a country cut off from the world during the repressive Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. What I found astonished and delighted me.
What it was like in 1981
By 1981, the trial of the Gang of Four was over, and the failed policies and horrific consequences of the past decade were officially blamed on them. Mao, the father figure and “great helmsman,” escaped immediate criticism. His grand mausoleum now had stood in the center of Tiananmen Square for nearly four years.
Deng Xiaoping’s bold 1978 program of economic reform and “opening up to the outside world” had lifted the ban on Western art and culture temporarily, but the political winds could shift without warning. With the reestablishment of formal U.S.-China relations in 1979, a new cultural accord was signed, calling for an exchange of exhibitions.
Washington seized this window of opportunity, and we moved quickly to organize the show. Luckily, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was building a new wing and could lend a large portion of its American collection, starting from the Colonial time and ending with the pure abstraction of 1970s color field.