A fixture in the downtown art scene of the 1980s, Tseng Kwong Chi also skillfully embraced the role of the outsider. In his best-known body of work, East Meets West, he cast himself as an inscrutable Chinese tourist in dark glasses and a Mao suit taking a Grand Tour of America. He took poker-faced selfies, before there were selfies, in front of the Twin Towers, Niagara Falls, and the Hollywood sign, among other sites, an exotic, unknowable Other, posing with monuments and places worshipped by Americans. Deadpan and dry, his photographs were about identity and “values.”
But in an era of earnest identity politics, Tseng’s work skewed toward the playful, as this illuminating exhibition, on view at NYU's Grey Art Gallery through July 11, makes clear. The Grey is the first stop for this retrospective, which was organized by Amy Brandt, a curator at the Chrysler Museum, where it will be on view in August, and it gives a rich sense of Tseng’s influence as an artist, social diarist, and cultural gadfly.
Tseng, who died in 1990, was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Vancouver, and studied photography in Paris before moving to New York, and his knowledge of art history was extensive. East Meets West gave way to The Expeditionary Series, in which an assistant photographed him as a tiny figure dwarfed by a vast landscape, a photographic version of a 19th-century European Romantic painting.
But he also documented friends and fellow artists such as Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, the actress Ann Magnuson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and the dancer Bill T. Jones. He’s part of the party in these pictures, which convey a sense of boisterous belonging. But Tseng seemed to relish being an outsider, and he made his way again and again into odd pockets of society at every cultural and socioeconomic strata, drawing back a curtain on American culture high and low. Here he is grinning behind a trio of buff blond lifeguards at the Lifeguard Ball in Wildwood, NJ, and there he is with Nancy Kissinger, having famously crashed the Costume Institute Ball at the Met for the opening of The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch’ing Dynasty, 1644-1912.
Tseng was a sharp observer and satirist, and his photographs of his friends and fellow artists, many published in the SoHo Weekly News, brim with energy. Tseng, Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat died within two years of each other, and this show at the Grey, together with a Brooklyn Museum show of Basquiat’s notebooks on through August, are reminders of all they had left to do.