Angel Head, 1971. Gouache and ink on rag board. 30 X 40" Whitney Museum of American Art
CHING HO CHENG
1946 – 1989
At a time when Asian-American artists were virtually absent from the contemporary art scene, Ching Ho Cheng was highly regarded by his peers and by prominent art historians such as Gert Schiff and Henry Geldzahler, the first curator of Twentieth-Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both men, close friends of Cheng, promoted and collected his work, which was exhibited extensively in New York and Europe.
Cheng often traveled abroad, but when in New York City he resided at the landmark Chelsea Hotel during its edgiest, wildest time. In the 1960/70s the roster of residents there included the artists Larry Rivers, David Hockney, Vali Myers, and Richard Bernstein, fashion designer Charles James, and the rock star Dee Dee Ramone. He once lived in a room that had been occupied by Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Cheng, a regular at Max’s Kansas City, was also friendly with Andy Warhol and Bette Midler. Rosa von Praunheim filmed Cheng in his Chelsea Hotel studio for Praunheim’s award-winning film, Tally Brown, New York (1979), a documentary about Tally Brown, singer and actress.
His psychedelic experiences in these years led to the first body of work, about which the poet David Rattray, in his article Visualizing the Invisible: The Psychorealism of Ching ho Cheng (Bres Magazine, 1976) remarked: “his pictures make a decorative first impression. But then, as one focuses on their disturbingly visceral imagery and funky sexuality, they get tough. “Cheng’s Angel Head was included in the Sinister Pop exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012-13, and was acquired by the Museum along with these other works from this period. Henry Geldzahler found in these paintings “a search for evidence of connectedness: man with man, man with nature, and man with God…”
At the same time Cheng began to study ancient cultures which led him to experiment with colors and shapes as symbols: the egg form stands for regeneration, blue represents spirituality and green denotes rebirth.
In the late 1970’s Cheng’s work took a radical turn-about. He began to depict ordinary objects in his studio - a window, light switches, peeling paint - in airbrushed gouaches so delicate they appear as whispers of paint. Cheng found serene beauty in mundane objects. He became increasingly fascinated by auras and light, which for him symbolized the afterlife.
In the early 1980’s a new period of his art emerged when, in frustration, he tore up a drawing he found inadequate - a meticulous artist, Cheng destroyed works that were not up to his standards. From this one transformative act evolved his stunning body of torn works. He realized that the process of tearing paper was simultaneously constructive and deconstructive. The wall sized Interrupted Text, a torn work created in collaboration with the poet David Rattray. Rattray wrote the text in black ink on paper, specially prepared and then torn by Cheng. This partial destruction transformed the text in such a way that it could never again be read in its entirety. It became a visual expression for our fragmented perception of reality.
In the fall of 1981, Ching ho Cheng went to Turkey. Visiting caves and grottoes, he was fascinated by their colors and textures. Back at the Chelsea, he explored an oxidation process, which led him to submerge paper, covered with copper or iron filings, in water for several weeks. He was thrilled by the rust’s permanence and depth, but at the same time he saw the spiritual possibilities of these works. The oval and curved shapes took on meaning as passageways to the next realm, the afterlife, which concerned Cheng in all his artistic endeavors. The culmination of these rust works was an installation at the Grey Art Gallery in 1987 of an arc filling the whole large window of the gallery, facing Washington Square Park.
Cheng was born in Cuba where his father held a diplomatic post. His extended family in China was among the wealthiest and most respected families in the country. Cheng’s revered great aunt, Soumay Cheng, a graduate of the Sorbonne University, was the first female lawyer and judge in China and the first Chinese lawyer ever to practice at the French Court in Shanghai. During the revolution, which eventually overthrew the ruling Manchu Dynasty, the young Soumay Cheng collaborated with the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party). She traveled with a suitcase full of explosives destined for the Kuomintang’s clandestine stash of munitions, and participated in secret meetings in her home. She married Wei-Tao Ming, a prominent diplomat and politician. Cheng’s family moved to New York in 1951. He lived in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, and studied at the Cooper Union School of Art (1964-1968). His first one-man show was held in Amsterdam in 1976, and his first exhibition in New York followed a year later at the Gloria Cortella Gallery.
By Leanne Zalewski