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Barron's Hirshhorn Acquires 141 Chinese Contemporary Photographs From Collector Larry Warsh

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has officially acquired 141 photographs by 20 Chinese contemporary artists gifted by collector and publisher Larry Warsh, the Washington, D.C., institution announced on Wednesday. 

Warsh’s gift, of images created from 1993 to 2006, formed the bulk of “A Window Suddenly Opens: Contemporary Photography in China,” an exhibition of 186 works made through 2022 that was on view at the museum this past fall through Jan. 7. 

“The breadth of his gift of experimental photography is unprecedented in the Hirshhorn’s almost 50-year history,” Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, said in a news release.

The seeds for the gift—first promised in October 2022—were planted in 2004, when Warsh visited several artist studios during an Asia Society trip to China that was led by Chiu, who was then the director of the Asia Society Museum. 

Warsh had collected art from China before the trip, but “that helped cement things,” he says. “It gave me a better understanding of artists and how they live and how they work, and also the sense of China in terms of its stage, where it was, because it was changing.” 

Throughout his career, Warsh, has juggled lots of projects, mostly in publishing, and he has been a constant collector, focusing on artists who he viewed as representing the energy of an era or a decade and then amassing works in depth. He was an early and “intuitive” buyer of art by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, and later collected works by Ai Wei-Wei, KAWS, and others.

“My collecting style has been very focused and passionate, always, but it was based on accumulating bodies of work—not one of this, one of that—because I had to feel something, anticipate something,” he says. 

Warsh’s publishing projects include his –Isms series that give voice to artists in short texts with titles such as Wei-Wei-ism, or more recently, Judy Chicago-isms. He also published Jean-Michael Basquiat: The Notebooks in 2015, which was drawn from his collection and exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that same year. Among several other projects he does as “a labor of love,” is Jing Daily, a digital publication about Chinese luxury trends, and he founded AW Asia in 2007 to promote Chinese contemporary art. 

The Hirshhorn gift includes works by the artists Cui Xiuwen, Rong Rong, Song Dong, Zhang Huan, and Zhang Peili, among others, who, the Hirshhorn said in the news release, “employed photography to instantly record their responses to new ideas of identity, sexuality, and consumerism against the rapidly changing social, cultural, and urban Chinese landscape for audiences in and outside the country.” 

The period Warsh collected opens in the aftermath of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, a time when China was opening up under the leadership of Jiang Zemin. Document photography was “reborn,” at this moment, followed by art photography, which “had been absent during the Mao years,” Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, said in an interview with Chiu published in the catalog for “A Window Suddenly Opens.”