Photographer Tseng Kwong Chi: The Ultimate Tourist

Photographer Tseng Kwong Chi: The Ultimate Tourist

Tseng Kwong Chi, "Niagara Falls, New York," 1984, from the East Meets West series. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

There are any number of reasons to see Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera, the first museum retrospective of the artist/photographer, on view at New York University's Grey Art Gallery thru Jul. 11. 

Social historians will relish his insider snaps of New York in the 1980s, starring the A list of that era: Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Kenny Scharf, Philip Taaffe, Ann Magnuson and others. Haring famously painted dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones' naked body, and Tseng was there recording it on film. Professionally, he went on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler. But in some ways, Tseng lived for the night. He was a party boy, a club kid, who moved easily and effortlessly from a Metropolitan Museum of Art gala (which he crashed) to a lifeguards ball in Wildwood, New Jersey, to an after-hours club in Brooklyn. Tseng was no snob. He might comment—he got a beaming William F. Buckley to pose for his camera—but in no way did he thump the table or hit the spectator over the head with his political views. He was a sly fox.

Wherever Tseng went, his camera went. And that meant around the world. Dressed in a Mao suit, which helped establish an identity as a foreigner in a foreign land, Tseng would take self-portraits for his East Meets West and Expeditionary Series against sweeping, iconic backdrops. The Eiffel Tower. Niagara Falls. The Twin Towers. His ever-present sunglasses in these large black-and-whites created an inscrutable persona. Or did he just not want to squint? He's a master of play, but in a benign, delightful way.

Tseng may have performed in front of the camera, but he never pretended to be anyone other than who he was: a cosmopolitan Chinese man, born in Hong Kong, brought up in Canada, educated in Paris and, for the last decade of his life, resident in Manhattan. One wonders in what direction(s) he would have gone had he not died of AIDS at 39.

For an overview of Tseng's work, see slide show below.

Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, 212.998.6780, www.nyu.edu/greyart. Tues, Thurs-Fri 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wed 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $3 suggested donation. The exhibition opened April 21 and runs thru July 11.

After New York, the exhibition travels to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia (Aug. 18-Dec. 13, 2015), the Tufts University Art Gallery at the Shirley and Alex Aidekman Arts Center (Jan. 21-May 22, 2016) and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University (Sept. 17-Dec. 11, 2016).