Artist, poet, philanthropist, teacher, writer, and inventor Yun Gee (1906-1963) was the first Chinese-American artist to hold an important position in the history of Western contemporary art. Considered one of the great modernist avant-garde painters, Gee enjoys a number of other “firsts.” He was the first Chinese-born artist invited to join the Société des Artistes Indépendants; the first Chinese artist to display his work internationally; the first Chinese artist to show at MoMa; and the first Chinese artist to show in the salons of Paris. His art made frequent reference to his Chinese heritage either through form, style, or subject matter. He also developed his own signature style, Diamondism, which was derived from Cubism, and he promoted it through his art, writings, and teachings.
And from 1942 until his death in 1963, he had his home and studio in Greenwich Village, where he painted, taught, wrote, and invented.
Yun Gee (Gee Wing Yun) was born on February 22, 1906 in the province of Guangdong in China. In 1921 at age 15, he joined his father who was living in San Francisco. His father had obtained US citizenship by claiming that his American Citizenship records had been burned in the 1906 earthquake; this enabled Yun Gee to obtain his own citizenship.
He lived on the fringes of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and in 1925 enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), studying painting with Gottardo Piazzoni and Otis Oldfield, the latter of whom became a life-long friend. The following year he had his first solo show, and in that same year Yun Gee was among a group of artists including Oldfield who founded the Modern Gallery on Montgomery Street, which would eventually become the San Francisco Art Center. Also in that same year, he founded the Chinese Revolutionary Artists’ Club, where he taught advanced painting techniques and theory promoting the idea of a universalist modern art that had an aesthetic appeal and espoused a social consciousness.
Between 1926 and 1933, Gee explored a number of styles. One of his earliest paintings from this time was Where is my Mother (1926-1927) which was accompanied by a poem written by Gee. It was common for him to combine these two mediums in his work, art and poetry. Both clearly display his anguish at leaving his mother behind. The poem begins:
That mother of mine, how it tore my heart
To leave her across the sea,
I who was part of her –
She became all of me –
O, God, how could I speak?
Click HERE to see the rest of the poem
In 1927, with the support of the the Prince and Princess Achille Murat, patrons he had acquired while in San Francisco, Gee moved to Paris, settling in the Latin Quarter, and later moving to Montmarte. During this time, he became acquainted with such artists as Raymond Duncan and Paul Guillaume, and exhibited alongside them at the Salon des Indépendants. He also had a solo exhibit at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1929. His interactions weren’t only with artists; he also met many influential members of the Parisian avante-garde, such as Gertrude Stein and Ambrose Vollard. However, due to the Depression, he lost his patronage and moved to New York City in 1930.
During what would be his first stay in New York, which would last until 1936, his paintings were included in large group exhibitions at both the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1931 and the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. In 1931 he painted a 17 foot mural at Avenue K of a flooded part of China for the China Flood Relief Campaign. In spite of this, he struggled throughout the Depression and was not able to secure the patronage he had enjoyed in Paris. Although he had experienced racism in San Francisco and Paris, albeit less so in Paris, he was dismayed at the heightened racism while here. According to Gee:
… still floating from the reception and kindness of Paris, I came to New York…. Here the scene changed to indifference…. I was no longer an artist. I was an oriental from Chinatown… and I suppose the interpretation of such a person was that he was only a launderer or a restauranteur… and this was hardly the reception I expected in my own country. … the name for the Chinese in this city was “Charlie,” an unfair interpretation of the many distinguished Chinese families who aided in making America grow…. After dragging through this moral muck for five years, I decided to return to Paris.
He moved back to Paris in1936. During this second period in Paris, his work received much acclaim and was widely exhibited including at the Galerie Lion d’Or in Laussane and the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, and he had two major one-man exhibitions at the Galeri a la Reine Margo in Paris. However, the coming of World War II would cut short this time in Paris and he returned back to New York in 1939.
Upon returning to New York, he painted Three Graces showing three nude women, arms entwined set amidst a fantastical landscape with fantastical creatures. Illustrative of the political nature of some of his work, he completed Spirit of the Chinese Resistance in 1940. In that same year, he exhibited his works at a number of galleries, including at Temple’s exhibition galleries at 2 East 34th Street, showing 100 of his paintings in the Spring of 1940 and at the Montrose Gallery at 785 Fifth Avenue in December of 1940. As noted by the New York Sun of the latter exhibition, proceeds from the sale of the paintings would be forwarded to Chinese war relief.
In 1942, he married Helen Wimmer and the directory from that year shows him living at 51 East 10th Street, where he would remain until at least 1960. Helen would later become co-owner of the photograph gallery, Limelight from 1954 to 1961. They had a daughter, Li-Lan in 1943 who would go onto be an artist in her own right. During this time Gee would work during the day at a defense-industry company and paint at night, according to Wimmer. In 1944, his work was included in a group exhibition, “Portrait of America.” Also during this time, Gee taught classes here at 51 East 10th Street and wrote about his theory of Diamondism. This term refers to his signature style derived from Cubism and it is believed that he started to develop it as early as his San Francisco days. According to art historian Stephanie Buhmann:
Aiming to explain the intellectual, physical, and psychological coordinates of artistic creation, the latter focused on a rhythmic organization of edges and facets, as well as hot and cold color contrasts. In the late 1930s, Gee explained the need for developing “Diamondism” as follows: “Every sincere painting tries to find an adequate expression of its time, in expressing how people look at things and at what… Diamondism acts as a prism, a one-way glass. It is nothing but a medium, not a cause, but a power. It is up to the artist to use it. Up to the spectator as well…”
Gee’s home, 51 East 10th Street, a mid-19th century Italianate row house, is part of the area south of Union Square that Village Preservation has been working tirelessly towards getting designated as a historic district. Learn more HERE.
In 1943 Gee (1906-1963) staged an exhibition at the Milch Galleries on West 57th Street to raise funds for the Music Box Canteen. The Music Box Canteen, located at 68 Fifth Avenue, was a celebrated World War II entertainment venue for GIs described at the time as “one of the most famous metropolitan service centers, and…‘a home away from home’ to thousands of servicemen.” This was not his first exhibit to benefit the allied forces; he had held others, the proceeds of which went to the British and American Ambulance Corps.
His works and projects during what would be the latter part of his life are just as interesting as the earlier part of his life. Here are a few works based in New York including one that depicts the fire at Wanamakers formally located on the block that is presently occupied by the apartment building Stewart House at Wanamaker Place, Broadway, East 10th Street, and Fourth Avenue.
Gee was also an inventor who designed a four-dimensional chess game. He received a patent in 1950 for a tongue and lip holding device “for aiding correct English speech.” There was even a report by a few periodicals from the time of his plans started in 1946 for a project of a tunnel to the moon which apparently he started in his own backyard in 1949. The projected cost was $9,000,000 and as reported in 1949, he was had not gotten any financial backers to that date.
In 1963, Gee passed and as reported by The Daily News in 1964, Velma Aydelott, his companion in the last part of his life (he and Wimmer divorced in 1947) was acting as caretaker of his art in their Greenwich Village apartment.