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.

Conclusion

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

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4 Comments

  1. I really like the first painting in this article James… it’s a really dark piece but there is something underlying that I can’t put my finger on that makes it interesting.

  2. i agree, the first painting is beautiful. it’s like a sort of emo meets darkling. love the concept. ey, care to exchange links?

  3. Great articles & Nice a site.

  4. Nice post


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