Dr Yoon Pooi Kong is an unsung collector in the world of local art.
THERE is nothing that smells better than a treasured art collection. Just ask scientist Dr Yoon Pooi Kong. He can boast an art collection – mostly from the 1960s to the 1980s – that has such a musky reverence.
As Dr Yoon regaled us about how he came to build his collection in the talk, A Scientist’s Funny Walk In The World Of Art, at the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday, it was evident that Dr Yoon is a quiet squirrel type. The talk was followed by a mini exhibition – a sampling – of the works in his collection.
“I collect paintings, not ‘names’,” he mentioned during his talk which was well-attended by art enthusiasts and students.
Dr Yoon, who is also the chairman of MIA’s board of directors, revealed that he collected what he liked and could afford. For someone ingrained in the cold hard facts and scientific truths, Dr Yoon finds himself lulled into the dalliance of lines, dots, drips and quirkiness. And gorgeous colours.
He has been a scientist and researcher for more than 30 years, but art collecting has been a major part of his life.
When he started his collection, Dr Yoon recalled steering away from the big “names”. Yet, by “happy coincidences” through the years, he managed to own some of the big names in local art.
The politics of art prices these days is something that amuses him. Back then he chose to build his collection wisely by getting to the heart of the art community.
It’s strange that Dr Yoon was not even a blip on the radar of collectors during those golden days of art collecting.
Most people would be more familiar with pioneering collectors here like Tan Sri P.G. Lim, Zain Azahari, Datuk Kington Loo, Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat, Tan Sri Kamarul Ariffin – to name a few. Yet, Dr Yoon has a collection that truly stands out.
He has works by Chen Wen Hsi, Chung Chen Sun, Li Chi Mao, Ding Yang Yong (dubbed the Oriental Matisse), Yong Mun Sen, David Kwo Da-Wei, Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Laxman Pai and even two small surrealist-bent drawings (19.5cm x 17cm) by Zulkifli Dahalan.
Dr Yoon was with the Rubber Research Institute Malaysia for 36 years. He retired in 1993. The 76-year-old is also a consultant to the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organisation (United Nations) and European Union. He has been on the MIA board of directors since 1978 and is its current chairman.
What is perhaps most noteworthy about Dr Yoon’s collection in the early decades is the provenance.
As works from back then are difficult to authenticate now (because of the lack of records), Dr Yoon’s direct acquisition from reputable dealers and galleries, and from the artists, some of whom have become firm friends, gave these works credence.
But he also has a good eye, probably aided by a scientific intellect. He has some of the best Chung Chen Sun and Chen Wen Hsi pieces in a private collection. They include one “restored and revitalised” work from Chung Chen Sun and a multi-coloured Cubistic rendition of ducks by Chen Wen Hsi, apart from an auspicious scroll of nine gibbons (133cm x 60cm).
By picking unusual works from the artists (rather than what they were famous for), Dr Yoon must have struck a chord with them.
Probably feeling that Dr Yoon’s collection was incomplete, Singapore’s pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi presented him an inimitable work of his gibbons.
Dr Yoon remembers visiting Chen Wen Hsi at his Singapore shoplot at the Tanglin Shopping Centre regularly after being introduced by Chung Chen Sun. Chen Wen Hsi was the most technically accomplished of the Singaporean pioneers. He was known for his avant garde Chinese ink and brush paintings and the seminal Nanyang Style.
Elsewhere, David Kwo Da-Wei, a Beijing-born artist, who had spent his retirement years in Singapore, is also another major name in Dr Yoon’s collection.
Dr Yoon obtained Kwo’s black cat Kim during the artist’s second visit to Kuala Lumpur in 1984 (his first being 1981).
Kwo, trained by the great Chinese master Qi Bai-shi, was a Singapore permanent resident when he died in the United States. Ten days before Kwo died in August 2003, he wrote to the Singapore Lee Kong Chian Art Museum, informing it that he was donating 105 of his works to the museum.
Dr Yoon also owns a special collaboration between Li Chi Mao and Chung Chen Sun. In this piece, Li Chi Mao shows himself as a mendicant figure with a brush in hand but without shoes (stolen outside the house) while Chung Chen Sun delights with his block figure types.
Some of the prices of the art work he obtained in the early years, as revealed by Dr Yoon, would seem totally unbelievable these days.
Dr Yoon acquired Chung Chen Sun’s early Mother & Child (1964/1978, 101cm x 37cm) for only RM7, at the “fire sale” auction of the last collection of Australian-born, local art pioneer Frank Sullivan on May 20, 1978. It was a piece without a signature and part of the calligraphy was torn off. Dr Yoon won the bid after persuading Chung Chen Sun to back off at the auction. He had the work seamlessly restored, complete with the artist’s seal. However, Dr Yoon’s first Chung Chen Sun’s work was The Proud Beggar (1975).
His Ibrahim Hussein art work was a small (39cm x 55cm) 1982 piece while the two drawings by Zulkifli Dahalan were finished just before the artist’s untimely death.
Dr Yoon has shown a distinct bias for Chinese brush paintings, with the finest selections from both sides of the causeway – Chung Chen Sun, Chen Wen Hsi, Le Chek Wen (1934-88, a classmate of Chung at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art and a highly innovative artist), Chong Buck Tee and Singaporean Foo Chee San.
He also had coveted art pieces by Tew Nai Tong (1938-2013), who lectured at the MIA between 1969 to 1980, and a batik each by the great Seah Kim Joo and Phoon Poh Wai, both now Singaporeans. He was fortunate to acquire works from Kuo Ju-Ping (1908-62) and the Lingnan masters Gao Jian-Fu (1879-1951) and Ou Hao Nien – all bought for a snip from art sales here.
Other notable highlights from his collection include pieces by the Belgian Robert Delange, Paris-born Madeleine Enright, Greece-born Australian Alkis Astras and anthropologist-artist Max Liu Qi Wei.