Dec 20 2017

Obituary: Tseng Yu-ho (1925–2017)

by Julee WJ Chung

TSENG YU-HO with her painting The Settlement, which depicts urban sprawl on the island of O‘ahu in Hawai‘i. Photo taken on November 12, 1957; from the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Celebrated ink and calligraphy artist Tseng Yu-ho (also known as Betty Ecke), who was one of the founding members of the Society of Asian Art of Hawai‘i, passed away on September 16 in China.

Born in Beijing, Tseng trained in traditional painting techniques and studied under the Manchurian prince Pu Jin, with whom she honed her skills in classical ink painting and Chinese calligraphy. In 1949, due to the political turmoil in her home country, she moved to the United States with her husband Gustav Ecke, and continued to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Hawai‘i in 1950, which she obtained in 1966. In 1972, she received a doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. As an educator, she received full tenure at the University of Hawai‘i in 1973 until her retirement in 1986, as well as taking up the position of deputy director at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Asian Art Department. Before returning to Beijing in 2005, she was named the “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i” by the Japanese Buddhist Association in 1990.

Early on in her career, Tseng was widely recognized as a classical painter, calligrapher and writer, and had a flash of successes at a time when women and minority painters seldom saw the spotlight. She had her first exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1959. Later, drawing inspiration from her immediate environment—the Western landscape around her—she created compositions that balanced her orthodox mastery and her desire for more experimental techniques, inventing a new artistic direction that she called dsui (assembled) paintings. Still using a wide range of traditional techniques, from paper-making to calligraphy, she created abstract compositions by mounting and collaging paper to create new dimensions to the work, sometimes also painting on the backside for a shadowed effect.

In addition to her many achievements, in 1953, together with her husband, Tseng received the Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to study art collections in the United States. The following year, the Smithsonian Institution toured her solo exhibition to ten museums and art centers across the country. From 1997 to ’99, she was part of the first major survey of Asian American modernists active during the era of abstract expressionism, titled “Asian Traditions / Modern Expressions: Asian-American Artists and Abstraction 1945–1970” and organized by Jeffrey Wechsler, senior curator at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rugters University, New Jersey. She has had over 40 solo and group exhibitions, including a retrospective at the National Museum of History in Taipei in 2002, and “Chinese Modern Art: the Khoan and Michael Sullivan Collection” at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology at Oxford University. Most recently, she was part of the exhibition “Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West” at the Honolulu Museum of Art, which will be on view until January 21, 2018.

Julee WJ Chung is assistant editor of ArtAsiaPacific

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