Getty’s new direction looks East

When the J. Paul Getty Museum plunged into the field of photography 25 years ago with a stunning purchase of 18,000 photographs, one of the least-remarked facts was that the bonanza of mostly European and American images included a few Japanese works.

The focus on Western art hasn’t changed much as the collection has grown more than fivefold, but recently the department of photographs has begun to look east. In the last three years, the Getty has quietly purchased and received donations of about 150 photographs by Japanese, Chinese and Korean artists. Many other Asian acquisitions are in the pipeline.

Among the latest arrivals are contemporary works by Chinese artists Wang Qingsong and Hai Bo, who explore social, political and cultural issues in a rapidly changing land. Wang, who includes himself in panoramic tableaux, re-creates traditional Chinese masterpieces as he reflects on current realities. Hai pairs old photographs of family members and friends with pictures of the people they have become.

In one of the Getty acquisitions, “I Am Chairman Mao’s Red Guard,” an image of a uniformed girl proudly holding Mao’s Little Red Book appears beside a portrait of her grown-up self. Long after the Cultural Revolution has ended, she is a heavy-set, middle-aged woman dressed in a simple flowered shift. In many ways, the face is the same, but youthful idealism has given way to an understanding of life as it is.

The Chinese pictures and many others are spread out on large tables in a study room where Judith Keller, acting senior curator of photographs, lifts protective coverings on recent acquisitions. There are pictures of people in Korean streets and subways by Soon Tae Hong, scenes of modern Tokyo by Shigeichi Nagano, shots of Japanese couples in a park by Masato Seto and sendups of the Peking Opera by Liu Zheng.


Built-in audience

“Building our Asian collection is something that I have been very much in favor of,” Keller says. “I think that because we are on the Pacific Rim and we have a huge audience of people of Asian heritage, it’s something we should be doing.

“It did not really become a priority until last year,” she says. “But ever since Michael Brand, who has a background in Indian art, became director of the museum, he and David Bomford, the associate director for collections, have encouraged me to follow this path. We have not been collecting exclusively Asian material. It’s just one vein. But it’s important.”

The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are also serious collectors of Asian photography, she says, but the Getty’s approach is different. Instead of assembling a broad view of the field, the Getty is maintaining its practice of collecting selected artists’ work in depth. Every Asian artist added to the Getty’s holding is represented by several images, with others likely to follow.

In China, photography as a major art form is a relatively new development, Keller says. Japan, however, has a tradition that parallels much of photography’s evolution in the West, and that’s where Keller started her Asian venture.

“We had a head start with that because Sam Wagstaff’s collection contained work by a few important Japanese photographers of the 1970s,” Keller says, referring to a trove that was part of the museum’s original purchase. Thanks to the museum’s acquisition funds and gifts from its Photographs Council and other supporters, the Getty has acquired 20th and 21st century works by artists such as Kansuke Yamamoto, Hiroshi Hamaya, Issei Suda and Daido Moriyama.

A varied Impression

Most of the photographs are black-and-white images in conventional sizes, depicting Japan and its people. In sharp contrast, two vividly colored 1989 works by Yasumasa Morimura are roughly 6-by-8-foot interpretations of French Impressionist Edouard Manet’s painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.” Morimura’s splashy creations are part of his elaborately staged “Daughter of Art History” series, in which he casts himself as women in Western masterpieces.

As Getty watchers may recall, the museum exhibited the Manet, which belongs to London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, in 2007. The subsequent Morimura acquisition is a coincidence, Keller says.

All the Asian works will remain in storage for a while, as Keller builds the collection and explores other Asian countries. But she is planning the first exhibition, featuring Chinese photographs, to open in December 2010.

“It will certainly include some of what we have acquired and I intend to continue looking,” she says. “At the moment, I expect to include loans from other collections, but one can always hope.”