A Museum

  • Hung Liu

In 1991 my San Francisco dealer, Rena Bransten, purchased a painting of mine and donated it to the San José Museum of Art (SJMA). I had been in the Bay Area about a year, a newly hired professor at Mills College in Oakland. Though my career was picking up, museums seemed out of reach to me—I could visit them, but I had no thought of seeing my own works there hanging next to those of so many great and famous artists. When Rena invited me to visit SJMA and see the painting she’d donated, I was pleased but also curious to see what it would look like in an actual museum.

It looked good.

In fact, it looked better than it had in my studio. Called A Tale of Two Women (1991), it depicts a wealthy Chinese woman sitting at a dressing table having her hair brushed by a servant who stands behind her, both women looking into a mirror. In a reversal of mobility, the upper-class woman had tiny bound feet, while the servant’s feet are naturally sized. Somehow, seeing the painting in the Museum formalized the relationship between the two women, the way a shrine might. Their “tale” was clearer too: rich and poor, yes, but also made equal in front of an audience, which suddenly included me. A museum frames an artist’s work in elaborate ways—as architecture, in space, socially—setting it apart from the more private, organic processes of the studio and claiming it from the artist’s imagination on behalf of the museum-going public. When I first saw A Tale of Two Women on public view at SJMA I felt I was seeing it for the first time.

But not the last.

Since then, the Museum has continued to collect my works, and now it maintains one of the largest collections in the nation. Of course, I am grateful. More than that, though, I am proud that such an institution has seen fit to collect my works in depth, since a museum is where an artist can see the full range of her practice. Paintings are produced in the studio as mostly a private matter. In a museum they come to life in relation to other art by other artists, and by engaging an increasingly diverse public audience. They find their place in the public imagination.

They are home.

By donating an early painting to the SJMA, Rena started a decades-long gathering of paintings from across my career that, in retrospect, was prescient. Looking back, I know that I am home too.