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Visual Arts

Tay Chee Toh

Singapore second-generation visual artist and co-founder of Modern Art Society.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

Always look for the new and experiment. By doing this you will find a new form of expression.

Tay Chee Toh is a Singapore second-generation artist. A painter, sculptor and printmaker, Tay is known for his abstract and figurative art that ranges over different media and styles, and that is rooted firmly in nature. In 1964, Tay co-founded the Modern Art Society with Ho Ho Ying, Tong Siang Eng and Wee Beng Chong, with the mission to reinterpret nature through new forms. In 1985, Tay won the UOB Painting of the Year competition. That same year, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in Johor, Malaysia, in 1941, Tay Chee Toh first encountered art at a young age when he saw artisans making craft pieces and paintings. His curiosity and interest piqued, he learnt by himself how to draw. When he started attending school, he excelled at art and frequently won school art competitions, drawing praise from his teachers.

A friend of Tay’s older brother soon noticed Tay’s talent for art and—being a friend of pioneering Singapore artist Cheong Soo Pieng, who was then teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts—suggested that Tay go to Singapore to study at the academy. So, Tay moved to Singapore in 1958 and enrolled at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, beginning his formal art education.

At the academy, Tay would be taught by Cheong Soo Pieng himself, who, together with Chen Wen Hsi, would be influential on the development of Tay’s art. Also influenced by the zeal of the time to develop a regional art, Tay appropriated abstract motifs from tribal textiles and body accessories in the 1960s.

Like the Nanyang artists, Tay searched for a modern idiom that has a local relevance to Singapore and its surrounding region, which meant that he looked for local or regional motifs such as the tradition and culture of the indigenous Dayaks in Sarawak, Malaysia. In the early ’60s, Tay travelled to stay with the Dayak community for a month, and was inspired by the folk patterns created by Dayak Mythology. In 1964, Tay co-founded the Modern Art Society with Ho Ho Ying, Tong Siang Eng and Wee Beng Chong, with the mission to reinterpret nature through new forms

This curiosity and love of discovery would play an important part in the development of Tay’s art, which saw him take on different artistic styles over the decades. This evolution of Tay’s art progressed hand-in-hand with the development of society as he explored what was new and changed his perspectives accordingly to reflect the present time he was operating in. In the late 1970s, he adopted a more stylised abstraction in his paintings, developing his Aqua and Window series with which he is often identified.

Throughout Tay’s work, nature is an underlying and universal theme. He finds inspiration from natural elements such as water and sea creatures and dissected shells to study their form and construction. In his early paintings, natural elements are depicted in encounters with industrial objects such as metal wheels and bolts reflecting his concern regarding the impact of technology on the natural world. Tay’s work also features prominent tribal motifs, with his vivid choice of colours and the forms in his mobiles and sculptures bearing a reference to totem folk culture.

Tay’s work is situated between the abstract and the surreal with representational and figurative modes of depiction. And he has continued to strive to elevate art forms to a universal language. Later-day endeavours include large paintings on canvas worked in calligraphic brushwork adopting the Chinese ink style. The forms however do not point to Chinese characters; rather they are—like Tay’s sculptures—free-floating forms in space.

In 2012, Tay held a solo exhibition Dayak: Woodblock Prints by Tay Chee Toh at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts featuring massive woodblock prints. In these works, he returned to highly stylised renditions with his fluid lines and flattened depictions of women in a floating, dreamy and ephemeral otherworldly state. Inspired by Dayak folk motifs, this exhibition saw Tay returning to the memory of his month-long stay in a Dayak longhouse where he was deeply moved by the simplicity and grace of the Dayak women. Motifs from the natural environment—cloudy skies and rolling waves—form a backdrop to his work. This pastoral idyll that Tay most enjoys and remembers is a regular thread through his modern output.

In 1985, Tay won the annual UOB Painting of Year competition. That same year, he also received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Tay continues to create art, and has a studio in Muar, Malaysia, where he builds his sculptures and paints.



Born in Johor, Malaysia.


Moved to Singapore.

1958 to 1960

Attended the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


Co-founder, Modern Art Society (Singapore).

1953 to 1956

Attended Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


Solo exhibition, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.


Solo exhibition, British Council Gallery, Singapore.


Solo exhibition, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.


Solo exhibition, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.


Solo exhibition, Mekpayab Art Centre, Bangkok, Thailand.


Received the Tze Chor Art Award, Singapore Art Society Exhibition.

Received 1st Prize for painting and 4th prize for sculpture, Innovation Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Ministry of Culture and Singapore Airlines.

Solo exhibition, Taipei Art Exhibition, Taiwan.


Received 2nd Prize, UOB Painting of The Year Competition, Singapore.


Received consolation prize, UOB Painting of The Year Competition, Singapore.


Received 2nd Prize, Australian Art Award 84.


Received the Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Received UOB Painting of The Year award, Singapore.

Received 3rd prize, Australian Art Award 85.

Received Overseas Education Study Tour award, National Day Art Exhibition.

Received Special Award in Art Exhibitions, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Alumni.

Received 50th Anniversary Art Award (Western Painting Category), The Society of Chinese Artists.


Solo exhibition Tay Chee Toh’s 1st Sculpture Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.


Received first prize, REDAS Building Sculpture Competition / Exhibition 93.


Received Abstract Painting Distinction Award, Singapore Art Society.


Solo exhibition Body Lines – Sculpture & Painting Exhibition, ARTrium@MITA, Singapore.


Work from Body Lines – Sculpture & Painting Exhibition featured in the Celebrating Singapore Art series of stamps by Singapore Post.


Solo exhibition Dayak: Woodblock Prints by Tay Chee Toh, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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