The Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture

Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia, 1973–2015


by T. K. Sabapathy

edited by
Ahmad Mashadi
Susie Lingham
Peter Schoppert
Joyce Toh

Published by 
Singapore Art Museum (SAM)


Art is written, here and elsewhere. Writers illuminate entry points of art and artists into the pale of history. Written texts are just as important as works of art in representing significance, value and meaning in the world of art.

—T. K. Sabapathy, Thoughts on Interpreting Anthony Poon's Painting Practice’

Bypassing or being indifferent to prevailing and past writings is not only symptomatic of poor or flawed techniques in research, but deprives critical voices of requisite contexts and grounds for validation ... For in as much as art practices and productions are shaped by and in turn shape historical circumstances, similarly too are critical endeavours the outcome of intertwining factors and forces that are particular to time and place.

—T. K. Sabapathy, Introduction to the Themes of the Exhibition, 1997–98 


This anthology of eminent Singaporean art historian T.K. Sabapathy’s texts, selected from over four decades (1973–2015) of art critical and historical texts, brings together, for the first time, a cogent selection of the most important and influential writings of one of the region’s foremost art historians, selected to represent the scope and depth of Sabapathy’s work. From the early 1970s, T.K. Sabapathy has been a tireless historian and educator, penetrating critic and ardent advocate and advisor of the visual arts and culture, and his vast output has been foundational in the building of the modern and contemporary art history of Southeast Asia. This publication provides an opportunity for more focused (re)reading, review and renewed consideration of T.K. Sabapathy’s rich body of work, to further fuel modern and contemporary art writing, research and exhibition-making.

For many artists, curators, writers and art institutions in Southeast Asia, Sabapathy has been and continues to be a leading and an inspiring thinker, mentor and interlocutor. Writing the Modern will long serve as an index to the future mappings of the art histories of the region.

Writing the Modern brings together 57 texts of varying forms and lengths – from exhibition reviews, catalogue essays, artist interviews, conference papers, speeches, lectures, extracts of monographic studies, personal correspondence – organised within four thematic sections, each preceded by editorial overviews:

Section 1: ‘The Southeast Asian Artist in Relation to Art History,’ edited with overview by Joyce Toh;

Section 2: ‘A Mind for Method, and an Eye for Medium, Material and Form,’ edited with overview by Susie Lingham;

Section 3: ‘Art Institutions and the Exhibition,’ edited with overview by Peter Schoppert;

Section 4: ‘Regional Perspectives on Southeast Asian Art,’ edited with overview by Ahmad Mashadi.


Author’s biography: T.K. Sabapathy is an esteemed scholar of Southeast Asian art history. As an historian, curator, teacher, critic and advisor he has influenced artistic opinion and shaped knowledge of art of the region for over forty-five years. Sabapathy’s early scholarly engagements were marked by clear commitments to the art historiography of the early (Hindu-Buddhist) traditions of Southeast Asian art. He later emerged and continues as an eloquent proponent of assessing modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art, asserting the dignity and centrality of their histories and development. His art historical methods, critical documentation and detailed explication of the works by key artists have defined Singapore and Malaysian art. His extensive studies of modern (and contemporary) Southeast Asian art and artists have added visual intelligibility and intellectual depth to discourses on art in the region. He is currently an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore, where he teaches the history of art.


In keeping with Sabapathy’s postwar Euro-American schooling, this compendium—including monographic articles, catalogue essays, newspaper features and exhibition reviews, conference papers, and public speeches—reflects his highly eclectic but always thoughtful take on Southeast Asia’s modern art developments.
—Gregory Galligan, reviewed in Art in America


In the vast firmament of Singaporean-Malaysian art history, no star illuminates as radiantly as T.K. Sabapathy. An art historian by training, Sabapathy initially began his career in the early 1970s by reviewing art and thereafter spent close to half a century doggedly writing art history into being in our corner of the world. Seven years in the making, Singapore Art Museum’s Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia, a painstakingly conceived book containing some of Sabapathy’s most seminal essays, articles and speeches, is a weighty tome befitting a scholar of his stature.
—Carmen Nge, reviewed in Arts Equator


ISBN 978-9-811157-63-9
428 pages
70 full colour illustrations
5 black and white illustrations
Softcover with gatefold, 250 x 180 mm 
1000 gms



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