A Pioneering Thai Artist in America
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.
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