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Decoding Chinese Calligraphy at the Asian Art Museum

Starting October 5, a new exhibition celebrates an ancient writing form and art.

Bay Area entrepreneur and former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang (left) and artist Xu Bing at the Asian Art Museum’s new exhibition.

Bay Area entrepreneur Jerry Yang started collecting calligraphy in 1998. His first acquisition—a work by 16th century master calligrapher Don Qichang—is considered the earliest dated calligraphy outside of China. The former Yahoo CEO eventually amassed over 250 rare calligraphies, some dating as far as the 14th century. For the first time, a small selection of his comprehensive collection will showcase at the Asian Art Museum in a new exhibition, “Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.”

"The walls just drip with ink,” said Michael Knight, senior curator of Chinese art, of the 40 borrowed paper and silk hand scrolls, hanging scrolls, fans, and albums. The exhibition is the country’s first major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy since 1999.

To demystify the decorative brush-and-ink's influence on Chinese politics and culture, the exhibition relies on a relatively small number of works. “This is not a text book exhibition,” Knight said. “We wanted to represent calligraphy in its entirety and depth, and so looked at it thematically including how it works, the materials and formats, the various scripts, the training, the preservation.” 


From the spontaneous strokes of cursive script to the bold straight-lines of clerical, calligraphy’s beauty is in its nuance. Script, style and format are the result of the calligrapher’s personal choice. The exhibition shows how this self-expression is contextualized and compares it to modern times. Included are abstract expressionist paintings by Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, and Brice Marden which overtly depict calligraphy’s firm grasp on the contemporary world. 

The exhibition is also the debut of a museum-commissioned work by internationally-renowned artist Xu Bing. His 18-minute, 25 frames per second animation, crafted from over 1,000 drawings, features dissolving and appearing calligraphy characters that ultimately capture the ink-based artist’s thoughts on calligraphy and language and how we perceive them.

The Asian Art Museum, Oct. 5, 2012 to January 13, 2013. www.asianart.org