Art History: Taste, Image and Identity

Comparative Analysis (He Duoling vs. Andrew Wyeth, Wang Guangyi vs. Andy Warhol) of the Role of Artistic Approaches and Directions in Art History Composition

By Lu Peng

Foreword

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For Americans today, the dates May 14, 1607, and July 4, 1776, are two key points in time, respectively marking the arrival of over 180 immigrants and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Though it was preceded by American Indian or indigenous American art, the American culture or American art of which we speak today was born sometime between these two dates. American art before the Second World War, however, was deeply influence by European art (in style, language, technique and other regards), from the earliest use of Neoclassical techniques to depict historical paintings and thus promote the political culture of American society, on to the use of Abstract art styles to express the freedom of American society. If that is the case, then what, precisely, is American art? How we evaluate the historical identity and value of American art can provide us with a reference for the problems we encounter when composing the history of Chinese art in the twentieth century. China may have five thousand years of history and culture, but after the year 1500, Europeans were constantly reaching Asia and the coast of China, and reaching further into the Chinese interior, to the point that by the mid-nineteenth century, the influence of European art had spread across the Chinese palace and populace. In the twentieth century, European (both Renaissance and modernist) and American art (mainly postwar) continually influenced Chinese art. This poses a series of challenges to researchers of modern Chinese art history: What is the historical connection between the new art and the traditional art of the past millennia? What is Chinese (rather than European or American) modern or contemporary art? This is a question of how to tackle the questions of influence and identity that arise in composing the history of twentieth century Chinese art.

The causes of mutual influence between civilizations are complex. Form, language and visual method may be extremely important components of art history research—for a long time in the 1980s, the visual methods of Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting had a profound impact and influence on Chinese artists and critics 1—but the influence of postmodernism and new history concepts in the 1990s changed people’s views on history and art history, making the similarities and differences that arise from taste and image into important components of history composition. Truly, there are often reasons for the similarities that emerge in certain periods, and the artist’s starting point and direction often bring about differences in taste, image and one’s own cultural identity, influencing our different interpretations within the systems of taste and image. Owing to differences in the historical circumstances between nations and regions, art history composition must not be limited to the mere analysis of image traditions and systems. So called styles, languages and visual methods will, owing to the starting points and directions that arise from different contexts, come to form entirely different cultural identities, which is something on which today’s more scientific global art history composition should focus.

At different points in the twentieth century, we should be able to find cases of Chinese and American artists with art history value. For instance, the experiences of Li Tiefu and Feng Gangbai, two early twentieth century artists who spent time in America before returning to China, can be seen as early examples of mainland Chinese artists learning painting from the West since the late nineteenth century. In the late twentieth century, American art and Chinese art after 1978 had a more complex relationship. For instance, Robert Rauschenberg’s (1925-2008) exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in the mid-1980s had a direct influence on the birth of Chinese contemporary art.

This essay selects two artists, He Duoling and Wang Guangyi, who have different artistic traits and historical influence on the history of Chinese contemporary art, and compares them to Andrew Wyeth and Andy Warhol, respectively, discussing how they differed in artistic approach and direction due to differing influences, contexts, schemas and cultural backgrounds in order to identify artistic values in different countries in the twentieth century that appear similar but work to different aims, and thus provide research cases for approaches and fields of vision in global art history composition.

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He Duoling and Andrew Wyeth

Spring Winds Have Awoken was my thesis piece as a graduate student. At first, I didn’t plan to paint it like this at all. The grass was there first, and the original figure was that of an educated youth, but that later changed to a farmer, and in the end, World Art Magazine published Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World on the inside cover, and that painting immediately felt so intimate and familiar. I felt I should paint like that. At the time, oil paintings just weren’t painted like that, but I didn’t care. Not only did I use Wyeth’s brushwork techniques, I had also changed the painting to depict a village girl. At the time, it was quite subversive. This set the tone for my early painting style, a style that would have a strong impact on the development of the new painting in China.

He Duoling, Spring Winds Have Awoken, 1982; Oil on canvas, 95×130cm; Collection of the National Art Museum of China

He Duoling, Spring Winds Have Awoken, 1982; Oil on canvas, 95×130cm; Collection of the National Art Museum of China

The issue of World Art Magazine He Duoling describes was the first issue from 1981. This issue contained an essay by Zhao Yiheng on the American painter Andrew Wyeth, and included as one of its illustrations Wyeth’s Christina’s World. The painting depicted, from a high vantage point, a crippled girl—the painter’s neighbor—prone on the grass and looking up at a house on a hill. Whatever the painter’s original intent, the conveyed theme is perhaps one of loneliness out on the vast, empty prairie. The brushwork is meticulous, the atmosphere mournful, but the print quality in that magazine was very poor. Compared to today’s catalogues, it was nothing more than a bit of graphic information with inaccurate colors, but it was still enough to shock Chinese painter He Duoling.

I visited He Duoling’s studio when he was painting Youth (1984) at the Chengdu Painting Academy. On a paint covered chair laid a Wyeth monograph of excellent print quality. As I flipped through the pages, I found them covered in smudges and drips of paint, apparently the result of constantly flipping through the monograph as he painted. Clearly, Wyeth was a reference for He Duoling as he perfected his painting style.

Even before entering the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, He Duoling was already a celebrated painter in Chengdu, a major southwest Chinese city, constantly surrounded by friends and young art lovers, holding court on painting, music and literature with a violin in his hands. Before 1977, except for special circumstances, people’s exposure to “foreign” art in China was limited to the art of Russia, of such artists as Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ilya Repin and Vasily Surikov. By 1978, people may have been able to read the novels of Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens 2, and trade copies of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Claude Debussy, but it would not be until 1979 that artists would be able to see high quality catalogues of Western art since Impressionism. By this time, however, He Duoling, who possessed a natural talent for understanding literature, painting and music, had become an accomplished self-taught painter, which is why he gained early acceptance into graduate school.

Before Springs Winds Have Awoken (1982), He Duoling created a painting entitled Pursue the Enemy (1976), in which a Communist soldier during the Chinese Civil War is writing the slogan “take the fight across the Yangtze” on a wall. The soldier’s uniform, the yellow wall and the overall composition come together with fine brushwork to create a war scene outside of the battle. He Duoling understood the official government standards for art at the time: there were no political issues with the content, and the conception allowed us to “see the big in the small”—giving us a sense of the presence of great armies through a small detail—keeping with the artistic standards of the time. The artist’s focus, however, was on the texture of this uneven wall covered in a white-painted slogan, the marks of battle and time on the soldier’s old uniform, and the bullet casings scattered about the scene. This proliferation of compelling realistic details is what drew the audience in. I am presenting these facts in order to demonstrate that, as the decade-long Cultural Revolution was drawing to a close, He Duoling cared not for the official artistic standards of the “red, bright and shiny” aesthetic. He reined in the composition within a yellow tone, satisfying his own chromatic tastes and avoiding the government’s stylistic demands 3. Before this, the artist had a “furtive” understanding of the outside world and the arts and culture of the West, and had been cultivating an interest in reality in his artistic skills. Once the opportunity arose, this interest would be conveyed through concrete forms. He Duoling’s personality did not allow for the imposition of any demands that had no connection to his own inner needs, and the political shifts that took place in China in 1976 made it possible for just such a personality to develop. In his early years, He Duoling’s painting techniques were mainly influenced by the Russian Itinerants, and he perhaps learned a bit about European painting from some catalogues kept by a friend or other printed materials that were not destroyed in the Cultural Revolution 4. Either way, the natural talents awakened by his reading of art catalogues allowed him to gain control over his taste in oil painting at an early age, and to maintain his keenness for painting.

People speak of Wyeth’s influence on He Duoling, and indeed, the artist’s account suggests that perhaps Wyeth’s meadow became the seed for Spring Winds Have Awoken. In 1988, when the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan held a solo exhibition for the artist, titled China—The Depth of Realism, the artist penned a statement in which he recounted early experiences in the Liangshan region:

In the summer of 1969, as I laid on a patch of grass that had not withered despite the cold weather, surrounded by the infinite, boundless mountain peaks of Liangshan in southern Sichuan Province, staring at the sky. It wasn’t until a decade later that I realized that then, during those listless, drifting times, my life had become intertwined with that meadow.

He admits that he “Painted that meadow into the earliest Spring Winds Have Awoken, driven by a blind passion and painstaking labor to gradually find myself.” 5 Evidently, the meadow in Wyeth’s Christina’s World served as a lead for He Duoling’s early memories, the meadow itself standing as a symbol for his young sentiments and perceptions, because it had been unconsciously woven into his mind during those “listless, drifting times.” The meadow, along with the genes of his sentiments, had been deeply rooted into He Duoling’s subconscious, waiting to be awakened to reemerge in the visible world. The statement about “finding himself” is quite crucial. It is a universal expression—beginning in the late 1970s and across the 1980s, the shared desire of China’s youth was to “find themselves”. “Finding oneself” was a universal inner need of the time, and since it would be difficult to do so through the existing art forms and expressions, the emergence of any style or language from Western art in China served as an artistic lead for various “selves” in their quest to leap from the sea of the subconscious and breach the surface. One day in 1981, when Christina’s World appeared before He Duoling’s eyes, his memories were restored, leading him to change his original composition to the point that the artwork he was creating drew close to the hazy perceptions he so desired. What were those perceptions he wished to realize in this painting? As the artist frankly admits, “That painting immediately felt so intimate and familiar. I felt I should paint like that.” Before the “meadow” appeared in the composition, it was merely a concept, not an artistic image, at most, an imagining or memory not yet put into words. In fact, it was Wyeth’s fine brushwork that caused the meadow in his painting to awaken the meadow in He Duoling’s perceptions and memories. The meadow in Wyeth’s painting resembled that in He Duoling’s memory to a certain extent, and, most importantly, it carried a sense of “looking up at the sky,” which undoubtedly touched off He Duoling’s memories of his time in that environment. In order to respond to this perception, and to avoid interference from any specific subject, he changed the “educated youth” from his original design into a young girl, diminishing the historical identity of the figure as much as possible. The artist wished only to retain an abstract perception. This changing of the educated youth into a young girl could be said to be He Duoling’s earliest expression of abstract awareness. From the beginning, he emphasized inner perceptions, rather than the historical facts that facilitated the narratives of his classmates Gao Xiaohua and Cheng Conglin.

Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World.

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World

Neither Andrew Wyeth nor He Duoling deny the importance of sentiments in their artworks. For He Duoling, living in an interior Chinese city, perceptions of “peace” and “solitude” stemmed primarily from his own experiences. From 1969 to 1971, Liangshan, for this child of a common family of intellectuals, meant boredom and poverty, as well as “peace” and “solitude.” In this era, his experiences differed in no substantial way from those of most educated youths. He Duoling returned to Chengdu in 1972 and began to study painting diligently at Chengdu Normal Academy. His natural talent and sensitivity were catalyzed by formal training, which is why he was able, in 1976, to complete the impressive work Pursue the Enemy. The annual National Fine Arts Exhibitions were restored in 1972, marking the beginning of the end of a trend towards the discarding of technique, even intellect in painting, touched off by the bitter class struggle of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. With the restoration of the exhibitions, the “art and literary workers” seemed to have the conditions they needed to express their interests and practices in oil painting techniques. 6 Thus, when He Duoling entered the Chengdu Normal Academy to study painting, it was possible for him to study technique, providing the technical conditions for Pursue the Enemy, which he would complete four years later. The Russian and Soviet painting that influenced China, however, presented unrefined brushwork, and the blocky brushwork of Soviet painting—reinforced by Konstantin Maksimov’s teachings in China in the 1950s—formed the taste and technique that Chinese painters pursued for a long period. The blocky brushwork popular at the time can still be seen in Pursue the Enemy, but in the pursuit of visual realism, He Duoling not only weakened that blocky brushwork—allowing for a depiction of forms and details in closer accord with actual visual perception—he also reduced the size of his brushstrokes as much as possible. Young painters studying in Chengdu at the time often heard the maxim “better square than round” (a saying Xu Beihong often used in his teachings) from their teachers, to the point that square brushstrokes were widespread. At the 57 Art School, where Zhou Chunya, a classmate of He’s, studied, even sketches of plasters were to be made in a way that the lines came together to form small squares, creating a vibrant, airy effect that was something of a fad among the students. He Duoling, however, found that this style or visual effect was ill-suited to the expression of his perceptions. Later, in the work of Andrew Wyeth, he would find another technique, a technique with a different visual effect and resulting sentiments. The way an image touches the spirit or stimulates the scalp of the viewer differs from person to person. Wyeth’s technique resonated with He Duoling’s tastes. The result of this resonance was the reemergence of perceptions and memories from a decade before. He also had an opportunity to understand that American painter’s techniques, allowing him to complete an artwork that fit with his original intent. He had already made a study for this painting, but he still lacked a concrete expressive technique. Now, the style of Wyeth’s artwork and the psychological effect it created produced an awakening in He Duoling’s heart. As soon as his heart accepted this style, all that remained was the application of this technique and the realization of this effect. For the talented He Duoling, it was not a challenge to learn a new technique in order to realize his goals. Clearly, however, it was just a juncture; his goal was not to copy Wyeth, and certainly not to depict some exotic fancy. Instead, “That power fixed into place in my youth had taken such steadfast control of my hand (not my brain), making the painting process something not of my doing” (He Duoling). In order to execute the desired effect, the painter used a small Chinese calligraphy brush to painstakingly depict the tangles of grass, in the end producing a painting that moved everyone in his time. Those born in the 1970s and 80s are perhaps not as strongly moved as their elders, but that is because they are far removed from the context of that time, so soon after all of the mutual suspicion, violence and wiping out of humanity by political ideology, when even emotions were colored by class consciousness, and when artists faced threats to their very survival if they did not follow the artistic standards of the day. The graphic novel Maple, released in 1979, depicts two lovers who were turned into “enemies” by inhuman political theories, and died at each other’s hand. Thus, in 1978, when the government allowed people to vent about the Cultural Revolution, there emerged artworks, such as Why by Gao Xiaohua and Snow on X Day X Month 1968 by Cheng Conglin, both classmates of He Duoling, that vented and cast doubt on the previous historical period. For He Duoling, however, the literary nature of Russian and Soviet painting was perhaps not important, because the artist wanted to paint perception itself, not the events that touch off perceptions. Thus, the composition He Duoling selected was not a literary depiction of a story, as we see in Cheng Conglin’s imitation of Surikov in Snow on X Day X Month 1968, nor was it the expression of what Gustave Courbet called “what the eye sees,” as seen in Chen Danqing’s imitation of 19th century French painters in his Tibet Series of Paintings. Instead, it was a graphic world like those of Andrew Wyeth, its specific meaning difficult to understand. The painting contained time, space, figure and setting, but the viewer cannot know the image’s specific intent, or perhaps the artist provided none of his intentions at all, providing only the results of his perceptions and actions, an approach that is in full accord with modernism. Here, I again emphasize that He Duoling’s choice to replace the original educated youth with a rural girl was an effort to cancel out the explicatory and narrative aspects of painting and bring perception to the fore. The title “Spring Winds Have Awoken” tends to be interpreted as a reference to the changing political climate, but what do the girl’s ambiguous expression and the sad tone of the overall composition imply? This approach would differentiate He Duoling from his classmates.

He Duoling, After Christina, 2010; Oil on canvas, 150x200cm

He Duoling, After Christina, 2010; Oil on canvas, 150x200cm

Some people called He Duoling an imitator of Andrew Wyeth, and this is how he responded:

That is absolutely correct. I do in fact like this “sentimental realist,” and do attempt to imitate him. I like Wyeth’s grave thinking, and his lonely horizon draws in my gaze. In addition, critics have ascribed romantic sentiments to him, but he is actually more rational and philosophical, his techniques more objective and precise. 7

The 1980s was a time when Western modernism was being widely adopted in China. The critical scene was, “within a mere decade, experimenting with every different stylistic school from Western modernism” in their evaluation of the artistic phenomena arising in that period. For He Duoling, however, the artistic languages and forms presented by Western modernism were not the focus of his attention. To the contrary, he was wary of excess freedom of choice. In 1988, he clearly expressed how he finds the boundaries of his art in the creative process and thus avoids the temptation of too many possibilities. He Duoling heartily agreed with Igor Stravinsky’s idea that artistic freedom arises from constraints, saying that “The abuse of ‘freedom’ is one of the causes of the depreciation of contemporary art. Strict self-restraint is the only way for the artist to gain true freedom.” 8 Simply put, unlike other fervent modernists, He Duoling’s art does not begin with form.

We could perhaps view He Duoling as a painting fundamentalist, but we still need to determine why an artist would hold on to ideas of painting. As a keen artist, He Duoling was evidently capable of researching the different styles of modernism according to his own character, and even carried out analysis of the different schools of Western painting since Courbet. In an essay titled “On the Art I Love,” he declares realism “unbearably trivial,” Surrealism “cheap enumeration” and Pop a “game for amateurs.” In the 1989 essay “Faith—Man’s Nature and Nature’s Man,” he laid out his views on painting since Impressionism. His basic judgment is that “Painting has fallen. Most tragically, it went to its demise in a time of passionate revolutionary momentum and unprecedented diversity of styles.” 9

The language and insight of He Duoling’s analysis of Impressionism and the modern painting that followed surpassed that of many Chinese critics of the time. Here we can look to the artist’s writings to understand where his artistic thoughts were focused. For instance, this is how he wrote about Impressionism:

The greatest shift in the twentieth century began with a painting titled Impression, Sunrise. The studios that had served as the factories of sacred art for centuries had collapsed. Art rushed towards the world of surface appearance, and canvases were flooded with light. In this passionate, rapacious, history-making gold rush, the solemn, gloomy religion of classicism was rooted out, and desire replaced intellect. Under the brush of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, art became true hedonism.

……

Impressionism brought champagne and large chunks of ham on the train out into nature. They were brash party-crashers, not gardeners. They trampled the paradise into a wasteland. Impressionism was depleted by its excessive sensory enjoyment and hedonistic fervor, its perceptions worn out by being kept in a constant state of high sensitivity. 10

As a painting practitioner, however, He Duoling could also carry out a highly specific analysis of the connections between his own inner needs and modernist painting through the basic traits and elements of painting. He of course knew of the importance of color to the Impressionists, and was clear that color “seemed to exist purely for vision,” but “For my art, color is a trap. The more I am drawn in by it, the more my intellect demands I avoid it.” 11 Thus, just as some of his classmates, such as Zhang Xiaogang and Zhou Chunya, were full of passion for Impressionism and Expressionism, He Duoling was very wary of color. He did not choose festive colors, and even believed that Impressionist colors were more material in nature than those of classicism, and He Duoling had wanted to avoid the material from the beginning. He Duoling did carry out research on such important artists as Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, who were inspiring models for young artists in the 1980s, but in his analysis, what he was discovering were his own needs, how these artists differed, and which components he actually needed from them:

 [Cézanne] sacrificed the clarity and visual intimacy of colors in Impressionism for his ideals, without gaining a religious expression of color in return—one of the traits of classicism. His still life paintings are true dissections of physiological color and light, but he is unable to stitch together the facet limbs. His mountains are like tottering monuments, testifying to the failure of their lofty ideals while presaging the arrival of a more wanton massacre—the arrival of Cubism—even though Cézanne disagreed with that outcome.

Gauguin completed the romanticist sublimation of color. He liberated the colors of Impressionism from evidentiary optics, thus declaring the beginning of Neo-Classicism’s entry into the era of symbolist colors. The tenet of this era is that color is not only subject to external light, and is closer to an inner light, a thread for the soul. The color craze did not go cold with him, but it did take on certain definitive elements of allusion and symbol. 12

In fact, when discussing these artists, he sees them as organizers of Impressionist colors. It is on the foundation of this view that he draws Henri Matisse, who at the time is beginning to become a more familiar figure, into the discussion. He says:

Like Gauguin, Matisse established an order within his colors, diminishing the level of tension on the surface and establishing harmony within a static balance. This harmony, however, is sensory, merely more precise, a cold, porcelain-esque surface. He constrained the wild color elements of Impressionism simply to create dolls suited to the languid aesthetic of bourgeois urbanites. 13

After discussing the colors of those Western artists, He Duoling frankly admits:

I stubbornly resist against the following dogma (even though this dogma may arise from my own heart): that the value of color is defined according to “intensity” and “weakness.” I firmly believe that pale colors are just as resplendent as thick, bright colors, just as the dark of night is just as beautiful as the light of day—as long as it fits to a certain form of expression. 14

Regardless of the explanations of Western critics, those familiar with the modernist movement in China in the 1980s know that this was a period when many artists used the intensity and weakness of expressionist colors to cover over the bright colors of Cultural Revolution art. These people, accustomed to a symbolic understanding of such ideas as “change” and the “Cultural Revolution,” were highly sensitive to the application of intensity and weakness in color. He Duoling, on the other hand, was more concerned with more subtle inner colors. For him, the control of color—avoiding bright, garish colors so as not to adversely affect people’s perceptions of the overall composition and its sentiments—was the crux of his work in realizing his paintings. Like most passionate modernists, He Duoling of course cared about many other artistic issues as well. He seems to have taken note of the Futurist maxim that the rushing car is more beautiful than the goddess. On the other hand:

These efforts to “paint” motion are little more than multiplying the surface of a concrete painting to create multiple aligned, moveable and stackable surfaces that shift along the axis of the viewer’s vision. In their shifts, these moving shapes are dismantled, stacked and made to permeate and deviate from each other, which results in the superficialization of the process of conceiving motion in vision. In the painting, one can see the traces of the various facets of a shape as if in a dream state. The most direct expression of this external imitation of motion is an eight-legged dog. 15

In his analysis of the formal traits of abstract painting, He Duoling also mentioned the qualities of motion possessed by Op-Art. He maintained, however, that Op-Art is “little more than a new trick in decorative function.” 16 He had little interest in such forms. After analyzing the various traits of abstractionism, he expressed his own formal viewpoint: “I pursue a form of concretism guided by abstractionism, or an abstractionism that possesses concrete appearance and material expression.” 17 In He Duoling’s artworks, we ca see what abstraction actually means for the painter. He uses outlines, whether of figures or of nature, to control the basic structure of the composition, keeping the viewer from falling into illusory visual space, and reduces color volume to a minimum to complete a work of abstraction with a concrete appearance.

I have extensively quoted He Duoling’s writings to highlight the fact that even in the 1980s, when China had just begun to open its doors, Western ideas and art were already unfolding like a great kaleidoscope before the eyes of young Chinese artists, but at least for He Duoling, the richness of artistic language had to follow his heart. His true focus was the selection of language according to his own experiences, views and approach. In January 1981, when a printed version Andrew Wyeth’s artwork (and a poor substitute for the original at that) appeared before him, it was a juncture, simply awakening the artist’s individual experiences and approach to painting. As the artist told us long ago, “The rich geography and isolation of Sichuan Province provided elements that fit with my worldview. For a long time, the themes in most of my artworks were rooted in my meditations on this land. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that my concepts depended on this land to find their expression.” 18 In 1985, he travelled to the United States to teach, and saw the original Christina’s World. “I discovered that it shared nothing in common with Spring Winds Have Awoken.” Nevertheless, many years later, he would salute Andrew Wyeth with the 2008 painting Returning to Christina’s World. 19

We know that Wyeth’s art was met with skepticism in his time, due to its lack of connections to the modern or international wave. Wyeth was born in 1917. His experiences and knowledge were linked to the interwar period of the 1930s and 40s. The American situation in this period was mainly defined by the Great Depression and the outbreak of war, with people’s emotions shadowed by hardship and tragedy. In the art sphere, American art was clearly influenced by European styles, with Cubism and Expressionism serving as the stylistic models for many artists. American artists marked as “regionalists,” however, may not have been using the vocabulary of modernism, but they did begin, under the influence of European styles, to shape an American style. The term “regionalism” may give the impression of artists who did not enter the currents of art history, but it was the regionalists of this time who touched off truly American art. To be sure, this touches on issues of concept and perspective in art history. According to the logic of linguistic and visual approaches, the refutation and ridicule that many of Wyeth’s contemporary critics doled out was evidently the result of the application of European standards. Later American art historians would decide, however, that such artists as Thomas Benton, John Curry and Grant Wood, were precisely the ones who created the face of America—its nature, history and people. Thus, it was because the realistic techniques they employed did not become part of the art under European influence that they did not “enter the mainstream” of American art. Many realist artists even went back to El Greco, Tintoretto and Rubens, or, in the case of Wyeth, to Dürer and Rembrandt, in search of profound expressive power in art, but they opened up the possibility of American art. They knew that in order to pursue the timeless, they had to consider their own starting point, and that the formal pursuits of continental European modernism did not fit with the American spirit of the era. To a great extent, it was precisely this deep and detailed observation and perception of the “region” that allowed for the American character to be truly expressed by artists and seen by the people, and for American artists to gradually see what their true path of development would be. 20 As Wyeth said, it was the “emptiness” presented by his familiar environment, rather than the sea, that formed his artistic themes. In this way, Wyeth escaped from the physical appearance of nature from the very beginning to express an abstract spirit. This presents an important trait of contemporary art: the starting point of art is produced by the perception and insight into context and related historical factors. The affirmation of their artistic starting point was the crucial issue for He Duoling’s generation of Chinese artists. Though He Duoling, like Wyeth, clearly understood the face of European modernism, from beginning to end, he directed his artistic goals towards his own heart, defining his artistic language and patterns according to his “inner needs” (Kandinsky).

Certainly, like Wyeth, He Duoling is not interested in the surface of the physical world. He also probes the expression of that which lies beneath the surface, the spiritual climate of the times—or at least what he feels it to be. To this end, Wyeth always gave his compositions and spaces an abstract rendering, with the perspective looking down from above, rather than up from below, turning the composition unfamiliar in a complete departure from the usual realist compositions to attain an abstract structure. Meanwhile, he was always simplifying the depiction of the subject’s details, as seen with adjustments to the distance between the house and the barn, and the removal of the birdcage and superfluous trees in Christina’s World. Wyeth only retained the objects he needed in order to create a simple composition free of interference from the physical world. With the assistance of dull, heavy colors, he created a perplexing, mournful atmosphere, which was precisely the goal of his expression: the emptiness of the world. Such artistic attitudes and methods evidently accepted the influence of modern styles such as abstraction. Trivial aspects of reality have been cleaned out, while the sky, the land, people and the few remaining symbolic objects of reality come together to create a formal relationship that is anything but empty. This is what both Wyeth and He Duoling wanted. In 1989, He Duoling summarized his basic logic of artistic creation:

I want to paint a young Yi girl standing on a snowy plain. I need to express how her shared origin with this wilderness makes her inseparable from it. Beyond this, I know nothing. I have no need to know. For instance, why is she standing there? She may be waiting for something, but I have no need for such circumstantial details. I just need to express that mysteriousness. To this end, I make it so that her head is turning until that moment I feel harmony is produced, and then I fix that moment. I also have no need to explain the definition of this harmony or why it is produced. I only know that I have recounted this story no one knows, and that this secret is encapsulated in the silence of the painting. I will enjoy seeking out that secret together with my audience, and I know that our answers will never be the same. Could there be a more enjoyable outcome? 21

Thus, like Wyeth, He Duoling understands the techniques and meanings of modernism, but he hopes to use analysis and induction to seek out the abstractness of the world within the seemingly familiar world, finding, within the visible world, not its physical properties, but the sentiments that lie within. Finally, both of them aimed to convey the secrets buried deep beneath the world’s surface. In this regard, He Duoling’s goal is entirely different from the goals of Li Tiefu and Feng Gangbai, who traveled to America long ago to study art. 22

Here I must make a simple summarization: it was precisely his own starting point in terms of perception and taste that led He Duoling to find his own beginning in Andrew Wyeth’s artwork, and it was precisely the differences in context and culture that led to distance between the two artists. Interestingly, in China, when only low quality prints of Western artworks were available, He Duoling appeared to be quite close to Andrew Wyeth, but in America, where he was able to see the original artwork, He Duoling discovered a clear distance between himself and the other artist. What they share is respect for the changes in their societies, cultural backgrounds and true inner perceptions, which made them both models for their respective chapters in art history.

 

Wang Guangyi and Andy Warhol

American art circles in the early twentieth century certainly held European modernism in the highest regard, but at this time, the Americans began their own ambitious project of innovation. The Armory Show held in February 1913 became a declaration from America to the world: in culture and politics, America was at the vanguard of the times. Most of the over 1000 works presented at the exhibition were created by American artists, though works by such European masters as Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Brancusi and Duchamp also attracted much curiosity and attention. Three years later, the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, held at Anderson Galleries, bolstered the importance of American art. The catalogue stated that the goal of the exhibition was “To turn public attention for the moment from European art and concentrate it on the excellent work being done in America.” American abstract painting had begun, and though these artists were clearly influenced by trends in Paris, they also took great pains to demonstrate that their understanding of color and tone was their own. For instance, Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973) declared Synchronism to be an American invention. Abstract painting elicited much controversy—in fact there were many similarities to the discussion of art that took place in China in the 1980s—but the emergence of this style implied, in the field of visual art, the arrival of the era of “shaping” rather than “reflecting” American society. In the 1940s, Clement Greenberg stressed the purity of painting in his writings on abstract painting, but nations that have shaped a form of uniqueness lead us to feel that expounding solely on the purity of linguistic form is just too simple. History shows that even within the same graphic systems—the basis of art history analysis—differences in starting points, directedness and context bring historical discrepancies in linguistic form into stark contrast. Indeed, the Great Depression of the 1930s led many people in America to grow dissatisfied with and skeptical of reality, producing a demand for realist exposition and critical approaches. Just as Thomas Benton’s painting became the focus of heated controversy, the critics were wary of the artistic leanings produced by leftist criticism. But the end of the Great Depression and the war era development of America provided an opportunity for the continuation and ample development of the modern art that began at the turn of the century. The now-familiar Abstract Expressionism emerged at that point, but with the development of consumer society, a new direction emerged, first under the aegis of “new realism” but quickly renamed Pop Art. The main practitioners were Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), James Rosenquist (b. 1933) and Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929). They quickly led people to embrace and immerse themselves in the material life of reality, rather than in mysterious concepts or Japanese Zen meditations. This is the historical backdrop for Andy Warhol as we understand it.

There are parallels with the situation in China. Artists cast suspicion on the history of the past, and used the system of realistic images to engage in criticism of history and reality, but once the possibility for aesthetic explication of the reawakening of humanity had been provided, Chinese artists were faced with the question of how to further reflect and shape the reform era after 1978. The styles and techniques of the “New Wave Art” of the mid-1980s may have been derived from the West, but the goal of those “pioneers” and “avant-garde” figures scattered across China’s cities was to establish a new culture. This echoes, to a certain extent, the ambition of the American Abstract Realists to reshape American culture, with the difference being that official (art) organizations in China did not respond to or support the various modernist movements in any way, and even interfered with New Wave Art in accordance with the ideological will of the central government. This background reveals that in the process of establishing their own new culture, Chinese artists faced difficulties in that their aims were at odds with the national will, a phenomenon often viewed as confusion of values. If He Duoling’s art was mainly aimed at the awakening of humanity that was universally needed by the people of that time, Wang Guangyi’s art engaged in a more complex values struggle. The art of Andy Warhol also came under fire in his day, but few would deny that it was American art.

Unlike Wyeth, Warhol reveled in the consumerist life of the city. He didn’t even see commerce and art as different things. To Warhol, making money was art. Artists like him are cut from a completely different cloth from those reserved, sentimental artists. At first, people dismissed Pop Art, but Andy Warhol, who jumped right into the New York scene after graduating from the Carnegie Institute, simply didn’t have the time to bother dealing with the art scene’s derision for him. Art critics more in touch with the times of course viewed Warhol as a true American artist, and viewed Abstract Expressionism as a mere continuation of European modernist ideas.

Andy Warhol was born in August, 1928, and enjoyed drawing as a child, perhaps as a result of the influence and encouragement of his mother. Warhol had the genes of a painter, awakened and internalized by his mother, a protective figure. His brother John said that Andy came to this world to paint. He remembers their mother buying Andy a movie projector so he could watch Mickey Mouse and Little Orphan Annie and draw what he saw.

Another of Warhol’s artistic genes was also expressed in childhood. Often, when playing, he would choose girls as his playmates. This was not an early expression of his preference for the opposite sex. Instead, he perceived his own inner qualities in the feminine form. He was often shy, rather than overbearing. One of his early female playmates described him as a “tag-along.” In those days when he would often go to the movies with girls, Warhol collected large quantities of celebrity photographs and printed materials—materials that would form an important theme in his portraiture many years later. There is much documentation to show that he fostered a substantial interest in Hollywood from a young age, even writing to actors to request their photograph, and impersonating their voices, postures and dances. Of course, Warhol would go on to nurture a lasting interest in women.

Warhol’s earliest art education was in design, though his teachers did provide some basic instruction in such fields as composition, perspective and colors. The industrial and commercial design experts at school strengthened his interest in and understanding of commercial art, and he came to understand American culture as film, broadcast media, newspapers and advertisements. In any case, popular culture was woven into Warhol’s artistic genes, but he was not interested in determining the value of popular culture within the general concept of human culture—that was a question for intellectuals—he simply absorbed it. Later, in America, he would write:

When I was little I loved going to the movies and I probably hoped that the movies showed what life was like. But what they showed was so different from anything I knew about that I’m sure I never really believed it, even though it was probably nice to think that it was all true and that it would happen to me some day.

It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.

Such an attitude demonstrates Warhol’s favorable view on following popular culture. In fact, his first job after college was painting window displays for department stores. Success in commercial society whetted his appetite for engaging in artistic creation.

Even before his success, Warhol called Abstract Expressionism “crap.” This shows that he had a strong awareness of how he wanted to create his own art. When he turned the Campbell’s Soup cans so familiar from his mother’s kitchen into the subject of painting, he completed a landmark work in Pop Art. Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles held an exhibition of his work in July 1962 in which viewers saw 32 paintings of soup cans. The everyday items, repetitiveness and the removal of meaning from the artwork marked American contemporary art’s entry into a new era. Anyone familiar with American life in the 1950s and 60s can understand why Warhol’s art could represent the art of this period, even though he was subject to much ridicule and criticism at first.

When Andy Warhol was getting his picture taken at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1982, Wang Guangyi was just graduating from the Zhejiang Academy of Art. At that time, the trend that best represented the new art in China was Scar Art from Sichuan Province. Nevertheless, the social life of a particular period and individual creative character always seem to find a way to come together. Wang Guangyi was born ten years later than He Duoling, just as Andy Warhol was born a decade after Wyeth, and spent his youth in the 1950s, when the hardships of the 30s and 40s were already a thing of the past. They all took in the unique atmospheres and social contexts of their times. In December 1978, the Third Plenary of the Eleventh Party Congress identified economic development as the primary goal for the party and the people—before this, the nation had been mired in the brutal political environment of class struggle—this brought sweeping changes to the formerly monotonous political atmosphere of Chinese society as elements of freedom and commerce began to penetrate every corner.

Despite this, commerce and consumption were still at very low levels in the beginning of China’s opening, and was thus entirely incomparable with the “money crazed” and “superficial” society of the United States. Throughout the 1980s, Wang Guangyi spent most of his time learning about and pondering Western philosophy and art history. Unlike He Duoling, who lived far away in southwest China, Wang Guangyi seems to have instinctively avoided the tendency towards mournful catharsis. In his works before the mid-1980s, he defined the regional traits of the “north.” His Frozen Northern Wasteland series marked his early efforts to transcend regionalism while still relying on regional traits. He was mainly attempting to move beyond the warm, sentimental naturalism of the works he created when he first graduated. To this end, he joined with classmate Shu Qun and a few others to propose a “frigid zone civilization,” which was a measure to resist against a posited “temperate zone civilization,” with the goal of drawing a line between themselves and other artistic trends in the time of the modernist art movement. Compositionally, the figures and environments in these works were highly generalized. Compared to the expressionist trends in the southwest, Wang Guangyi’s paintings were rational and lacking in emotional elements, providing a formal basis for critic Gao Minglu’s later distinction between “rational painting” and “life flow painting.” We do not need to sift through Wang Guangyi’s artistic trajectory in great detail to clearly see that around the year 1987, Wang Guangyi’s artistic ideas shifted from those of Hegel and Nietzsche to the logic of such philosophers as Karl Popper. In the art history analysis of E.H. Gombrich, he discovered that so called originality, to a great extent, does not really exist, and that ways to distinguish oneself from other groups of artists cannot be found in absolute ideas, as there are no such things. Thus, in the late 1980s, Wang Guangyi began to cast off essentialist philosophical thinking, believing that such ideas as “world 3” could liberate his art. The Post-Classical series marked his earliest attempts at freeing himself from generalized naturalism.

The haphazard application of Gombrich’s ideas led Wang Guangyi toward a new understanding of art history. In an essay in a 1987 issue of China Fine Arts, he writes, “Gombrich gave me inspiration regarding schemas, cultural correction and continuity.” This inspiration led Wang to the discovery that the production of meaning was not accomplished through objective uncovering but through bestowing. This was a major shift in his artistic thinking. The Frozen Northern Wasteland series was a visual symbolization of that which is “above”, “metaphysical”, “lofty” or even “absolute ideas,” or at least the artist believed it was a pursuit of the visualization of absolute truth. He discovered, however, that whether in terms of image, technique or concept, he was unable to attain his ideals. The “ultimate ideals” that he and his friends hoped to established were not realized at all. Let us read how, under the influence of Hegel and Nietzsche, he attempted to achieve the dream of the Italian Renaissance:

Life’s internal driving force–that force behind culture–has today truly been raised to a high level! We yearn for and “happily watch all forms of life” to establish a new, more human-oriented spiritual mode, bringing more order to life’s process of evolution. To this end, we are opposed to those pathological, rococo-tipped arts, and all things that are unhealthy and detrimental to the evolution of life, because they will promote mankind’s weaker aspects, leading man away from health and life. It is in this sense that what the participants in the “85 New Wave Movement” are doing is not artistic creation as art, but instead are engaged in a process of philosophical concepts and actions that are not philosophy. This is the same as the somewhat uncertain properties of the art at the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. The reason that Renaissance art has historical value is not so much because of its level of completion as an artistic model, but because its non-philosophical expression of philosophical ideas inspired and catalyzed the rise of humanist thinking, bringing Europe out of the conundrums of the Middle Ages to discover man and his value as a person. 23

Quickly, however, Wang Guangyi came to understood that art is rooted in art history, just as civilization is rooted in civilization. The crux of essentialism was its pursuit of absolute truth, but Popper and Gombrich revealed to him that absolute truth does not exist.

The Post-Classical series first emerged as an attempt at metaphysical philosophy but later turned to seek assistance from art history. On the conceptual level, Wang Guangyi began a metaphysical “descent.” Wang Guangyi viewed “classical” art—mainly European—as the foundation and most important component of art history, even attaching metaphysical sentiments onto specific classical art, such as that of Rembrandt, but in this series, he used his own understanding of “schema correction” to guide his actions, taking Rembrandt, David, and a host of works by European masters since the Renaissance as the motifs on which to carry out his “corrections” in search of a way to escape from the trap of old art while maintaining a steady forward pace. This new strategy produced results. This is how Hong Zaixin, a classmate who researched art history, appraised the Post-Classical series:

Post-Classical—Return of the Prodigal Son and Post-Classical—Big Angel are the two works that piqued my interest the most. Both spiritually and visually, they give me a sense of dignified solemnity and sweeping loftiness. They remind me of something you said long ago in a speech, which is that the rational afterlife is better than emotion. In other words, you are not painting infinitesimal individual feelings, but aiming to spread an idea of “greater mankind.” It is no wonder that everyone is so impressed. There is not a single New Wave figure who has so successfully established their own schemas as you. 24

Hong Zaixin’s understanding is not in accord with Wang Guangyi’s original intent in his “correction” experiments. The statement that “The rational afterlife is better than emotion” was just his ideal at the beginning. Now, Wang Guangyi was trying to extricate himself from the philosophical sentiments of metaphysics, though he still clung to classical “schemas.”

The state of the art scene in 1987 was basically as follows: the modernist movement that began in 1984 had seemingly come to a close due to a flood of declarations and linguistic experiments in various styles. The “anti-capitalist liberalization” campaign launched by the party that year seemed to provide political resources to those who resisted the modernist movement. As any school of modernist art was the formalist art of the capital class, the party could suppress it if needed, and at least worked to restrict its spread. Meanwhile, in the critical field, there were still persistent voices pushing for more academic thinking. Such voices were directed at linguistic issues in modernist art, and called for a “purification of artistic language.” For some critics, the modernist movement—particularly its Expressionist tendencies—was marked by crude language. Indeed, up until 1989, most modernist artists lacked basic material conditions. They procured canvases by washing old bedsheets or other low grade textiles. They used Chinese-made paints that are prone to fading and chipping. One person coined the phrase “concepts are greater than practice” to cast doubt on artists’ excessive concern for philosophical issues at a time when the works of most young artists were physically quite crude. These material issues were evidently not the basis for the notion of the “purification of language.” Some critics believed that in order to promote the development of modern art, artistic language had to be “purified.” This discussion quickly ended, because the “purification of language” is an essentialist pseudo-issue, merely another phrasing of the critical model of form and content, shell and core, wherein content is understood as a valuable spirit, and form should be “refined” and “precise.” At this time, however, many works in the classical style by instructors at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (such as Jin Shangyi, Sun Weimin and Yang Yunfei) and young instructors at the Zhejiang Academy of Art under the rubric of “New Academic Art” quickly dissolved the drive for a “purification of language”—avant-garde critics did not accept this purification at all, as it was clearly a step backwards. By the time of the China / Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989, most artists had not had time to adequately reflect on such issues as the “purification of language” before they sensed the end of an era, though it would not be until after 1990 that they began to realize why this new atmosphere of the times would come to be called “postmodernist,” with the universal discarding of essentialist attitudes and the total removal or opening of meaning.

Mao Zedong AC, completed in 1988 and presented at the China / Avant-Garde exhibition in 1989, marked an important shift in Wang Guangyi’s focus from art history towards social life. He perhaps instinctually perceived the importance of issues in reality. From the beginning, however, he despised the use of realist or Expressionist techniques to express his views and perceptions of reality—yet there is no similarity between his view of Expressionism as pathological and Andy Warhol’s statement that Abstract Expressionism is “shit,” so he had to follow his own path for seeking possibilities. It is easy to imagine the controversy and skepticism that Mao Zedong AC attracted while it was on display. In 1988, Chinese social life was marked by universal unease. The development of the commercial economy, lacking a corresponding political foundation, began to visibly distort people’s mindsets. Magazines of the time were constantly reporting on scenes of social chaos. Tens of millions of villagers were giving up on agricultural production to flood into the cities. Factories were closing, and not enough new ones were opening to absorb the millions soon to be unemployed. Exponential growth in the ranks of the unemployed had led, by 1988, to a crisis across all levels of government, as a trickle became a great flood. The transportation system, particularly the railways, unable to handle the flows of migrants, became the scene for many unfortunate events. Meanwhile, inflation led to “official profiteering” 25 and government corruption. All of these came together to create unbearable pressure on the hearts of the people. Mao Zedong, the former egalitarian leader, became the subject of much nostalgia. This social mentality informed viewers’ understanding of artworks, or awakened historical connections in their minds. Such a media effect was, for some critics, entirely unrelated to art, merely a response to corresponding needs, rather than the logical development of modernist art itself. Wang Guangyi at this time was quietly pleased by the response to his artwork. Not long before, he had touted the maxim “clearing out of humanist passions,” aimed against Expressionist tendencies in artworks, but the impact of Mao Zedong AC brought him to the realization that his work had catalyzed such “humanist passions” among the people, and he did not feel strange about it. With conflicting feelings, he wrote the following letter to Yan Shanchun, an art critic friend (April 18, 1989):

At the time, I was quite worried, worried that people would see my Mao Zedong AC as a tool for latching onto the news. There was no doubt that Mao Zedong AC would have a news effect, but this is just the surface of the matter. What I really wanted to do was to reveal people’s cultural mentality of suspicion about the news in neutral and appropriate artistic means. Looking back now, I realized this ideal. It not only revealed the unique cultural mindset among workers, farmers, soldiers and intellectuals towards the past leader Mao Zedong, it was also part of the inevitable logic of my artistic schemas. The “humanist passions” catalyzed by the release of Mao Zedong AC demonstrated the foresight of my declaration last year about the “clearing out of humanist passions.”

If we compare Wang Guangyi’s view here with Warhol, we see that their artistic starting points are completely different. Wang Guangyi still persevered in his pursuit of the inner meaning of the artwork, finding that perhaps the intent or symbolism of the image should be more concealed, “Revealing people’s cultural mentality of suspicion about the news in neutral and appropriate artistic means.” For Warhol, art should produce such a news effect, rather than simple “suspicion about the news.” Not long after, however, Wang Guangyi would clearly express another view in his Artistic Notes:

In contemporary art, “creation” is not nearly as important as many people believe. People already created all of the language yesterday. What we can and should do today is to bestow this language with new meaning. 26

In Mao Zedong AC, Wang Guangyi further reduced the function of the hand, merely reproducing a standard portrait of Mao. If it were possible, he would have liked to discard painting all together—he actually did produce some studies using printed material. 27 He truly did wish to use existing (rather than “created”) images to form his artwork. This artistic thinking and logic of image production would naturally develop into the Big Criticism series.

In January 1991, Wang Guangyi was interviewed for the first issue of Art and Market magazine. The reporter asked him, “What do you think of the position of Chinese contemporary art in the global art industry?” This is how he responded:

Currently, China’s contemporary art has not achieved a level of scholarly parity with it. The reasons for this are quite complex, with the main reason being that there is not a powerful national collective to back it up. The success of postwar American art is in essence the success of the nation. Otherwise, artists such as Pollock, De Kooning and Johns would not be what they are today.

Wang Guangyi’s view on the development of American contemporary art is not very concrete, but he is already keenly aware of the importance of national background to contemporary art. In fact, it was precisely the reality of China’s rapid economic development that provided the basic national backdrop for the influence of Chinese contemporary art in international society from 1993 onward, even if the national art authorities provided no assistance to these artists who were scattered across society rather than working in the academies or government art institutions. Many Westerners made no distinction—perhaps they were entirely unaware of the difference—between the realities within and without the official system in mainland China, viewing Chinese contemporary art as a unified whole. Indeed, when responding on his views about money, Wang Guangyi was already able to speak directly and unabashedly about this issue that was once a cause for embarrassment:

As an artist, I feel that money and art are both good things. After thousands of years, mankind finally realized that only art and money could bring appreciation and meditation. As an artist, I, like any ordinary person, love money, the difference being that ordinary people use money to lead a life of luxury, while artists use money to maintain a mythological image. The greater the allure of an artist’s myth, the more money his artworks are worth. There is a secular transformation of metaphysical myth at work here. These two things must be linked together to push the art forward. One could say that in contemporary art, examples and counterexamples of the “Matthew effect” are influencing the birth and death of myths among artists, critics and the art market.

As an American, Andy Warhol may have found this explanation long-winded. His own discussion of money has no metaphysical component. But in China, where the market was just taking shape, Wang Guangyi’s views had reached a critical point where they may be subject to attack, because at that time, most people in the art scene believed that art should have no relation to money, and that money should not become the judge of art. Far away in America, however, Andy Warhol was already making the US Dollar the subject of his painting.

In an interesting comparison, just as Wang Guangyi noticed, Abstract Expressionism began to take off in the 1940s, with such artists as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970) enjoying a period of great popularity. Warhol, however, was not moved by this. Nor did he want to approach the styles of Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns (b. 1930), whose techniques differed from those of the Abstract Expressionists. It was the art of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) that revealed a possibility, allowing Warhol to confidently make use of existing commercial images and signs in the creation of artworks. This was the precedent for his 32 soup cans of different colors in 1962. Whether or not the interesting story about Muriel Latow is true, Andy Warhol, swimming in the seas of commerce, certainly came to the conclusion, through discussions with friends and his own thinking, that he must convey those things that are the most common, and that the hazy, obscure techniques, such as dripping paint on the canvas, could no longer be used.

Wang Guangyi’s logic leads towards the maximum use of readymade images, but unlike Warhol, some of Wang’s familiar images may come from history, while others come from the present. The images from history are not a record of the artist’s memories, but the results of this nation’s system and the production of its ideology. No matter how rich the vocabulary of the market economy becomes, this nation’s slogan is the same as in past history: this is a socialist nation of workers, peasants and soldiers. After 1989, this concept (slogan) was further bolstered by the official machinery of the state.

But in the streets and alleyways, people had already grown familiar with commercial signs from the West, of the likes of Coca-Cola, Nestle and Marlboro. In this nation new to the market, these signs quickly spread in popularity alongside consumption, becoming a universal impression and visual habit of the market. In 1990s China, people grew accustomed to viewing foreign products as being superior in quality to domestic ones. Standards of consumption were based on these Western products, just as more and more young people in the 1980s came to accept Western ideas. It was a comprehensive surge and influence, from the spiritual to the material, with an imaginable impact on the Chinese people. Wang Guangyi was of course sensitive to these popular foreign signs, but he also seems to have instinctually discovered that the juxtaposition of these Western commercial signs with the images of workers, peasants and soldiers from Chinese history and ideology seemed to be the spectacle of the time. Before this, his use of Mao Zedong had an immediate impact, and from this he seems to have instinctually realized that images and signs connected to reality, rather than classical schemas from art history, are more suited for dissemination, especially if the artworks are directed at things close to the here and now of China—the market economy under a socialist system. Big Criticism was first published in the March 22, 1991 issue of Beijing Youth Daily, where the artist, editor Wang Youshen and critic Lu Peng devised a special issue in which they attempted to use the media to spread the schemas of Big Criticism. In October 1992, at the Guangzhou Biennial, an exhibition that sent shockwaves across the country, Wang Guangyi’s Big Criticism—Marlboro won the highest award, leading to rapid popularity for Pop Art, which had only emerged in China the year before. People began to pay attention to the different linguistic forms of Pop that emerged in various cities (in Shanghai, it included such artists as Li Shan, Yu Youhan and Liu Dahong).

Wang Guangyi, Big Criticism—Marlboro, 1992; Oil on canvas, 175×175cm, Private Collection

Wang Guangyi, Big Criticism—Marlboro, 1992; Oil on canvas, 175×175cm, Private Collection

At the jury meeting for the Guangzhou Biennial, critics were pleased by the Pop Art emerging then. The critics on the jury had just begun to awaken from the theories of essentialist modern art, but the clear, simple signs and the artworks’ correspondence to social reality gave them the sense that there was a solid backdrop for the spread of Pop Art in China. Unlike Warhol’s praise of objects from everyday American life in the 1960s, the Pop Art that emerged in China had a unique starting point and directedness. In fact, none of the Pop artists had much praise for consumer society. In the early 1990s, contemporary artists were still living spartan lives, and even the word “consumption” was used much more sparingly than it was after 2000. Faced with the products and commercial atmosphere of the streets and alleyways, many found themselves lost and even a bit suspicious of the market. The critics believed that these Pop artworks differed from American Pop. The artists were expressing their thoughts on issues of history and reality, merely doing so using vernacular, easy to understand linguistic forms. Critic Pi Daojian used the terms “Cultural Pop” and “Social Pop” in an effort to demonstrate that the Pop Art that emerged in China differed completely in starting point and directedness from American Pop: the Chinese artists still harbored feelings of confusion and loss within the conflicts of this murky system and ideology, and had thus taken on a mocking attitude. 28

Wang Guangyi has not explained the initial impetus behind the Big Criticism series, saying only that he was reading through newspaper clippings from the Cultural Revolution and came across the “worker-peasant-soldier” image, and quickly began experimenting with reproducing it on small canvases, to which he added Western commercial signs. The “big criticism” posters of the Cultural Revolution always placed political figures under the crosshairs of hammers, fists and pens, but now the object of this criticism became capitalist commercial signs. This seemingly simple juxtaposition formed a powerful tension between history, society and reality—after Deng Xiaoping went on his Southern Tour in 1992 and delivered his political remarks on why China should not debate about the meaning of “socialism” and “capitalism,” Western products and ideology flooded into China on the trail of its developing market economy. In the 1990s, the “market economy” gained legitimacy in China, and yet no one declared any change in the properties of the nation. The government merely adopted such terms as “socialist market economy” to explain that there was no absolute opposition between the government system and economic development. The systems and moral principles of the Western market economies, however, were not correspondingly established in China, which doubtless laid the ground for future political, social and economic crises, crises that would begin to be revealed during the rapid development of the twenty-first century. The loss and confusion felt by these artists in the 1990s was connected to these issues.

There emerged a mindset similar to when Andy Warhol first burst into New York. In this particular historical period, Wang Guangyi believed that Big Criticism was an attack on the art scene. In the 1991 Beijing Youth Daily special edition, this is how he responds to a reporter asking about his “mixed reception” as an artist:

There are some things that the individual cannot always decide. Once my artworks and words leave me, they become products of Pop. Perhaps it is precisely because of this that contemporary art draws close to everyone’s life and thus attracts people’s interest. In regards to the state of Chinese contemporary art, I believe that the “academy” flavor of linguistic purification and the tendency towards the expression of individual sentiments are dangerous. The former is the art of aristocracy, while the latter is the art of the poor. It seems that contemporary art should be a reconstituted part of the synchronous experience of the masses. It touches on all people, and is a giant “game” that compels people to take part. On the surface, it appears that the masses cannot make out what this game really is, just like when they are watching the evening news. There is one thing that is clear, which is that contemporary art constantly reminds the masses to take note of a basic issue: news and games lead us towards the real life.

Indeed, Warhol’s words are much simpler. Wang Guangyi’s “real life” may be subconsciously aimed at “better days”—a life of material wealth—but his Pop intentions are still wrapped in a “coat of ideas.” He had to use a historical transitional language to describe a very simple issue. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Chinese art circles dared to directly discuss the relationship between money and art. For Warhol, on the other hand, money was something that could be painted directly. As Wang Guangyi has said, “Warhol turns ordinary things more ordinary.” In the end, however, Wang Guangyi’s early thoughts and sentiments seem to have defined his artistic tendencies: to make art as accessible to the masses as possible, yet to still cover it in a shroud of ideas. Warhol, on the other hand, produced this famous quote:

Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.

Wang Guangyi’s context was completely different from America in the 1960s, but when elements of commerce and the consumer society enter into a new environment, they always have an impact on a person’s mind. To see Wang Guangyi’s art as embracing consumer society, however, is to miss the point. In fact, deep down, Wang Guangyi has always harbored a kind of metaphysical suspicion. In the 1980s, Hegel’s “absolute idea” catalyzed Wang and his friends’ “absolute principles.” Though, in the late 1980s (at the 1988 Huangshan Conference), he proposed the slogan “clearing out of humanist passions,” many smart people in the art scene felt that this flamboyant artist was playing a trick on them, that he had some other strategy up his sleeve. The Mao Zedong series was seen as his first effort in this strategy, though critics believe that the gunshot that rang out in the China / Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989 greatly diminished the significance of all the other artworks on display. Yet Mao Zedong AC, which was part of the exhibition, did become the focus of media attention. This artwork was apparently connected to the politics of history and the present, and could not become a simple artistic bauble of consumer society. Wang Guangyi began his experiments for the Big Criticism series in the latter half of 1990. He was somewhat hesitant, and also still working on his Famous Paintings Covered in Industrial Paint series. By 1992, as the October opening of the Guangzhou Biennial approached, Wang Guangyi submitted works from both series, attempting to force the jury members to choose between the two. Just as he had hoped, the jury, consisting of fourteen critics, affirmed the importance of Big Criticism. Their final recommendation states:

In Big Criticism, familiar historical images and currently popular signs are joined together in all their discord and clarity, placing intractable metaphysical questions in suspension. The artist has used the language of Pop Art to open up the following contemporary issue: that so called history is a linguistic prompt that engages with contemporary life. Big Criticism is one of the best examples of such a linguistic prompt for the early 1990s.

The jury’s essay used such terms as “Cultural Pop” and “Social Pop,” but soon after, due to the obvious conflict of ideological signs, critic Li Xianting coined the term “Political Pop” in an essay. This concept was taken up without hesitation. It pointed out the traits of the era in the simplest way possible and affirmed the infinitely interpretable blind spots revealed by the artist’s juxtaposition of signs from different ideologies. Wang Guangyi denied the political connotations of Big Criticism on multiple occasions, but the period that produced the Big Criticism series—China’s entry into the “socialist market economy”—became an effective explanation for it. 29

Wang Guangyi’s later works would touch on international politics, identity and the political history of Chinese contemporary art. It would not be accurate to call him the Chinese Warhol. Wang Guangyi’s use of the language of Pop is nothing more than the logical outcome of his artistic thinking, something that, compared to Expressionism, was better able to handle the artistic issues he touched on. Indeed, in regards to the “veil of thought,” Joseph Beuys appears to have contributed some genes. Many years later, Wang Guangyi discussed his views on Warhol and Beuys. In Who do I Like Better, Warhol or Beuys?, Wang says, “Beuys was an alchemist, while Warhol turned ordinary things more ordinary…. Beuys liked to produce enigmas, while Warhol laid himself out completely under the sun.” 30 Wang, who is actually a quite shy northeasterner, wishes to become neither a total mystic nor to expose himself completely. He is equally interested in the production of enigmas and in the creation of art that can be understood by the masses. 31 This can be seen in his works from the 1990s as well as all works that came after.

At first, the New York scene dubbed Johns, Rauschenberg and others as the New Realists, but by the end of 1962, people began to call this popular art with no connection to ideas or emotions Pop Art. This is the result of these artists’ depiction of everyday consumer products. Andy Warhol declared, without hesitation, that he wanted to praise those cheap things that everyone liked.

As for Wang Guangyi, he stayed forever in a paradoxical psychological state. Under the influence of complex thinking, he always strived to realize social influence in the secular sense. Though he cannot know how well he has achieved these goals he has set for himself, he can take solace in knowing that no one will ever truly grasp their ultimate destiny. 32

Interestingly, Andy Warhol painted a Last Supper series at the age of 58, and Wang Guangyi released his own Last Supper at the age of 57. When asked why he would create a work themed on Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol responded, “Oh, Italian culture—I only know really the spaghetti but they are fantastic!” Wang Guangyi’s response was, “I see Da Vinci’s Last Supper as a landscape painting.”

Friday, December 25, 2015

The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.

Notes:

  1. The Chinese edition of this book was released by Shanghai People’s Publishing House in 1979, translated by Liu Pingjun. In the first chapter, titled “The Origins of Modern Art,” the author writes, “The whole history of art is a history of modes of visual perception: of the various ways in which man has seen the world.” For Chinese readers, this passage provided two forms of insight: first, that we must change our past ways of seeing the world, and second, that a change must take place in our artistic language forms. Rooted in the context of that particular point in history, these insights are easy to understand. But people constantly asked, does the continued use of the linguistic forms created by European modernists (or classicalists) actually constitute a change in “ways of seeing”? By the late 1980s, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art began to have an impact on the modernist artists of the time—see the below discussion of Wang Guangyi and Andy Warhol. Into the 1990s, artists and critics began to understand the role of such postmodern techniques as reproduction and appropriation.
  2. He Duoling says that after entering Chengdu Normal Academy, he read the likes of Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Chekhov and Tolstoy. (See “Zai Huihua Shang Wo Conglai Meiyou Sa Guo Huang” (In Painting I have Never Lied), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 155.)
  3.  In search of realistic visual effect, He Duoling even painted the words “taking the fight across the Yangtze” on a real mud wall as a reference for his painting. Such a painting technique does not fit with the demands of the Cultural Revolution, but instead belongs to the “naturalism” of the capital class, because the painter did not elevate the content of everyday life to a level meeting the standard of “the integration of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.”
  4. Though numerous political campaigns after 1949 carried out varying degrees of criticism and destruction of European and Republican Era art and cultural materials, some old printed matter and books survived in private homes. He Duoling has said that early on, he viewed catalogues and other printed matter at the home of his friend Zhu Cheng, one of which was a Soviet art magazine introducing European artists including from socialist countries such as Romania and Czechoslovakia, as well as European art from the Middle Ages through French Classicalism and Impressionism. He also had a similar introduction to Western music:    But the first time I found real “music” I liked was during the Cultural Revolution. I was still at Sichuan University, and often hung out with classmates. One classmate’s mother was from the conservatory. They had many records in their home, the 78 rpm variety, and a record player. When his parents were off at cadre training, we would go to his house and listen to records. At that time, as you know, it was basically illegal to listen to records, because that was the art of the capital class. If you were caught, at the very least, they would confiscate the records. We didn’t care, though of course we didn’t dare play it too loudly. It was like we were engaging in some underground activity. It was very interesting. The music we listened to then left a very deep impression on me, such as Mozart’s String Quartet, Beethoven’s famous symphonies, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Dvorak’s From the New World. (See “Zai Huihua Shang Wo Conglai Meiyou Sa Guo Huang” (In Painting I have Never Lied), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, pp. 165-166.)
  5.  He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 14.
  6. On May 23, 1972, the “National Exhibition to Commemorate Thirty Years Since Mao Zedong’s Remarks at the Yan’an Conference on Art and Literature” opened at the National Art Museum in Beijing. This was the first official art exhibition to be held since the last national art exhibition in 1964. The two month exhibition included over 270 works of traditional Chinese painting, oil painting, print art, New Year posters, propaganda posters, watercolor and paper cutting. In the exhibition, Tang Xiaohe’s Marching Forward through Great Wind and Waves (1971), Chen Yanning’s Chairman Mao Inspects a Guangdong Village, Zhang Ziyi, Cai Liang and Zhan Beixin’s Chairman Mao in the Great Productivity Campaign and Wu Yunhua’s depiction of industrial coal mining in Chairman Mao Inspects Fushun all conveyed a strong emphasis on modelling and technique. These works were in keeping with artistic standards on political intent, but people could see the individual traits of the artists shining through, a reflection of their unique thoughts and perceptions, even if only in a subtle, reserved manner. For instance, the painting Seizing Copper at Hukou, submitted under the author name “Liaoning Province Propaganda Office Creative Team” (actually by Wu Yunhua), was unanimously praised by judges for its realistic detail. This painting on the theme of “grasping onto the revolution and promoting production” had clear political tones, but what really drew in the viewer were the details such as the shining hardhats, stony faces and water dripping through the cracks in the rock. Pan Jiajun’s I am a Seabird left a strong impression for the realistic wind and rain, and the shape of the body revealed through the soaked military uniform. Tang Xiaoming’s oil painting Ceaseless Battle left a strong impression for its skillful expressions and its grey tones. At a time marked by overpowering colors and formulaic compositions, viewers found in Tang Xiaoming’s depiction of Lu Xun tones and qualities more closely fitting with human nature. In the mid-1970s, the techniques of a group of painters in Guangdong came to form a subtle aesthetic tendency: tender forms, relaxed brushwork, realistic hues and ideas that stepped back from grand sweeping themes. The unique composition of Chen Yanning’s New Doctor at Fisherman’s Wharf, particularly the rendering of folds in the clothing, formed a model for many a young painter.
  7.  He Duoling, “Guanyu Chunfeng Yi Su Xing” (On Spring Winds Have Awoken), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 33.
  8.  He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, pp. 14-15.
  9.  He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 19.
  10. He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 23.
  11. He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 23.
  12. He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 23.
  13. He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 24.
  14. He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 24.
  15. He Duoling, “Xinnian—Ren De Ziran Yu Ziran De Ren” (Faith—Man’s Nature and Nature’s Man), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 26.
  16.  He Duoling, “Xinnian—Ren De Ziran Yu Ziran De Ren” (Faith—Man’s Nature and Nature’s Man), in in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 26.
  17. He Duoling, “Xinnian—Ren De Ziran Yu Ziran De Ren” (Faith—Man’s Nature and Nature’s Man), in in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 29.
  18. He Duoling, “Guanyu Wo Suo Re’ai De Yishu” (On the Art I Love), in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 16.
  19. In this 150mm x 200mm painting, He Duoling preserve’s Wyeth’s composition, but renders it with a more dreamlike atmosphere. In the place where Christina originally lay, he painted a Chinese girl standing. She seems to be searching for the alluring Christina.
  20. In fact, the observation of the American terrain and the resulting landscape paintings that emerged in the mid-19th century should be seen as the earliest American art. Though painters such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) drew from European painting traditions, their depictions of the banks of the Hudson River (Cole) and the majesty in Niagara Falls drew much attention and praise, evoking nationalist sentiments for the American landscape and catalyzing corresponding national awareness. The techniques were not the creation of American painters, but the themes and subject matter were thoroughly so. Later, the work of Winslow Homer (1836-1910) had typical American themes, and though it was marked by French elements, it possessed an immediately recognizable American character. At the close of the 19th century, Americans could travel freely by steamboat, and many American painters travelled between New York, London and Paris. Though such painters as John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) were already quite familiar with European styles, they focused their attention on American life and its uniqueness. We cannot say that these painters were merely copying Europe simply because Sargent used the techniques of French Impressionism, and Eakins used language reminiscent of Courbet. The fact is that American artists in the late 19th century and after may have been heavily influenced by European art, but their artistic approaches and directions were entirely different from their European counterparts. If we look at America’s achievements in industry and technology in this same period, and notice the expansion of American capital and permeation of wealth, it becomes clear that it was the ever-changing American life that drove painters to use the techniques they had learned from Europe, not only to stay in synch with European art, but to probe, through their own practice, the art of America. It was precisely because of their sincerity towards life and the heart that even when they used Impressionist techniques, they would often draw from the techniques of realism at the same time. This was the case with the artists of the so called “Ashcan School” that was active in the early 20th century. Later art historians did not simply describe such historical phenomena as copying Europe. In the 1920s and 30s in China, Chinese painters returning from Europe such as Xu Beihong, Yan Wenliang and others, even those who were particularly obsessed with Impressionist techniques, as Yan was, still carefully controlled their use of color.
  21. He Duoling, “Xinnian—Ren De Ziran Yu Ziran De Ren” (Faith—Man’s Nature and Nature’s Man), in in Tiansheng Shi Ge Shenmei De Ren (Born Aesthetician), Sanlian Books, 2011, October Edition, p. 30.
  22. Li Tiefu (1869-1952) first travelled abroad in search of a living, just as many of the youths who studied abroad in the early days were in search of a stable source of food and income. Li arrived in America sometime around 1896. He famously described himself as a “follower” of the famous American painters William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent. In the long period between Chase’s death in 1916 and Sargent’s death in 1925, Li garnered many awards from his academy and was included in many art events, demonstrating that he had a powerful grasp of oil painting. His classmate at the Academy of Fine Arts in New York, Feng Gangbai (1883-1984), also came across the opportunity to study abroad through a quest for employment. Feng’s grasp of light and color draws comparisons to Rembrandt. In America, he saw many Western works of art in original and reproduction: Eakins, Chase and Sargent, and the true background for these artists was the European realist tradition. At a time when the Chinese were not familiar with realist painting, Feng emphasized the realistic depiction of physical space to his Chinese students, and was even more interested in the concept of “seeming to have blood flowing beneath the skin.” In any case, what these two pioneers of oil painting learned in America was how to recreate the world as it is seen with the eye. In this regard, it is understandable that their techniques and results would lack uniqueness.
  23.  Women85 Meishu Yundong De Canyuzhe (We—The Participants of the 85 New Wave Movement).
  24. Hong Zaixin, “Pipan De Tushi Yu Tushi De Pipan” (The Schemas of Criticism and the Criticism of Schemas), Meishu (Fine Arts Magazine), 1988, Volume 3.
  25.  This refers to officials of state organs, groups and enterprises illegally taking advantage of their position and the dual pricing system for personal gain.
  26.  Wang Guangyi De Yishu Yu Sixiang: Pipan Yu Fangtan Wenji (The Art and Ideas of Wang Guangyi: Collection of Critical Essays and Interviews), Wang Junyi ed., China Youth Press, 2015, p. 31.
  27. It was only in the late 1990s that Wang Guangyi had the means to establish his own workshop for the production of silkscreen prints and other such artworks, so all of the later works in the Big Criticism series were painted by hand. Of course, hand painting was the last chance for the artist to express his individual taste, even though it was no longer as essential as it would be for works in the Expressionist style.
  28.  In Basic Assessment of Artworks in the Biennial, Pi Daojian states that the traits and trends represented by the exploratory artworks in this exhibition “Will surely draw the attention of critics and art historians”:The creative mindset of the artists is evidently more relaxed than it was in the 85 period. A satirical, playful creative attitude has become the new fashion. This is clearly reflected in the works of the “Hubei Pop” and so called “New Generation” artists. The artistic methods of “Hubei Pop” draw schemas from the history and culture of the past, or transform popular mass consumer goods. This doubtlessly possesses deep cultural or social meaning, to the point that critics can divide them into such categories as “Cultural Pop” and “Social Pop.” Meanwhile, the mutual conflicts, disconnectedness and complex arrays of meaning in these artworks are a natural outflow of humorous and intelligent artistic imagination and fascinating technical processes. There is not a trace of affectation. The strengthening of living awareness and the closing of the distance from the public fill these works with a strong air of China’s contemporary culture. (Pi Daojian, “’Shuang Nian Zhan’ Zuopin De Jiben Guji” (Basic Assessment of Artworks in the Biennial), in Guangzhou Shuang Nian Zhan: 20 Zhounian Wenxian (Guangzhou Biennial: Documents at the 20th Anniversary), Lu Peng, ed., Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2013, p. 227.)
  29. In Art Bazaar (2012), he writes:Media and the critics provided all kinds of interpretations for my Big Criticism series. At first I didn’t say anything. Then I realized that I was handing interpretation over to the public, allowing people to think whatever they wanted, and then, when a clear understanding took shape among the public, I said, that’s not what I was thinking. I have no stance. I am neutral. I really didn’t know whether I actually had an attitude. I’m not just saying that; I really didn’t know. It’s just that sometimes, when people asked me, I could answer certain questions and discuss certain issues in interviews. But when I sat back and thought about it, I really didn’t know.
  30.  The Art Bazaar essay is mainly about his views on Warhol and Beuys:Warhol and Beuys are two great figures in art history. These two figures appeared before me at virtually the same time when I was young and ignorant. The first time I saw Beuys’ work was in a foreign magazine. It had some of his stuff. Of course, I couldn’t read the text, but I found the images very alluring. It had something about it that really didn’t seem like art, almost like “alchemical” records. I should say that at the time, his stuff left me puzzled, because I didn’t know what he was trying to express. It wasn’t until later, when I read a paperback translation about him that I learned what Beuys was up to. Now I prefer to see Beuys as an artist with a touch of the metaphysical. He could bestow any ordinary object with totemic implications. The earliest Beuys work that left a deep impression on me was Homogenous Infiltration for Piano, which is sometimes translated as Postwar Europe. This is an unforgettable artwork. The first time I saw a work of Warhol’s was Marilyn Monroe. It was so simple, with no trace of artifice, no sense of painting. It also left me puzzled, but deep down, I felt that I really liked it.In this essay, he writes:

    Beuys was an artist who liked to produce enigmas. He always enjoyed creating layer after layer of fog. In How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, the ideas he provides are very obscure. It is a difficult issue, explaining art to a dead rabbit. This difficulty is on a level that perhaps even Beuys did not know. The reason I like Beuys is connected to these mysterious elements he presents. He sometimes seemed to be carefully pondering certain questions, but these questions did not possess the possibility of truth. He discussed art from a metaphysical vantage point. It is as if he placed himself in an eternally unverifiable position.

    Warhol laid himself out completely under the sun, seemingly stark naked, with nothing. I guess that on a deep level, it shows the differences between German and American cultural traditions. Germany has a tradition of rationally probing things to their root questions, which is readily apparent in Beuys. Warhol worshiped the absolute masses, the absolutely vulgar.

  31.  On the conceptual level, Beuys had a greater influence on me, so when I explain my artworks, I prefer to use less certain speech. There are a lot of complex, paradoxical things about me. On the conceptual level, I like ambiguous, difficult, uncertain, murky and circuitous ways of thinking. Things like conceptual art have very murky dimensions. It is like thought, which we say is invisible and intangible. The Warhol element manifests in me more as expectations for society, while the Beuys element manifests as deeper expectations for myself as an artist. On a deeper level, I really like Beuys’s stuff, but an artist will often have social expectations of himself, and that I take from Warhol. The public may find Warhol more likeable, because Warhol provided them and reveals to them a very common and easily-understood mirage—even if we may not know what his real intentions were. Sometimes I feel that it is very difficult to know the truth behind all of the things that Warhol said. Perhaps for him there is no truth in the exploration or discussion of art. I think that German critic Klaus Honnef’s metaphor for them is quite accurate: one of them is the palm, the other the back of the hand. (Art Bazaar, 2012).

 

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