Moy compound | Studio.
The painter and printmaker Seong Moy (1921-2013) was among the leading figures when Provincetown was a vibrant crucible in the Abstract Expressionist movement. But — quite as importantly — he stayed on long after the circus left town, remaining true to his vision and to his mission of educating future artists. Moy was born in the city of Taishan, in the province of Guangdong. He arrived from China at the age of 10, settling with other family members in St. Paul, Minn. He studied under Cameron Booth, a student of Hans Hofmann who directed the St. Paul School of Art (now the Minnesota Museum of American Art), and was involved with the federal Work Progress Administration at the time it was remaking the Walker Art Galleries in Minneapolis as the Walker Art Center. (The Walker family is well represented in Provincetown.)
Seong Moy. Image at left from the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, J0001915. Image at right from the Moy family, “Obituary, Seong Moy, Passed Away on June 9, 2013,” Dignity Memorial, No. 5567766.
In 1941, Moy moved to New York, where he attended the Art Students League of New York — the cradle of the Provincetown art colony, in many ways. His teachers included Hofmann and Vaclav Vytlacil. But war intervened. Moy enlisted in 1942 and served as an aerial reconnaissance photographer attached to the 14th Air Force, the “Flying Tigers,” in the China India Burma Theater. He returned to New York after the war with his new wife and resumed his studies at the Art Students League, thanks to the G.I. Bill. He also reëstablished his professional relationship with Booth, who was by then teaching at the league. Moy recounted what happened in 1946 during an interview with Paul Cummings for the oral history project of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.
Cameron Booth “rented a studio in Provincetown. I guess I was very close to him. Of course, I didn’t have any particular commitments for the summer, so he asked me to join him there for a very short while as a vacation. He said, ‘Due to the fact that I’m tied up a little, why don’t you go on ahead.’ Immediately, I realized what his intent was. He knew … that I would help him put the studio in order so he could come up, nice and fresh, to a nice clean studio. Even though I knew what the intent was, nevertheless I accepted the offer and I went up there.
“Weeks passed and he did not arrive. After a certain length of time he told me that he was being delayed. Why? Because he was on jury duty. That meant that I was left staying at his studio, which is one of the very renowned studios in Provincetown. So I stayed there; in fact it was possible for me to arrange to stay there for the whole summer. He finally did come up to take over his studio about a month or so after I had come.
“By that time, I was greatly attached to Provincetown and also I certainly didn’t want to come back to New York in August. So I spent that summer there. This was in 1946. It wasn’t until close to 10 years later that I returned … When I was teaching at Indiana University [Harry Engel] asked me if I would consider returning to Provincetown with the idea that maybe it was the right time to start an art school. This was in 1955 or ’56 …
“I gave the matter a great deal of thought. At that time, I already had a family and so we decided to try it one summer, the following summer. So we rented a place that was adjoining Harry’s, a big studio with living quarters, and I started my first class. It was very successful the very first year and so from that point on I’ve been spending the summers there and conducting a class uninterruptedly since then.”
In between his visits to Provincetown, Moy had earned a stellar reputation in New York, to judge from the reactions of critics in The New York Times. Stuart Preston wrote in 1951 that Moy was “going strong … exploring with verve and ingenuity the lyrical abstract field that he has made his own.” The next year, Aline B. Loucheim described a “triumph of a 10-color woodcut” to which Moy had brought “the lunging movement of Chinese calligraphy.” Another critic, Howard Devree, saw something else in Moy’s paintings: “With flashing areas of reds, yellows, and blues he suggests the gorgeous robes of Oriental actors, swirling in a kaleidoscopic movement of changing hues and planes.”
Seong Moy advertised his school in the 1956 catalog of the Provincetown Art Association, which has been scanned by the Provincetown History Preservation Project (Page 5369). I believe that the character on the right, 梅, is Moy’s surname.
A year later, he began building his own studio. Photo by David W. Dunlap, 2009.
Characteristically, the studio’s north-facing windows are by far the largest, taking advantage of the relatively unchanging northern light, away from the sun’s movement. The Moy house is in the background, at right. David W. Dunlap, 2018.
He had no trouble attracting students to the Seong Moy School of Painting and Graphic Arts.
“In the middle ’50s, the town itself was very art conscious and a great deal of art activity was flourishing there at that time. … That was towards the end of Hans Hofmann’s School. And there were many other older schools there, like Morris Davidson’s school, and the Cape Cod Art School, which was run by Henry Hensche … All these schools were long-established as a tradition.
“So I’m a newcomer and — as is the way of human nature — people are always looking for something new. So here I come with something different to offer. So you do get students from the town itself, those people that come to Provincetown for no reason except that they like Provincetown, they like the atmosphere of it. And then also you send out announcements to various schools, various art schools, universities, art associations, art clubs, and so on. You just make the announcement that you are available. And when these people see the ad they contact you. And some of my students in New York who can possibly make it come. Sometimes I offer them scholarships, monitorships, and so on, in order to encourage them to come. …
It’s a year-to-year struggle, really. You worry about it for the coming year; but the following year comes and it all seems to work out.”
More milestones were to come in 1955, when Moy won a Guggenheim Fellowship and, with his wife, bought the house at 7 Brewster Street from Ernest W. and Marie I. Benoit. Printing classes were held in the basement. The studio next door, also 7 Brewster Street, was constructed in 1957 and finished the next year.
He closed his school in 1974 but stayed active in painting, printmaking, and teaching until 1989, when he stepped down as a professor of art at the City College of New York. Moy died in 2013. His family still owns the Brewster Street property.
There was a poignant note in Moy’s interview with Cummings in 1971 — one with which any contemporary observer can easily identify:
SEONG MOY: Provincetown is losing its sort of art attraction. Things have changed. A sort of commercialized kind of resort thing is coming into the town. It’s more difficult to live and to work there.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It’s become more expensive and everything.
SEONG MOY: Yes. And so good people stay away. They go somewhere else. And I don’t know what the future holds for Provincetown.
Seong Moy, Sand Pipers, ca. 1960, color woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1960 Seong Moy, gift of the artist, 1969.35.11 (18046).
Seong Moy, Cape Point, n.d., color lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Seong Moy, gift of the artist, 1969.35.20 (18024).
Seong Moy, Night Glow, n.d., color etching on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Seong Moy, gift of the artist, 1969.35.24 (18040).
Seong Moy, Cape Cod Landscape, ca. 1955-1965, brush and ink and ink wash on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1965, Seong Moy, gift of the artist, 1969.35.30 (18023).
Seong Moy, Nets, ca. 1955-1965, ink wash, brush and ink and pastel on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1965 Seong Moy, gift of the artist, 1969.35.25 (18039).
¶ Last updated on 15 April 2019.
7 Brewster Street on the Town Map.
Also at 7 Brewster Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo, 2009, by David W. Dunlap.
Jacqueline Moy wrote on 9 November 2015: Thank you for including my father in your book. The studio was built in the winter of 1957 and completed during the summer of 1958. The school closed in 1974 and my dad passed away in June 2013. We also have the house next to the studio. My dad had printing classes in basement.
For further reading online
• Seong Moy (1921-2013)
“Seong Moy,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, Artist Biography No. 3444.
“Oral History Interview With Seong Moy, 1971, Jan. 18-28,” by Paul Cummings, Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, Transcript.
“Obituary, Seong Moy, Passed Away on June 9, 2013,” Dignity Memorial, No. 5567766.