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Published: Saturday, 10/26/2002

800 years of Chinese masterworks


Art lovers are traveling north these days for a good dose of frou-frou Impressionism at theDetroit Institute of Arts. But wise wanderers will go west from there, for Ann Arbor offers a delicious, astringent palate cleanser after all that French eye candy.

“Masterworks of Chinese Painting: In Pursuit of Mists and Clouds” is 60 exquisite works that span 800 years, drawn from one of the finest private collections in North America. It's at least the equal of the Detroit show.

It's smaller, more easily digested, and much more affordable for families - admission is free at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

It may not have the kidappeal of ballerinas and footlights, but parents can set the little ones searching the long, skinny silk or paper scrolls, looking for the tiny people and animals that inevitably inhabit each massive, twisting landscape. (My family, dragged to endless exhibits through the years, calls this game `Where's Wu Po?')

Meantime, parents can peruse the development of Chinese landscape painting, starting with darksome panels dating to the 13th century, miracles of preservation. Even though they're smoky with age, these may be the finest tribute to James Cahill, a Michigan alumnus and University of California Berkeley professor who sought, bought, and preserved them.

Remarkably, he used his invaluable collection and hands-on style to teach his students the fine points of scroll-unrolling, fraud-detecting, and distinctions between inks used in Yuag, Ming, and Ch'ing periods.

This show has a distinctly natural focus, with the accent on monumental landscapes both vertical and horizontal. It's a fast-forward trip through the art history of a great civilization. Shifting empires, regional and religious influences come and go, and the focus of figures, twisting trees, waterfall ribbons, and rocky mountains evolves, too.

Summer Trees Casting Shade, a six-foot, 15th-century masterwork, is as serene as its title suggests. The Pleasures of Fishermen, an idealized view of waterborne families frolicking, drinking, and dangling their feet in the water, is an Eastern version of Romantic-period French shepherdesses and shepherds.

As time moves on, the pictures sharpen and clarify; the details become captivating: A deep cave mouth bristles with stalagmites in The Temple Mount Chih-p'ing, painted in 1516. Buildings on Immortal Mountains uses a fabulous sort of black-and-white Pointillism, 300 years before Seurat.

For those who love such things, there are examples of Chinese bird-and-flower painting dating to an exquisite 12th century Flowers and Butterfly, right up to Apples, a breathtaking bit of minimalism dated 1960. Figure painting is given a cursory glance; one hopes the museum is saving this vast subject for a future show.

After all the detailed tree leaves and caves and clouds, lines going from bold, strong Expressionism to tiny, incised miniatures, it's refreshing to reach the later centuries, when colors grow stronger and movement takes center stage. One picture in particular is worth the trip: Hua Yen's 18th century Brush Fire with Animals Fleeing. It's pure movement, fast strokes of ink and color, left-to-right up the page.

And it's not all China in Ann Arbor. In an adjacent gallery are 20 Japanese works directly influenced by the Chinese masters.

Next door, “The New York School: Abstract Expressionism and Beyond” is a brief, intense look at a seminal American art movement, with paintings and sculptures drawn from the university's collection. Artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ad Reinhardt are on show.

The finishing touch is Mexico: a small gallery features “Artistas de la Gento,” bold prints by 20th-century social activist/propagandists like Orozco, Mendez, Siqueiros, and Posada, the man whose Calavera de la Catrina, a smiling skull in a fancy hat, is beloved of Grateful Dead fans everywhere.

The museum is at 525 South State Street on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Information: www.umich.edu/umma/.

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