Never mind the Pollocks

She lived a life of sex, privilege and money – but all she wanted was credibility within the male-dominated art world. Stuart Jeffries on Peggy Guggenheim, millionaire collector

Peggy Guggenheim had an ugly nose. In 1920, she asked a Cincinnati surgeon to make it like the one she had read about in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, “tip-tilted like the petal of a flower”. But he botched the painful operation and, then, after stitching her up as best he could, still charged her $1,000. Guggenheim left town with one of her least welcome inheritances intact – the family potato nose.

Jackson Pollock reportedly said that you would have to put a towel over Peggy Guggenheim’s head to have sex with her, which is a particularly vile thing to say given that she was his most ardent and committed patron. But he was one of the few heterosexual acquaintances with whom she didn’t have an affair. Despite the nose, or maybe even because of it, Peggy Guggenheim had a lurid sex life that she, her contemporaries and those who have written about her since, enjoyed embroidering. When asked by an interviewer how many husbands she had, Guggenheim replied: “Do you mean mine, or other people’s?”

Two new biographies – by Anton Gill and Laucrence Tacou-Rumney – suggest that it was our old friend, low self-esteem, that prompted this sexual voracity. The nose, the early death of her father (in 1912, copper-mining heir Ben Guggenheim bravely stepped off the sinking Titanic into the night waves), the difficulties of being a Jew in America, the leap over the ghetto walls and the headlong rush of a moneyed Yank to be part of European bohemia, all played their part. “Peggy’s most successful relationships were with animals and works of art,” writes Gill. He reports she had a large collection of Lhasa Apsos dogs whom she loved unconditionally and they, let’s hope, returned the compliment.

So the myth that attaches to many women art collectors, from Catherine the Great onwards, crystallises: Guggenheim collected men like she collected art, only faster. Which is saying something because, in 1940 when Guggenheim was in Paris and the Nazis bearing down on the city, she was buying a picture a day. No wonder the British edition of Guggenheim’s memoirs was called Confessions of an Art Addict. But, unlike the art, she didn’t hold on to her men. When she seduced a great surrealist painter, one of her former conquests remarked: “Max Ernst is now said to be Peggy Guggenheim’s consort no 3,812.” The young Samuel Beckett, improbably, was another.

What was in it for her lovers? Guggenheim herself provided the most devastating assessment when she wrote about her first marriage to an anti-semitic brute called Laurence Vail. She had, she claimed, no beauty, no artistic talent, all she could offer him was money. And live off his wife’s money he did, in between bouts of beating her up, walking on her prostrate body and rubbing jam into her hair.

What sort of money did Guggenheim have at her disposal? Rather less than the Empress of all the Russias. At 21, she inherited $450,000 from her father’s estate. This capital, in the first few years, yielded $22,500 a year, an income that rose in later decades. That, plus the $500,000 inheritance she received on her mother’s death in 1937, enabled her to put together an extraordinary collection before Paris fell to the Germans. It consisted of several Klees, a Gris, a Léger, a Kandinsky, a Braque, as well as paintings by Miró, De Chirico and Magritte.

None the less, the Louvre thought it worthless and refused to store it during the war. But then what we now think of as the stewards of the great collections were hostile to the modern art that Guggenheim assiduously championed. For example, James Bolivar Manson, then director of the Tate Gallery in London, dismissed some modernist sculptures that she wanted to be shown in London, saying that they were “not-art”. As a result of his intervention, British customs would not let them into the country. Guggenheim later, along with Sir Herbert Read, tried and failed to set up a modern art museum in London, proof, if proof were needed, that Tate Modern has been an absurdly long time coming.

Guggenheim fled wartime France for New York, where between 1942 and 1947 she ran Art of this Century, a gallery-cum-museum in which her European collection was displayed alongside temporary shows devoted to American artists whose work she commissioned and collected. There is hardly a significant American artist of the mid-20th century who didn’t receive her patronage.

But what is the importance of Guggenheim as a collector? To Americans in particular, a great deal. American curator and art writer Gail Stavitsky argues: “Unlike Europe, America had neither royalty nor aristocracy, papacy nor civic organisations to develop collections that would eventually form the basis of publicly administered, government-funded museums.”

Yes, Peggy Guggenheim’s collection may be housed now in a Venetian palazzo, and admittedly the most important Guggenheim collection in the US is now that of her uncle Solomon, mainly housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s building in New York. But Peggy Guggenheim is important to American art lovers: she generously donated to public museums all over the US and distributed 20 paintings by Jackson Pollock.

What is distinctive about women collectors? “Almost without exception, the significant women in this typically overwhelmingly masculine field have been rich – some very rich – and they belonged to the upper classes,” write Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey in their book Great Women Collectors. “They have had money; and they have had time.”

They cite among others Catherine the Great, a self-confessed glutton, whose sexual voracity, though exaggerated, and artistic acquisitiveness may have made her, to some, resemble Guggenheim with a deeper purse.

Collection after collection, made by men of the leading families and politicians of Europe, fell to her imperial might. She bought Sir Robert Walpole’s magnificent collection, for example, in 1779 when his heirs were left in debt after he built Houghton Hall in Norfolk. She was predatory and aggressive, leading Gere and Vaizey to suggest she collected like a man.

But what, if anything, is it to collect like a woman? From the Renaissance onwards, women’s collections were often by-products of homemaking. “These impulses, so distinct from men’s collecting instincts, produced the types of collection that, broadly speaking could be categorised as feminine,” write Gere and Vaizey. Porcelain, embroidery, dress and fans were all widely collected by women, but not men. Couturier Coco Chanel amassed a collection of 18th century French furniture, cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein collected African and Victorian glass.

But women historically haven’t just collected applied art; Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour may have intervened to ensure the future security of the Sèvres porcelain factory and thus promoted French decorative art, but she was also a great collector of fine art – her name is closely linked with painter François Boucher’s. He painted her portraits regularly and she commissioned or bought much of his work. Nellie Jacquemart and Josephine Bowes were both artists who worked with their husbands to build up two great collections of art (the Jacquemart-André museum in Paris and the Bowes museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham) but in each case it’s hard to see which works were acquired by the feminine and which by the masculine half of the partnership.

Equally, there’s nothing distinctively feminine about Guggenheim’s collection. Ah, sceptics might well say, there’s a reason for that – her reliance on men of taste to advise her. The suggestion is that Guggenheim was a galumphing klutz who had a showy life but little aesthetic sensibility. Guggenheim had a bad nose – could it be that she had an even worse eye? Anton Gill’s biography contends that, “the jury remains out” on that. When Guggenheim’s collection went on display at the first post-war Venice Biennale, one of the visitors was Bernard Berenson, the great historian of Renaissance art, whose writings had been her guide when she first visited Europe. Guggenheim ran up to him and said: “Oh this is the greatest moment of my life Mr Berenson – you were the first person to teach me about painting.” To which Berenson, looking dismissively around the collection, replied: “My dear, what a tragedy I wasn’t the last.”

Berenson’s jibe, at least, wasn’t so much sexist as the remark of a man out of temper with modern art. Guggenheim was astute enough to cultivate tasteful men who were not. The French artist Marcel Duchamp became her unpaid modern art tutor and astute adviser. If not a great judge of art, then Guggenheim was clearly savvy, sensitive and humble enough to know who was. And that is, surely, a kind of artistic sensitivity.

What’s more, Guggenheim was a great collector in the sense that Gere and Vaizey define. “Collecting must, in our view, significantly alter the repute of the objects collected, not only by adding to knowledge and expanding appreciation, but perhaps even more by conferring status: the collector can make the unfashionable or ignored more central to the culture of the day.”

This is what Guggenheim did. The extent of her commissioning went beyond just what is housed in the Guggenheim in Venice. She was a woman whose commission, certainly after her return to New York, could transform the reputation of an artist. Indeed, the promise of that prestige may have been an aphrodisiac for some of her artist lovers. Without her, Pollock and other abstract expressionists might well not have got art-world status conferred on them so readily.

That said, it must have been difficult sometimes for Guggenheim to be such an indefatigable supporter of these men (and it was work by male artists that she overwhelmingly collected). One day Pollock, Duchamp and Guggenheim had a row over a canvas she had commissioned for the foyer of her East Side townhouse in New York. At 20ft wide, it proved too big for the allotted space. Duchamp proposed cutting eight inches off one end. Pollock disappeared to get drunk, wandering back later into a party at Guggenheim’s apartment and peeing into her fire.

Art world sexism followed Guggenheim wherever she trod. One day in 1940 she walked into Picasso’s Paris atelier, seeking to buy a picture. The great master ignored her for several minutes, before dismissing her with: “Madame, the lingerie department is on the second floor.”

Sex, money and rude artists – was there any more to Guggenheim’s life? Yes. A determination to commit herself to what she described as “serving the future instead of recording the past”, something which she best did with a collection of 300 works of art housed in the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. But what is particularly distinctive about her collection is the responsibility she felt for the art and the artists she collected.

That, at least, is something that it is rather hard to imagine male collectors doing.
Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian


Shozo Shimamoto

Szozo Shimamoto, was born in Osaka, Japan in 1928, he is an authoratative member of the Gutai Group, which was formed in 1954 in the Kansai region.  Other important figures included in the group were the likes of Yoshihara Jiro, Kanayama Akira, Murakami Saburo and Shiraga Kazuo.  The activities of the group helped evolve western art for sixty years.

In 1957 the Gutai Group presented the “Gutai Stage Exhibition”, which for the first time in art history Shimamoto put together a stage like exhibition where he used a gun to fire colours.  Shimamoto also combined these activities with the audio of John Cage and the result were given to the Pompidou centre in Paris and the Museum of the City of Ashiya.  In 1993 it appeared in the Biennial in Venice witht the Gutai Group.

More of Shimamoto’s work can be viewed at The Tate Modern alongside Jackson Pollock and Lucia Fontana.

More from The Tate Collection – Fred Williams

When I visited The Tate Modern last week there were a number of artists that I didn’t know, mainly abstract expressionists, so I decided that over the next few weeks I would post here and there about them so I could share their works.

To start with I will be introducing you to Fred williams;

Australian painter. He studied at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, attending private classes at the George Bell Art School (1943–7). His earliest paintings and drawings were nearly all studio-based compositions, including portraits, nudes and figure compositions, often reflecting an early and lasting enthusiasm for Daumier.

From 1952 to 1957 Williams studied part-time at the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He painted, drew and etched the street-life of London and was particularly attracted to music halls. In London, Williams became very familiar with modern and contemporary art through frequent visits to museums and also through handling the works that passed through the picture framing shop where he worked. When Williams returned to Australia in 1957 landscape became his main subject.

In the period from 1957 to 1962 Williams concentrated on the Australian bush and the dense eucalyptus forest of the coastal plains and hills. His view of these landscapes was first influenced by the work of French artists, most notably Paul Cézanne but also Georges Braque and Henri Matisse, applying their sense of the simplification of form.

Williams largely shed his Parisian influence in series of works on the forest theme, such as Sherbrooke pursuing a dense and monumental image of the bush through a variety of media. In 1962 he began to visit the You Yangs, a group of rocky hills near Melbourne, producing the You Yangs series which established his reputation in Australia. In these paintings Williams applied his own form of pointillism, reducing the landscape to abstract geometric motifs. This was the first of a number of landscape series painted in the 1960s. He produced gouache sketches working directly from nature, then worked these up in oil in the studio through series of oil studies, frequently also producing etchings.

In the 1970s Williams both painted further afield and enlarged his range of subject-matter, becoming particularly interested in marine subjects. His working method and palette also changed: he often made his first sketch in oil rather than gouache and painted in a greater variety of brighter colours. He chose to paint dramatic landscapes instead of the bleak landscapes of the bush.

In the last eight years of his career, Williams produced more landscape series with strong themes, his last being the Pilbara series, which remained intact as a series as it was acquired by Con-Zinc Rio Tinto Australia, the Melbourne mining company that had invited him to explore the north-west region of Australia.

Urban Art at The Tate Modern London

On Tuesday I went to The Tate Modern again and again I went with someone so I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked.

Anyway, they have an Urban Art exhibition on the outside walls, which was amazing.  I was wondering how they got them up there because they are so big.

But as you see they did look great.

Evry time I go to The Tate I see something I didn’t see the last time and so far I have only managed to visit one floor.  I am really looking forward to the Rothko exhibition in September though.  Unfortunately, they had taken all the Rothko paintings away for the exhibition and replaced them with some rubbish that I really didn’t understand.  Plus the fact that I went with someone who really wasn’t interested in art at all, so that made it even more difficult, but nevertheless I enjoyed almost everything and I kind of switch off anyway when I am looking at this.

As usual I spent a long time enjoying the Pollocks’ namely Birth and Summertime.

Yesterday, I joined in my first group exhibition with the local artists society, but I think my work was a little too contemporary for the crowd there.  One of the participants asked me ‘How long did it take you to do?’.  I answered but I thought about the question afterwards and thought what a stupid question.  Who cares?  If you like something do you think about how long it took to paint?

She also said it was too expensive and by this time I was getting rather pissed in both the English and the American sense, and I just told her that the frame cost more than most of the paintings there.  After that I made my exit.

Does Abstract Art Exist in China?

With the Olympics in China, I thought I would include this piece that I found on Chinese abstract.

Zhao Wuji’s abstract painting

Abstraction is the Product of Western Modernism

bsent the birth of Western Modernism, there would have been no abstract art. For a brief period during the twentieth century, however, some scholars propounded the contrary theory that abstract art had existed in ancient China. In the Yang Shao culture of ancient China, people were accustomed to the use of simplified figurative forms on their painted pottery to represent realistic forms. The twentieth century scholars thought that these simplified figurative design patterns were the first step in a process leading from figurative art to abstract art. As an example they cited fish patterns on the Yang Shao pottery, which were depicted both with representational forms and with simplied, more abstract forms, suggesting that the representational forms had been employed originally and had over time been depicted in increasingly simplied, more “abstract” forms. However, it was later discovered by archaeologists that both the representational and simplified motifs had been employed during the same period and in the same area, which completely overturned theories about the evolution of abstract art as having begun in ancient Chinese cultures.

Zen Yin Yang Koi Fish Feng Shui

Clement Greenberg was another proponent of the theory that abstract art has its roots in pre-twentieth-century art, in his theory, the art and culture of the Enlightenment. He regarded abstract art as a symbol of the development of mankind’s ability to think conceptually. Greenberg asserted that abstract art is the highest form of art to develop out of Western culture since the Enlightenment. He sees abstract art as the quintessence of culture. Abstraction to Greenberg means freeing oneself from the limitations of figurative language and approaching a state of spiritual freedom that enables the artist to create art that is “just what it is”. A variety of theories concerning Western abstract art and spanning a period of more than a century find their culmination in the work of Greenberg, who thought that the representation of reality with the use of two dimensional forms was far closer to the essence of reality itself than representation in three-dimensional forms. For Greenberg, three-dimensional realism is just an illusion. Greenberg’s theories were derived from Plato. According to Plato, the reality we can see is just a shadow of the real world of “ideas”. Therefore, three dimensional art is just a shadow of yet other shadows. So from this perspective, two dimensional abstract art goes beyond and improves upon three-dimensional, representational forms of art. Abstract art depicts the whole world of ideas, as in the red and black squares of Malevich, and the patterns of Mondrian. Only two dimensional forms can go beyond the limits of visual illusions, thus representing real ideas. Greenberg’s revolutionary theory became the basis for Western abstract art. As Yve-Alain Bois, a professor at Columbia University and a student of Greenberg, said in his book about abstract art, Painting as a Model, the geometrical forms of modern art are its essence.

Changming Meng

Every model requires a code, and it is that code that endows abstract art with its meaning. Furthermore, the act of understanding abstract art is itself a decoding process. But the process of decoding abstract art is quite different from the analytic methods used for previous art forms. Decoding abstract art doesn’t rely on an understanding or interpretation of any representational forms. Theories of abstract art reject the idea that art should be merely representational, that it should be indebted to literature’s narratives or to the world’s visual appearance. The process of decoding abstract art doesn’t depend upon visual reality at all. It is a process moving from one idea to another, as represented, for example by dots, lines, and a color field. On the contrary, art theories have often stressed the role of reality as a medium to decode the meaning of an artwork. Let me offer an example. The decoding process employed by Iconology starts from the physical appearance of an icon, in order to enter its Iconological index, and to finally pierce the symbol itself. This process is based on the relationship between icon and visual reality and it is this relationship that makes the decoding process employed by Iconology possible. Since Iconology is related to theology, history and culture it is therefore the monopoly of art historians. On the contrary, the code of modern abstract art doesn’t need to rely on any icon as medium. Breaking free from the icon as a medium endows the artist with creative freedom. But it does not free the person doing the decoding. This is because defining the meaning of an artwork is the privilege of the abstract artist, who is free of the icon as symbol, not of the task of a passive decoder.

The individual code has become the essential characteristic of modern abstract art. Modernism has produced many masters and excellent artists who rely on personal code as a means of expession. Seeing the works of Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Newman, we need only listen reverently, listen attentively to the explanations of the artists themselves about how they reconstitute the external world in terms of geometrical forms. This kind of abstract art based on individual codes appeared only during the twentieth century. It is very different from the ancient, non-Western art forms similar to abstract art such as the Yang Shao pottery patterns or on the bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasty. The essential difference between those early works and modern Western abstract art is that both the codes employed and the decoding process from ancient works are collective, not individual, codes. At the time of the Yang Shao culture, people could easily understand the various decorative patterns employed probably because they were ritual symbols, used during rites to pay homage. These abstract forms were the symbols of the religious and cultural life of these ancient populations, not the symbols of the individual artist. Both the use of codes and the decoding processes were are collective processes. Therefore, I would argue that modern abstract art is the product of the individualism developed from the Enlightenment onwards and is essentially different from any “abstract” forms either from ancient China or from other non-Western cultures.

Individualism is at the heart of Western modern abstract art because that art form stresses the originality and personal artistic growth that great masters and influential artists are able to pursue. Consequently, new compositions employ totally new code systems, and these new code systems stand for a new meaning. This is what some Western modernists, such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell, refer to as a “significant form”. So the pursuit of significant form resulted in the reverence for individualism and originality. Herein lies the quintessence of Modernism. In the 1950s, Minimalism, a representative style of late twentieth century Modernism, moved from the early modernist ideal toward an extreme formalism of what they called “objecthood” and “theatricality”. Various minimalist artists consider the colors of their images as pure matter . As Stella said, “What you see is what you see .” Minimalism strives for an objectified theatricality, which allows the public to step onto the stage with the artwork . At the same time, it possesses a fierce sense of spatial composition and of space conceived as a whole. Furthermore, Minimalism uses a completely objectified space to express a sense of the material that defies interpretation, thus completely discarding the need for codes and decoding processes. Even if Minimalism destroyed the mysterious and individual allure of the codes used by modern abstract masters, and thus precluded the need for their audience to decode their works, it still remains a quintessential modernist principle because it endows the artist with the absolute power to control the space of the artwork (generally through a series of arbitrary forms). In comparison with Greenberg’s concept of art as “just what it is” and Stella’s notion of “what you see is what you see,” pre-Minimalist abstract art focuses on thought, Minimalism on visual perception. But both consider art an autonomic realm.

Needlessly to say, all kinds of modernism (early and late) reject content (either as a picture of reality, an interpretation of the critic, or a statement of the artist). It is this dichotomy (content vs. form) that set up the foundation for modern abstract art throughout the 20th century. One may find, however, there is no such divide between content and form in the practice of the so-called Chinese “abstract” art.

The Chineseness in Chinese Contemporary Abstract Art

After the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), the earlier generation of social realist artists turned to individual styles and aesthetics. A debate over formalism took place in the early 1980s. In 1981, Wu Guangzhong, a French – trained painter of the earlier generation, in an essay published in Art Monthly argued against the dominant forms of realism in favor of abstraction, or “no subject, just form.” The article caused a sensation which inspired a number of younger artists to pursue a modern art style. In the second half of the 1980s, the avant-garde artists of the ’85 Movement continued this experimental art, and used a style similar to abstraction in combination with Surrealism and Expressionism to create what I labeled as “Rationalistic painting”. One may think of Rationalistic painting as an alternative form of Chinese Modernism, because it has an idealistic aspect similar to that of early European Modernism, and because its subjects always relate to traditional Oriental philosophical ideas, such as “squire (fang),” “sphere (yuan),””nothingness (wu)” and “being (you)”. For instance, in the 1980s, there was a group of artists in China, in Shanghai in particular, that was concerned with abstract art. In Shanghai, Yu Youhan, Ding Yi, Qin Yifeng, and Wang Zi were the first artists to create abstract works that employed dots and lines. This kind of Chinese “abstract” art, however, is crucially different from the Western modern abstract art rendered in geometric forms.

From the 1990s onwards, many traditional ink and wash painters such Li Huasheng, Zhang Yu, Zhang Jin and Wei Qingji devoted themselves to abstract ink and wash painting whose subjects were dots and lines. This so-called “abstract art” phenomenon took place simultaneously in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong during the last 20 years. In Hong Kong, Lui Chun Kwong, a professor at the Hong Kong Chinese University, and his students such as Man Fengyi, Kwok Ying, Qu Kailin, engaged in abstraction. In the 1980s in Taiwan, Chuang Pu after his return from Spain devoted himself to abstraction in the form of Minimalism and strongly influenced young artists such as those of the IT Part group.

Nevertheless, how can we define the Chinese “abstract art” phenomenon, or identify the essential characteristics of Chinese “abstract art,” in comparison with those of Euro-American?

First, this Chinese abstract art phenomenon is partly a result of the current urbanization trend and it expresses the responses of individual artists to the impact of globalization. Alternatively, since abstract art in general has been marginalized for at least a half of century, the Chinese “abstract art” of the last 20 years can be seen as a rebellion against conventional realism as well as against current urban mass culture, as both share a similar kitsch aspect.

All Chinese “abstract” artists share a common principle: the squares, the dots, and the lines they employ are neither a mere formal decoration (as “what you see is what you see”), nor are they the material expression of the Ideal (as “what it is”). They are engaged in a dialogue similar to the one carried on in everyday life between artists and objects. The squares, dots and lines symbolize the repetition and triviality of everyday life. They are the expression of self-development in an urbanized context that keeps its distance from the outside world. These abstract forms do not represent things. So, its minimalist appearance has nothing in common with the Minimalist style of 1950s USA. These forms are similar to forms found in the records of spiritual exercises of Buddhist meditation. Almost all these abstract artists stress repetition, continuity, and a simple, unaffected state of mind. They focus on creating an internally satisfying spiritual realm. This is why I labeled the abstract artists of the 1990s as “Maximalists”. “Maximalism” means being able to express freely without dichotomy between form and content, matter and spirit, art work and artist, or object and environment. It means being able to go beyond the formal appearance of an artwork, thus expressing the unique feelings of an artist in a unique context, and his personal process of daily growth. There are many artists concerned with these issues. For example, Li Huasheng’s ink and wash paintings are his personal diary; Zhu Xiaohe, with his short lines, copies ancient paintings and masterpieces everyday. Actually, Maximalism consists of using personal feelings to inform the process of abstraction. Zhang Yu leaves his fingerprints on his casual sketches on Xuanzhi (high quality paper from Anhui Province) in order to condense his own experiences in an abstract ink wash painting. We can cite many other artists, including those in the current exhibition visibleinvisible.

Each of them underscores the importance of individual aesthetic experience as opposed to any standard model to define the forms they choose to use. They never aim at pursuing a unique and revolutionary style. On the contrary they aim at a mutual but tacit dialogue between their personal feelings (spiritual realm) and the means of expression (material realm). All this is evident in their “piece by piece” art making process as well as in everyday life. This approach thus transcends the dichotomy of the abstract aesthetic developed in Western Modernism.

Therefore, the minimalist Chinese abstract art that emerged in the 1990s is not the Minimalism of Western Modernism, rather it is an art phenomenon I call Maximalism. First, the paintings using geometrical compositions in Chinese Maximalist art show no relationship with either the “pure matter” of Minimalism or with the abstract expression of the Ideal of earlier works. Second, they have no relationship with elite style, evolution or other modernist conceptions. On the contrary, these works are related strictly to the everyday life of Chinese people living under the assaults of urbanization. The physical form of the works is not to be seen as an independent entity since the essence of the art is not the works on the walls. Whereas Western Modernist art is derived from the relationship between frame and wall, Chinese abstract art focuses more on the relationship between the artwork and the artist’s affect on it as impacted by the artist’s environment, the process of which is an inseparable part of the artist’s everyday life. So, even if these artists don’t consciously attempt to employ coding, codes appear in the dialogue among the artists, their everyday lives and their artwork. Their codes are invisible and immaterial, therefore it is impossible to decode their works in the conventional manner in which art critics and audiences engage. Instead their codes have to be experienced, rather than read, by the public. Therefore, to decode these works, the audience must do more than read the physical form of a work (that is, it’s surface, or text). It must understand the entire process of making the art, the context underlying the work.

Secondly, concerning the spatial form of paintings, Maximalism is a search for the infinity of space. The Maximalists have no interest in the wholeness of their compositions, which emphasize the difference between center and edge. They do not create independent or self-sufficient paintings. On the contrary, they aim to express their spatial concepts through repetitive forms. Therefore, most of their works are repetitive series. Their “wholeness” is realized in a series of partially completed works. According to the Maximalists, there is not fixed, isolated or unchangeable space limited by a frame. Space is a kind of relationship, always moving and metamorphosing. Some use different “formal principles” to express this infinity. For instance, in his early works, Xu Hongming used the Chinese traditional perspective method — the use of multiple vanishing points in stead of the single point of the Western perspective — to create his own abstraction. He used the method as an aesthetic means to express infinite space. His latest works explore the ways to express spatial infinity by using infinitely subtle changes in color. To take another example, Zhou Yangming and Zhang Fan superimpose innumerable grid layers to create the visual illusions of infinite depth. By unceasingly changing the combinations of rounds (karyon), the latest works of Tan Ping are metaphors referring to the eternal uncertainty of spatial relationships and compositions. This idea of uncertainty, or ambiguity, in fact comes from traditional Buddhist and Taoist philosophy which consider the physical world as increasingly transmuting space.


Therefore, the “space” in Chinese abstract art is neither a composition portraying the spiritual idealism aimed at by the early Modernists, nor is it the closed, unchangeable, theatrical space of the Minimalists. On the contrary, Maximalism seeks to express the infinity of visual space, not its wholeness. It is anti-wholeness and anti-theatricality. Furthermore, the space of Chinese abstract art goes far beyond its physical presence; it consists both of its interior and exterior space. One cannot truly understand the “space” inside the painting without a thorough comprehension of the conceptual space of the artist.
By Gao Minglu