Tseng Kwong Chi, an “Ambiguous Ambassador” to Life in America
The New Yorker, June 23, 2019
By Brian Dillon
On an evening in December, 1980, the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi gate-crashed the party of the year: the gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the opening night of “The Manchu Dragon,” an exhibition (organized by Diana Vreeland) of Chinese costume from the Qing dynasty. Tseng used a medium-format camera to photograph the arriving guests. An era’s tony milieu pauses, flash-lit: an amused Yves Saint-Laurent, Halston in high spirits, a quizzical William F. Buckley. Nancy Kissinger turns up in the same Adolfo dress as two other women—but nobody looks embarrassed. Tseng himself is also in the pictures, grinning away beside his subjects, with a cable release in his hand. And he is dressed, as he frequently is in his dandy-conceptualist art, in a plain gray “Mao suit,” which reads here as a laconic visual rejoinder to the exhibit’s lavish Orientalism.
Andy Warhol was among the celebrities Tseng importuned at the Met, and there is something of Warhol’s nineteen-sixties self-invention in Tseng’s cultivation of an unvarying image, a mask that made the most of his outsider station. But Tseng’s art is emphatically of the eighties. He is best known for—that is, a little obscured by—his documenting, in more than twenty-five thousand photographs, the work of his friend Keith Haring. (One such photo, and more of Tseng’s work, is currently on view as part of the exhibit “Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989,” at the Grey Art Gallery, at N.Y.U.)