Not so Abstract: Re-considering the 1981 Exhibition of Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Nancy Berliner is the Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. She additionally serves as an advisor to the World Monuments Fund’s Qianlong Garden conservation project at the Forbidden City in Beijing. She was previously curator of Chinese Art at the Peabody Essex Museum where she spearheaded the Yin Yu Tang 蔭餘堂 house project. Nancy is the author of numerous books, articles and exhibition catalogues including her latest publication, The Emperor’s Private Paradise. The following essay, an expanded version of a talk that Nancy gave at a workshop on aspirations in 1980s’ China organised by the Australian Centre on China in the World, 18-19 February, offers a fascinating insight into one little-known aspect of ‘the American story in China’.—The Editors.


On the timeline of contemporary art in China, the 1981 exhibition of paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – which included the first foreign abstract paintings to be shown in China – was a cultural turning point that heralded new aesthetics for China’s artists. In re-considering that moment, however, the abstract art that appeared so devoid of explicit content can also be seen as carrying political flags.

In 1979, under the Jimmy Carter administration, the United States established formal relations with the People’s Republic of China. Soon after that a bilateral accord was signed between the two countries that foresaw cultural exchange projects including an exhibition of works that would travel from a US museum to be exhibited in China.

Central Academy of Art Oil Painting department in front of the MFA Jackson Pollack painting at the Meishuguan 1981

Central Academy of Art Oil Painting department in front of the MFA Jackson Pollack painting at the Meishuguan, 1981

That accord resulted in fifty-eight paintings coming from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that were exhibited at the Zhongguo Meishuguan 中国美术馆 (now called in English NAMOC or the National Art Museum of China) in Beijing for one month and at the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai for a second month. It was the first time paintings from America had come to be publicly exhibited in China. (There had previously been exhibits from Europe and Australia.) As most Chinese artists over the age of fifty-five will easily recall, the exhibition was a resounding success. The exhibition received six to seven thousand visitors a day. According to a State Department official, the 30,000 exhibition catalogues that had been printed sold out within the first week. According to a report at the time by Li Juanlin, Deputy Director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Cultural Affairs Bureau painting academies, institutes and museum groups came from all over China, including Xinjiang, to see the exhibit. One artist, he noted, came every day, morning and afternoon, for the first fifteen days of the exhibit. Random discussions with artists today immediately elicit smiles and warm memories of seeing mind-changing artworks for the first time.

What were all these visitors looking at and why were they so excited? The fifty-eight works included works by some America’s finest artists: John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer and James Whistler. There were also twentieth-century figures such as Milton Avery and Marsden Hartley. Even more unusual was the inclusion of works by 20th century abstract expressionists including Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski.

Like any project, there were a few bumps in the process of getting the paintings from the Boston on to the walls of the Meishuguan. Most notable was the dilemma of the twelve abstract and expressionist works, the first ever from the US or Europe that were to be publicly exhibited in the People’s Republic of China. Upon the arrival of the containers, Chinese officials announced that thirteen paintings could not be displayed – the abstract expressionist works and one nude. The Americans were insistent. The Chinese were firm. A week of tense negotiations ensued during which Jan Fontein, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, was said to have put down his foot and said, in effect, all or nothing. The Chinese eventually agreed and the full exhibit went forward. And, as many would say, the rest is history. Many artists today mark that exhibition as an enlightening landmark in their personal thoughts about art and all its possibilities.

Studying the MFA’s Helen Frankenthaler painting at the Meishuguan  1981

Studying the MFA’s Helen Frankenthaler painting at the Meishuguan, 1981

The story of this exhibition could be easily be perceived as a simple tale of freedom of expression triumphing over state-controlled aesthetics and the beginning of a new chapter for Chinese art. There is perhaps – and I stress perhaps – another angle from which the exhibition can be viewed. Just as the Chinese government since 1949 had a specific agenda in regards to art, played out in social realism, so did the United States.

In Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War,[1] author Frances Stonor Saunders recounts the intervention of the CIA in the arts during the 1950s, the era of anti-Communist McCarthyism. The book reveals that the CIA, through various organizations promoted abstract art and pressured for a reduction in the display of figurative art displayed. Much of the figurative work of the time was seen to express political content and appeared to be too sympathetic with Communism. Abstract art, on the other hand, did not portend to have any political motives. When the government funded art exhibitions were sent to Europe to enlighten audiences there about American culture, abstract art – intended to be a direct contrast with Soviet social realism – was a chosen propagator of American culture.

Interestingly, more than two decades later, the American government continued the same direction, sending abstract art to a Communist country as a political message. An article written by Meredith Palmer offers interesting background to the Beijing exhibition.[2] In 1981, Palmer was working at the U.S. International Communications Agency (USICA, which had previously been the USIA, and after 1982 was again called the USIA), the office, as she explains, ‘responsible for enlisting museums to assemble art exhibitions that would be presented overseas, creating cultural links and displaying art that would “tell America’s story”.’ This agency initiated the sending of the artworks from the Museum of Fine Arts, and sponsored and funded the exhibition. Currently, Palmer is working on a documentary film on the exhibition and its effects on Chinese art, and interviewing artists today who saw it almost thirty-five years ago. In her article recounting the development of the 1981 exhibition, she describes how her office first considered sending an exhibition of native American art and then decided instead ‘on the survey approach, but with a strong emphasis on contemporary abstract painting.’ She continues on to explain that ‘[W]e hoped to inspire the Chinese artists and members of the public who had never seen original American painting of any kind and, through the most current works, to underscore free artistic expression.’ This penchant for ‘free’-dom was repeated by Chief Justice Warren Burger who also attended the opening ceremonies of the exhibition, saying: ‘It is the American spirit of freedom that is represented by this exhibit. The works of art in this exhibition express the American spirit of freedom in which each person can write, paint and do whatever he wants as long as it does not violate the Constitution.’

Billboard outside Meishuguan advertising the Boston Museum of Fine Arts 1981 exhibition

Billboard outside Meishuguan advertising the Boston Museum of Fine Arts 1981 exhibition

One wonders if the Chinese officials who at first refused to hang the abstract paintings sensed a political agenda from the U.S. government? The employment of the abstract art to make political pronouncements does not in any way diminish the effects or importance of the exhibition. Nor does it diminish the good contributions of the curators, or the beauty of artists’ works. Palmer’s straightforward account, however, considered in conjunction with the Saunders book, is nice food for thought on the less-than-purely aesthetic motivations behind the momentous exhibition.



[1] Frances Stonor Saunders. Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta Books, 1999.
[2] Meredith Palmer ‘When public policy made a difference: American paintings in China in 1981,’ Washington Post, December 23, 2011.