Wong Keen



Wong Keen (b. 1942, Singapore–)1 is a painter largely considered to be the first Singapore artist working in the abstract style2 and known for his frequent utilisation of a controlled “drip and flow” painting technique.3 His works incorporate both American abstract expressionism and traditional Chinese calligraphy, while frequently employing Asian symbolism.4

Early life and education
Wong was born in Singapore in 1942. His mother Chu Hen-Ai, a calligrapher as well as a teacher at Nanyang Girls’ High School, influenced Wong’s early artistic inclinations.5 In an interview with daily broadsheet The Straits Times, Wong recounted that his mother discovered his talent at the age of 11 when she saw him replicating some illustrations from a magazine.6


Between 1956 and 1960, Wong was tutored by local painters Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi, pioneer artists of the Nanyang style of art, studying drawing and oil painting from Liu and Chen respectively. Liu and Chen were also colleagues of Wong’s father in The Chinese High School.7

At the age of 19, Wong held his first exhibition in July 1961, at the then newly opened National Library on Stamford Road.8 All 75 of his paintings exhibited were sold, and the funds used to finance his studies in the United States.9

The same year, Wong moved to New York, where he enrolled in the Art Students League of New York.10 The school’s alumni include international artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as well as Singapore’s Cultural Medallion recipient Georgette Chen.11 During his early years in New York, Wong stayed in a loft apartment with three other budding Singapore artists, Goh Beng Kwan, Choey Kwok Kay and Yu Tien Cheu. The foursome, former classmates at The Chinese High School, studied at the Art Students League together.12


There, he was hugely influenced by the American school of abstract expressionism, which typically involves paint dripped onto canvas to express emotion – a style with which he has since been closely associated.13 The Art Students League awarded Wong the Ford Foundation Grant in 1963; two years later, he clinched the Edward McDowell Travelling Scholarship, which led him to spend a year studying at London’s then Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1966.14

Sidney Gross, Wong’s teacher at the Art Students League, praised his works as being “lyrical, extremely suggestive and filled with a special sensitivity”. Gross added that the traditional Chinese influences were very “beautifully integrated” even though the works were “quite abstract and informal”.15

Career
In April 1963, Wong held his maiden solo show in New York City at the Bridge Gallery, followed by another from February to March 1964 at the Westerly Gallery. The shows were said to be well received by the public and art critics, and enhanced his reputation as an abstract painter who incorporated traditional Chinese art elements in his works.16


Upon his return to New York from Europe, Wong held a solo show at the Art Students League.17 Between 1966 and 1967, Wong also had brief stints as an art instructor and then as an art director in the United States.18 While spending the majority of the next three decades in America, he continued to present his works at exhibitions and at one point also ran his own gallery in New York with his wife.19 The latter, however, was abandoned in 1996 as he found it difficult to juggle being an artist and a gallery owner.20

In 1995, Wong returned to Singapore to select works by seven local artists for an exhibition in his New York gallery, held the following year between March and April. The exhibiting artists included Chng Seok Tin, Choy Weng Yang, Goh Ee Choo, Goh Beng Kwan and Yeo Kim Seng. Wong had lamented that Singapore art had “little to no" presence in New York City despite the thriving art scene there, and thus decided to curate such a show.21

In 1996, he held a solo show at Singapore’s Takashimaya Gallery, featuring more than 50 of his works spanning over three decades from the 1960s. The exhibition, After Thirty-five Years in New York, was his second in Singapore, and the 13th in his career.22 The retrospective exhibition demonstrated Wong’s stylistic influences, from abstract expressionism to an integration of Chinese painting and calligraphy.23

Just a year later, Wong held another exhibition in Singapore. Shown at Shenn’s Fine Art, the show featured his “Lotuscapes” series of nature abstractions, as well as sketches and paintings influenced by his travels in Java, Bali and Thailand in 1996. The exhibition also included a series of “Court Lady” paintings, which depict faceless female Chinese opera figures. Many of the works were presented in a series of blocks or sections, producing a collage effect of juxtaposed images.24

In 2006, the Singapore Art Museum added to its permanent collection 63 of Wong’s paintings, donated by architect Koh Seow Chuan.25 This collection includes works featuring Wong’s recurring motifs of the female nude and the lotus. Of his fascination with the lotus, Wong has said that the lotus “has its own spirit” and that it provides an artist with “strong forms”, which, according to Wong, is what all artists are attempting to capture.26 Contrary to traditional nude paintings, Wong tends to abstract the female figure in his paintings by portraying it in a two-dimensional form and hence imbuing it with a “sense of flatness”. In some of his nude paintings, the backgrounds are given more prominence than the female body; the latter, as a result, becomes a landscape, “the contours of the body signifying undulating plains”.27

In March 2007, these paintings were showcased in an exhibition titled Wong Keen: A Singapore Abstract Expressionist at the Singapore Art Museum. It included his notable paintings such as “Metropolis” (1997), a five-panel depiction of urban Singapore, and “Sunday at Noon Singapore” (2006), a group portrait of nine local artists gathered around a table in a food centre in Clementi.28

Later that year, as part of Singapore Season 2007, Wong’s works were shown at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. Titled Encounters and Journeys: Singapore Artists, the group show also included works by Chen Wen Hsi and Goh Beng Kwan.29

More recently, between May and June 2015, 28 of his paintings, including the “Flesh” series which is based on the form of raw meat, were put up for sale as part of a fundraising event for independent art space, The Substation. The most expensive work, costing S$40,000, featured in the exhibition was from the “Flesh” series.30

Wong is currently based in California and travels frequently to Beijing and Singapore, where he works from his studio in Bukit Batok.31



Author

Roberta Balagopal



References
1. Ma, P. (n.d.). Biography. Retrieved Wong Keen website: http://www.wongkeen.com/biography
2. Tan, H. S. R. (2015, May 22). Artist Wong Keen marches to his own drumbeat. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
3. Oon, C. (1998, August 6). Tilt the paper to let the paint overlap. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Kwok, K. C., & Ong, Z. M. (2007). Wong Keen: A Singapore chapter to abstract expressionism. In Wong Keen: A Singapore abstract expressionist: An exhibition of donated works by Mr & Mrs Koh Seow Chuan. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 WON)
5. Leong, W. K. (1997, July 7). Like mother, like son, at calligraphy show. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Leong, W. K. (1996, August 3). Artist comes back with his report card after 35 years. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
7. Leong, W. K. (1996, August 3). Artist comes back with his report card after 35 years. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Artist’s show. (1961, July 3). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. S’pore artist wins praise in U.S. (1965, March 21). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Oon, C. (1998, August 6). Tilt the paper to let the paint overlap. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tan, H. S. R. (2015, May 22). Artist Wong Keen marches to his own drumbeat. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Chia, A. (2007, March 8). Home is where the art is. The Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Oon, C. (2003, October 17). Tour de force. The Straits Times, p. L8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Wong, S. (1996, August 3). Wong yet to explore insights that are uniquely his. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Ma, P. (n.d.). Biography. Retrieved Wong Keen website: http://www.wongkeen.com/biography; S’pore artist wins travel scholarship. (1965, June 9). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. S’pore artist wins praise in U.S. (1965, March 21). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. S’pore artist wins praise in U.S. (1965, March 21). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. S’pore artist wins travel scholarship. (1965, June 9). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Ma, P. (n.d.). Biography. Retrieved Wong Keen website: http://www.wongkeen.com/biography
19. Sit, Y. F. (1995, October 13). Seven Singapore artists to exhibit in New York. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
20. Munroe, B. (1997, August 15). Something old, something new. The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Sheares, C. (1997). Lotus figures: Recent works by Wong Keen. Singapore: Shenn’s Fine Art, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 WON)
21. Sit, Y. F. (1995, October 13). Seven Singapore artists to exhibit in New York. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Leong, W. K. (1996, August 3). Artist comes back with his report card after 35 years. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Wong, S. (1996, August 3). Wong yet to explore insights that are uniquely his. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Sheares, C. (1997). Lotus figures: Recent works by Wong Keen. Singapore: Shenn’s Fine Art, pp. 2–3, 5. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 WON)
25. Koh, T. (2007). Foreword. In Wong Keen: A Singapore abstract expressionist: An exhibition of donated works by Mr & Mrs Koh Seow Chuan. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 WON)
26. Sian, E. J. (1998, July 17). An artist’s fascination with lotuses. The Business Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Kwok, K. C., & Ong, Z. M. (2007). Wong Keen: A Singapore chapter to abstract expressionism. In Wong Keen: A Singapore abstract expressionist: An exhibition of donated works by Mr & Mrs Koh Seow Chuan. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 17. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 WON)
28. Wong, K. (2007). Wong Keen: A Singapore abstract expressionist: An exhibition of donated works by Mr & Mrs Koh Seow Chuan. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 26–27, 30–31. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 WON)
29. Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (2007, July 5). Singapore Season 2007 to open in Beijing and Shanghai [Press release]. Retrieved from Ministry of Communications and Information website: http://www.mci.gov.sg/web/corp/press-room/categories/press-releases/content/singapore-season-2007-to-open-in-beijing-and-shanghai
30. Tan, H. S. R. (2015, May 22). Artist Wong Keen marches to his own drumbeat. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
31. Tan, H. S. R. (2015, May 22). Artist Wong Keen marches to his own drumbeat. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/


Further resources

Chew, D. (2007, March 14). The artist laid bare. Today, p. 46. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Sian, E. J. (2003, October 21). Pioneering art. Today, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 21 September 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.

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Arts