Mid-century Mandarin:
The Clay Canvases Of Tyrus Wong

JULY 14 - OCTOBER 31, 2004


Paintings by the Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong have been exhibited at the Pasadena Art Institute, the Los Angeles Museum of Art (now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1939, he won the Los Angeles Art Association’s first-prize purchase award judged by two of California’s most respected artists, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Lorser Feitelson.


This is the first exhibition of the paintings Wong produced for the Winfield Pottery of Pasadena between about 1944 and 1950. His canvases were 48 plates, bowls and a teapot designed by Margaret Mears Gabriel (1888-1987), which were made in molds for nation-wide distribution. Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Ed Moses are among the artists who have created decorations for commercial ceramics, but Wong is apparently the only one to have decorated them entirely by his own hand: the other artists either produced paintings for staff decorators to copy or line drawings that could be applied as transfers. Thus this aspect of Wong’s oeuvre seems to occupy a unique place in the continuum between studio and commercial ceramics.

Wong has lived in Los Angeles since coming to the United States from Guangzhou (Canton), China, in 1919. In 1938 he created the scenic look for the Walt Disney Company’s film "Bambi." And, for Warner Bros., "Rebel Without a Cause," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Wild Bunch." While at Warner Bros. in the 1940s he worked at the Winfield Pottery evenings and Saturdays. Winfield sold Wong’s original artworks on porcelain at prominent department stores across the country -- including Bullocks Wilshire in Los Angeles, Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Marshall Field in Chicago. Wong also painted images for himself, his family and friends.

The exhibition consists of two sections: pieces Wong painted for commercial distribution and those he did for himself and friends. The commercial pieces include traditional subjects done in the monochromatic black ink style of painting that developed in China’s Sung Period (960-1279 AD), notably a series of horses in motion. Among the personal one-of-a-kind images are whimsical children’s subjects.

This is the first time that these works have been assembled in one place. Wong himself was very surprised by the display: "I’d certainly never seen them all together before," he said. Then he added, "It’s been so long [more than half a century], that I don’t even remember doing some of them."

Exhibition Catalog

At the Opening