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Asia Society Exhibition Examines Legacy Of The Late Art Historian Sherman E. Lee

Asian Journeys: Collecting Art In Post-War America
February 10 through August 9, 2009

Asian Journeys: Collecting Art in Post-War America examines the intersection of history, international relations, personal relationships and art collecting through a rich display of more than eighty exceptional objects from Asia Society’s jewel-like permanent collection, as well as several objects on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

From 1963 to 1978, John D. Rockefeller 3rd and his wife Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller worked with legendary art historian Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008) to assemble one of the most spectacular private collections of Asian art in the United States. The founder of Asia Society and son of collectors John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, JDR 3rd (1906–1978) played a leading role in fostering cultural understanding and cooperation between Asia and America during his lifetime. Lee was a dynamic former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was advisor to significant public and private American collections. Like JDR 3rd, Lee had extraordinary knowledge of the art and politics of Asia, and their partnership led to a very particular vision of collection building.

“Sherman E. Lee was instrumental in building the spectacular collection of Asian art formed by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd,” said Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai. “While his scholarly contributions to the field are well known, it is less known that he was equally committed to educating broader audiences about the beauty and meaning of Asian art. I was privileged to have worked with him as a young professional in my first museum job.”

“Asian Journeys honors the memory and contributions of Sherman E. Lee, who was a major force in the world of Asian art in the United States,” says Melissa Chiu, Director of the Museum and Vice President of Global Visual Art Programs at Asia Society. “His considerable influence is apparent in collections at the Seattle Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and Asia Society, all of which have served as significant resources for scholars, students and the general public alike.”

The exhibition opens with a section devoted to Lee’s influence as an advisor to the Rockefellers and juxtaposes works from the Rockefeller Collection with works from the Cleveland Museum of Art. The second section focuses on both JDR 3rd’s and Lee’s experiences in post-war Japan. The impact of Chinese civil strife on the international art market as well as the rise of South Asian, Southeast Asian and Himalayan art are examined in the third and fourth sections. A fifth section considers the legacy of the Rockefeller gift through an in-depth focus on Asia Society’s celebrated eighth-century Indian stone sculpture of Ganesha from Uttar Pradesh. The exhibition is curated by Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art, Asia Society, with Asia Society Museum Getty Fellows Jacqueline Ganem and Daisy Yiyou Wang.

The relationship between Lee and the Rockefellers
JDR 3rd grew up surrounded by his parents’ collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, Japanese prints and Buddhist sculpture. His tastes and interests in Asian art, however, extended beyond those of his parents. His focus on Asian art and his selection of objects for his collection were directly tied to the politics of the world he lived in. He hoped to illuminate cultures and societies through art and to make an impact on international relations, improving understanding between the citizens of the Unites States and Asia.

Prior to employing Lee as an advisor in 1963, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, like many others who traveled to Asia, bought art objects as mementos of their travels. It was with Lee’s encouragement and counsel that they began to collect Asian art in earnest. Lee helped them hone a collecting philosophy, introducing them to major dealers and informing them of important pieces that were available.

Lee admired collectors who had a breadth of interest, and he called the Rockefeller collection “one that insists on the highest possible quality in the objects acquired and on their capacity to be understood and enjoyed by the interested layman rather than only to be studied by the specialized scholar.” The Rockefeller Collection is noted for its high proportion of masterpiece-quality works. Its strengths include Chinese ceramics of the song and Ming periods, Chola period Indian bronzes and early Southeast Asian sculpture.

Cultural Diplomacy in Japan and Japanese Taste
From 1946 to 1948, Sherman E. Lee worked in Tokyo for the Arts and Monuments Department of the Supreme Commander Allied Forces in the Pacific. There, he contributed to the establishment of the regulatory system, still in effect today, governing the export of art works from Japan. He also helped inventory the major art collections throughout the country while forming relationships with a number of influential Japanese art historians and art dealers. This experience profoundly influenced his taste, and ultimately the character of the private and public collections that he helped to build.

Experience in Japan after the war also had a profound impact on JDR 3rd. While in Japan in 1951 with the John Foster Dulles peace mission, he too had the opportunity to view important collections, and his work on behalf of diplomacy only strengthened his beliefs in the importance of promoting Asian art and culture. Objects in this section of the exhibition range from Japanese ceramics created for the tea ceremony, thirteenth century Buddhist sculptures, and sixteenth century screens, as well as types of Korean and Chinese porcelains and stonewares that were popular among Japanese collectors.

Chinese Civil Strife and the International Art Market
During the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, civil strife and economic distress in China led to the increasing availability of works in markets outside of China. For their collection, JDR 3rd and Blanchette put most of their efforts into finding outstanding Chinese ceramics and they acquired pieces of exceedingly fine craftsmanship from China’s most illustrious periods of production, including the Song, Ming, and Qing periods. This section of the exhibition includes ceramics dating from the sixth through eighteenth centuries that reflect traditional Chinese taste.

The Rise of South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art Collecting

A greater post-war U.S. military and civilian presence in South and Southeast Asia, and political changes in places such as Nepal—which had existed in self-imposed isolation until 1950—led to increased exposure and interest in the arts of the region. Highlights in this section of the exhibition include eleventh-century Khmer stone sculptures, Nepalese and Tibetan gilt bronzes from the tenth to thirteenth century and Indian Pala carvings from the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Related programs
A series of lectures has been organized in conjunction with the exhibition featuring three prominent art historians who will examine the legacy of Sherman E. Lee:

Wen C. Fong, Princeton University Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Art History Emeritus and Metropolitan Museum of Art C. Douglas Dillon Curator Emeritus, will focus on China in a talk on Wednesday, February 18 at 7:30 p.m.

Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai will look at the partnership between Lee and the Rockefellers focusing on South Asian art on Monday, March 2 at 7:00 p.m.

Samuel C. Morse, Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations, Amherst College, will look at collecting activities in Japan on Wednesday, April 8 at 7:00 p.m.

Individual Lecture tickets: $10 Asia Society members/students with ID/seniors; $12 nonmembers. Lecture Series ticket: $25 members; $30 nonmembers. Tickets may be purchased online at https://tickets.AsiaSociety.org by phone at 212-517-ASIA.

Morgan Stanley is the lead sponsor of this exhibition and its related events. Part of the Morgan Stanley Innovators Series.

Asia Society Museum
Asia Society Museum presents groundbreaking exhibitions and artworks, many previously unseen in North America. Through exhibitions and related public programs, Asia Society provides a forum for the issues and viewpoints reflected in both traditional and contemporary Asian art. For more information, visit www.AsiaSociety.org.

Asia Society Museum is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City.
The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Closed on Mondays and major holidays. General admission is $10, seniors $7, students $5 and free for members and persons under 16. Free admission Friday evenings, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Contact: Elaine Merguerian, 212-327-9271