January 13, 2013

OF ALL MY regrets — and I have my share — the one that still nags at me in the wee, wee hours of the morning concerns the late master watercolorist, Chen Chi. Since I wrote a Memoriam on Chi in September 2005, I keep running through my mind an offer he once made to me that I unfortunately had to refuse. Ever since I first met Chi in 1989 when I interviewed him for a Profile for our pages, that initial meeting had quickly blossomed into a friendship that lasted until his death in China at the age of 93. We often took walks in New York City — both in the vicinities of his home (Washington Square) and study (Gramercy Park, at The National Arts Club) as well as to one of his favorite restaurants in Chinatown — during which Chi would ruminate on art and philosophize on life. One time, during one of our “dim sum” luncheons (at which I always left all the ordering up to him), I tasted something that was exceptionally good and asked Chi what it was. He looked up at me and asked, “You like it?” When I emphatically nodded my head, he said, “Eat it!” and went back to his meal. That was Chi! —I could only smile at his usual pragmatism. I grew to look forward to our lunches and jaunts and Chi’s thoughts and it was on one of these meanderings that I floated the idea of writing his biography. In addition to the Profile (and the Memoriam), I had also written a review of his work in 1991 at the (now defunct) Connoisseur Gallery in Rhinebeck, NY, and about attending the opening of his museum in 1999 (The Chen Chi Art Museum) at the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai for ART TIMES, as well as several additional essays on Chi’s works as introductions to various books and pamphlets that were published over the years — thus a full biography came to my mind. We did not pursue the idea for some time and when the Chinese government wooed Chi back to China by building a Museum not only dedicated to his work and person (they wanted him to be a showpiece as “Master Artist in Residence”), but also with built-in apartments to serve as a home for him and his wife and with a guest room to accommodate visitors — this was an offer Chi could not refuse — so off he went, back to his native country (Chi, incidentally, came from Wuxi, a small town not far from Shanghai and which I visited while attending the Museum’s Grand Opening). While he was in the process of moving, Chi proposed that I come to live with him for a year in China (“all expenses paid”) where, in his words, we could “paint the clouds and hills all over the country” during which time, he added, I could discuss and write his biography. Stunned by the generosity of his offer I was immediately tempted, but there was no way I was able to spend a whole year away from my obligations to ART TIMES — and so, to my nagging regret, I had to turn him down. I can only imagine the sights, adventures, and excitement that I had to turn my back on. My decision to pass-up that opportunity still haunts me. It was not long after his proposal that Chi passed away, a hero to his country, and a very great loss to me — with no way of ever getting over my regret of not spending that year in his company.