Wen C. Fong, a renowned scholar who helped the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York build one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Asian art, died on Oct. 3 in Princeton, N.J. He was 88.
His wife, Constance Tang Fong, said the cause was leukemia.
A leading figure in the history of Chinese art, Professor Fong taught for 40 years at Princeton University, where in the 1950s he established the nation’s first doctoral degree program in Chinese art and archaeology.
Beginning in the early 1970s he was a driving force behind the Met’s ambitious effort to expand its collection of Asian art, including masterworks from China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and India, and add space in which to display it.
He counseled art collectors and philanthropists like Brooke Astor and Arthur M. Sackler, and persuaded the Met’s director at the time, Thomas Hoving, and the president of its board of trustees, the financier C. Douglas Dillon, to acquire a trove of ancient and modern art works from leading American collectors of Asian art, including C. C. Wang and John M. Crawford Jr.
Those efforts brought to the Met an enviable collection of Asian art — hanging scrolls, ancient bronzes, silk tapestries, Chinese paintings dating to the eighth century and more.
An immigrant who came to the United States at age 18, on the eve of the Communist takeover in China, Professor Fong earned a Ph.D at Princeton and then gained a reputation for being an empire builder, first at the Princeton University Art Museum and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He educated and mentored a generation of Chinese art scholars, many of them now in posts at leading American universities and art museums. He curated some of the biggest exhibitions of Asian art at the Met, including “Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” in 1996 and “The Great Bronze Age of China.”
He also wrote, edited or contributed to more than a dozen books about Chinese art, including his seminal work, “Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century,” which was jointly published by the Met and Yale University Press.
Wen Fong was born in 1930 in Shanghai. His father owned a dry goods store. Wen took to art as a boy, even as chaos enveloped his city during the Japanese occupation in World War II and the civil war that brought the Communists to power.
Tutored at home, he was given a classical Chinese education, at one time by the well-known calligrapher and scholar Li Jian. By age 10 he was giving public exhibitions of his calligraphy.
Resisting his parents’ wish that he study science, he decided to pursue his interest in art by leaving for the United States to study at Princeton. There he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in medieval European art history and a Ph.D in art history, with a focus on ancient China.
His doctoral work became the basis for his first book, “The Lohans and a Bridge to Heaven,” a study of two Chinese scrolls hanging at the Freer Gallery in Washington that he identified as belonging to a famous Sung dynasty set of 100 depicting the Buddhist deities known as Lohans.
At Princeton, Professor Fong educated generations of students in connoisseurship, teaching them how to examine objects closely. To him, that meant not paging through old books and viewing slides or photographs but encountering the actual works of art, getting a feel for their texture, contours and brush strokes, and then contemplating their meaning and power.
“He’d unroll a scroll on a table and just sit there like a Zen master and say: ‘The object is always right. You’ve got to see what it’s trying to tell you,’” recalled Maxwell K. Hearn, who studied under Professor Fong at Princeton and is now chairman of the Asian art department at the Met.
Professor Fong and a colleague, Frederick W. Mote, set up the nation’s first doctoral program in Chinese art and archaeology at Princeton in 1959.
To deepen his own appreciation of art, Professor Fong was a faculty curator at the Princeton University Art Museum in the 1960s, which he described as a “laboratory” for his study of ancient forms. He organized special exhibitions and helped the museum strengthen its holdings of photography and Asian art. Among its major acquisitions during that time was the John B. Elliott Collection of Chinese Calligraphy, widely considered one of the finest collections of ancient calligraphy outside of Asia.
Then, in 1971, on the eve of President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China, the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked Professor Fong to help revamp and upgrade its Asian art collection. At the time, the Met’s Asian holdings were narrow and hardly notable, consisting mainly of jade, a few prized ceramics, and Buddhist sculptures and Japanese prints.
Over the next 30 years, as a special consultant to the Met, Professor Fong helped build one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art and antiquities in the world.
A man of boundless energy, he hired new Asian specialists at the Met, including Mr. Hearn; he tutored the Met’s board on landmark pieces from Chinese history that might be acquired; and he negotiated with collectors on loaning, donating or selling their works to the museum.
Rather than pursue one piece at a time, Professor Fong often sought to acquire large portions or even entire holdings from a collector. At his urging, for instance, in 1973 the Met acquired 25 Chinese paintings dating from the 11th to 14th centuries from Mr. Wang, a New York collector. It also obtained the 421 works in the Harry C. Packard Collection of Japanese Art, which included some of the finest in the United States; the John M. Crawford Jr. Collection of Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy; and 19th- and 20th-century Chinese paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection.
Among the most notable pieces now at the Met are “Riverbank,” a colossal Southern Tang dynasty scroll attributed to the 10th-century painter Dong Yuan, and “Summer Mountains,” a Song dynasty landscape painting. Some scholars questioned the authenticity of “Riverbank,” but Professor Fong insisted that it was the real thing, a masterpiece of Chinese painting.
Many of the purchases were financed by the Met or the Dillon Fund, a foundation set up by Mr. Dillon, a Wall Street financier and longtime museum trustee and benefactor who was Treasury secretary under President John F. Kennedy.
In 1979, Professor Fong traveled to China with Ms. Astor, another trustee, to conduct research for a new project. Along with Mr. Hearn, Professor Fong had conceived the idea of creating an indoor version of a Chinese scholar’s garden at the Met. It was built with the help of Ms. Astor’s money and is now the Astor Chinese Garden Court.
By the time Professor Fong retired from the Met, in 2000, his imprint was on everything from conservation and the planning of exhibitions, to the more than 50 permanent galleries that are now devoted to displaying Asian art.
In addition to his wife, Professor Fong is survived by three children, Laurence, Peter and Serena; and two grandchildren.