Looking intently: The James Cahill legacy at BAM/PFA

Chen Hongshou: Album of Birds, Flowers and Landscapes.
Chen Hongshou: Album of Birds, Flowers and Landscapes.

The dualities of life and art are never more apparent than they are in “Looking Intently: The James Cahill Legacy,” an intimate exhibit with boundless implications running now through December 21 at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.

Even the exhibit itself is binary: the Chinese, Ming and Qing period paintings organized by Julia M. White, senior curator for Asian art and currently on display, will be “refreshed” in mid-October. It’s a bonanza, a two-for-one, as an entirely new set of mostly 15th to 16th century works from the late Professor Emeritus James Cahill’s “Ching Yuan Chai” collection is presented in the museum’s upper gallery for the exhibit’s “second rotation.” The unusual maneuver is both good for visitors—they get to see more of the exquisite collection—and for the paintings. By limiting the over-400-year-old paintings’ prolonged exposure to light and curtailing gravity’s pull while they hang; their delicacy and endurance are respected.

Cahill, born in Fort Bragg and a Berkeley High school graduate, went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, an award-winning author, a sought-after curator and guest lecturer, an acclaimed art history educator at UC Berkeley, and a widely-respected collector of East Asian art.

James Cahill
James Cahill

Along the way, he became the father of four children—one of them, Sarah Cahill, a noted pianist based in the Bay Area—and expressed his gregarious, generous spirit in eternal fashion by donating or aiding in the acquisition of 432 Chinese paintings in the BAM/PFA permanent collection. Extending his legacy beyond visual fine art, Cahill recorded videos of his charismatic lectures and continued his habit of voluminous, opinionated writing with a blog: both are available for all to view at the James Cahill website. He died on February 14, 2014, at his home in Berkeley at the age of 87.


During an opening-day interview at BAM, White, a meticulous keeper of Cahill’s collection and arguably, happily, his every word and deed, joined by Sarah Cahill, provided professional and personal insights into Cahill’s remarkable influence on his students and the larger art world.

Still raw from the significant loss of a vibrant man known to explore off-the-main-beat Japanese shops to discover the dusty masterpieces hidden in a back room, White says, “He looked beyond the vogue.”

The “vogue” among scholars was typically centered on earlier Chinese paintings and Cahill agrees, her father loved the search to find and discover hidden treasures. Having found a significant piece, she recalls him guiding her eyes through a painting.

Man and Servant Beneath Trees by Shen Shichong
Man and Servant Beneath Trees by Shen Shichong

“He’d point out brushwork and composition. He could talk about them for hours. When it got to the subject of a particular painting, it was limitless how much he would share,” she remembers.

Standing at one of four tables, where “The Pleasures of Fisherman” (1458–1508), by Wu Wei, reveals a tranquil landscape, Cahill points to a near-invisible seam. “He discovered, over time, a willow tree without a (complete) trunk. The painting is actually two paintings that had been rejoined.” In front of the silky “Landscape with Buildings” (14th century), she relives the excitement her father had, after many viewings led to the discovery of the signature of Sun Junze.


Many of the exhibit pieces are owned by Cahill and her siblings, but she says she ascribes to her father’s philosophy. He didn’t possess them as much as live with them, get to know them, then pass them on. “It’s like when you live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” she says. “You think you are temporarily inhabiting it. People are mortal; these paintings are not.”

White’s criteria for the exhibit included selecting paintings Cahill had collected personally—and ones about which the very process of collecting told a story. “They include paintings people will be very happy to see, because they belong to the family and aren’t often seen.”

The approximately 70 paintings are not arranged chronologically. Instead, they present a dynamic variety and an invitation to “look intently.” Gazing through the lens of history and the canon’s techniques at groupings of people in “Su Dongpo Returning to the Academy” (15th–16th century, attributed to Zhang Lu), Cahill says she is reminded of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The painting is one of her favorites; primarily because her father would narrate it movingly and bring its exile-returns-to-celebration story to life.

Collectively, the works offer a study in place. In landscapes, nature looms large; people are often small—or hardly present, as in the 12 paintings of Chen Hongshou’s “Album of Landscape and Flowers” (1598–1652). A special feature is exhibit labels, which often feature Professor Cahill’s own writing about a particular piece of art. Phrases like “the more I looked, the better it was,” or, “suddenly it rose from a painting nobody noticed to a world- class masterpiece, all because of a discovered signature,” or “I always tried to encourage dissent in my students,” hint at the collector’s pioneering approach. Cahill was someone who peers in a culvert and recognizes an ocean at the end of the tunnel.

He was also unafraid to state his piece; and not always peacefully. Hired as acting director of BAM in the 1970s, he writes in a blog dated March 16, 2013, of wanting to protest “progressive” artists from the “Great Innovator Andy Warhol” to Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei. Incensed by “really successful artists (who) don’t even do the dumb things themselves, they have workshops of assistants to do them for them,” Cahill contemplated hanging from the museum’s highest balcony a “DOING DUMB THINGS AND CALLING IT ART IS OVER!” poster.


White has included a video viewing station, where interviews she conducted with Cahill in 2001 bring his outspoken expertise to life. An iPad nearby provides connection to Cahill’s website, which includes not only his lectures and blogs, but a video of his memorial service.

Presenting two women, two “rotations,” and too many treasures to miss, “Looking intently” has never been so rewarding.

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