Double Happiness: Dr. T.F. Chen’s Perfect Marriage of Art and Commerce
by- Ed McCormack
One of the more interesting stories in contemporary art is that of Dr. T.F. Chen, a reclusive 62 year old painter from Taiwan who, largely through the efforts of an aggressively entrepreneurial wife, has bucked the gallery system to become an international success in his own terms.
Chen, who spent twelve years in Paris, trying on various painting styles and earning a Ph. D in the History of Modern Art , founded his one-man movement “Neo-Iconography,” (“Neo-I” for short and so named because it juxtaposes cultural images East and West, past and present) in 1969, Inspired by the first moon landing, Chen felt that the artist must follow the astronauts’ lead and match the journey to outer space with “a humanistic journey to inner space.” For Chen-who painted a memorable vision of two men in space suits under a lunar tondo of a Madonna and Child- inner space was the archives of art history, which he has since ransacked relentlessly to produce works which go far beyond “appropriation,” mixing and matching diverse styles from many periods with an abandon that can be quite startling.
It is not uncommon in Chen’s painting to encounter familiar figures from various masters in one composition, like stars making cameo appearances in each other’s films. Indeed, Chen combines them like bit players in the ongoing drama of his own seemingly inexhaustible oeuvre. In Chen’s series based on Cezanne’s “Card Players,” for example, characters from Cezanne, Picasso, and Chagall compete at the gambling table, while one of Toulouse Lautrec’s redheaded red hot mamas looks on. In “Vincent Coming Home,” from Chen’s “Post-Van Gogh” series, Vincent returns from a painting expedition, peering into the welcoming warmth of a red Matisse interior where the familiar figure of a maid places a bowl of fruit on the table. In yet another homage to Van Gogh, the artist who inspired Chen to become a painter, several figures from several of Picasso’s periods visit Vincent’s humble room at Arles. (Here, as well as in other works in the “Post Van-Gogh” series, Chen rewards his early hero, at least symbolically, with the artistic fellowship that he yearned for but never found in life.)
TF Chen at house / Lucia / Art Fair / TF Chen Cultural Center
Chen’s career really took off in 1986, when his “Statue of Liberty Series” was exhibited extensively in Asia, Europe, and the United State and received mass coverage in the mass media. Since, his images have been reproduced on posters, T-shirts, and greeting cards worldwide, thanks to the artist’s enterprising wife Lucia Chen, whom he met when both were students at the Sorbonne in Paris (he for his doctorate in art history, she for a degree in French Literature).
Indeed, if this were the just world that Chen likes to envision in his work, every artist-male and female-would have a spouse like Lucia, sho in the couple’s early, struggling years called doctors lawyers, and other potential collectors right out of the phone book to invite them to her husband’s studio! Lucia, the daughter of a Taiwan Zen master, traveled to international fairs hustling her husband’s work and making him famous, while he stayed home painting and looking after their two children. “He never even has to even pick up a phone,” Lucia boasted recently, as she showed a visitor around the New World Art Center, the elegant six story exhibition venue at 250 Lafayette Street that the couple opened amid much fanfare three years ago with a retrospective of Chen’s work from 1951 to 1996.” All he has to do is paint and write and I take care of all the rest.”
Lucia Chen is President of both the New World Art Canter and the T.F. Chen Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to universal art and culture,” while the couple’s daughter Julie is Director of the New World Art Center and their son Ted is Director of their publishing company, New World Editions. All three work to keep the business running smoothly, enabling Dr. T.F. Chen to concentrate on the art part.
In the Chinese literati tradition, Chen is a scholar and a writer as well as a painter. Beside being featured in over 64 different textbooks authored by others, he himself has written over a dozen books in English, French, and Chinese. He also lectures frequently o his belief that “Neo-I is the beginning of a world art renaissance which weaves together cultural icons, cultural images with symbolic meaning to produce fresh and precise visions of universal consequence, a new universal culture of the fifth dimension combining time, space, and conscience.”
While Dr. T.F. Chen is busy painting, producing prints that are distributed to 57 galleries around the country and the world (a recent series on Princess Diana among them) and calling for “a culture based on love instead of power and humanism instead of materialism,” his wife continues to build their empire, which now has assets estimated at several million dollars.
And who could possibly disagree?