Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

A Triumphant Survivor: The Ink Paintings of Wu Guanzhong

Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong at the Asia Society Museum

April 25 to August 5, 2012
725 Park Avenue at 70th Street
New York City, 212-288-6400

Wu Guangzhong, A Big Manor, 2001. Ink and color on rice paper, 27-1/2 x 55 inches. Shanghai Art Museum
Wu Guangzhong, A Big Manor, 2001. Ink and color on rice paper, 27-1/2 x 55 inches. Shanghai Art Museum

When its old regime collapsed in 1911, China only very belatedly entered the world of modernism. Then the Japanese invasion during the 1930s, the taking of power by the communists in 1949, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) touched heavily on artists. In 1966, Wu Guangzhou (1919-2010) destroyed many of his paintings. In 1970-71, exiled to a remote village, he was banned from painting. But then starting around 1980 he received honors in his native country and abroad. And he learned from his difficult time living with the peasants, experiencing their “pure and unaffected aesthetic judgment . . .. Illiteracy does not necessarily equal blindness towards beauty.” Notwithstanding his personal suffering at the hands of his government, Wu was, in his own terms, a patriot. “It is only by saving Chinese art,” he said, “that we can compete with the art world outside.”

Wu called himself a formalist: “Abstract beauty is the core of formal beauty and the love of both formal and abstract beauty is instinctual.” Many of his subjects are those of traditional scroll paintings: vast landscapes with tiny human figures, or none, as in Pines and Rocks of the Lao Mountains (1987); and cities only shown as part of landscapes, as in Mountainous City beside the Yangtze River (1978). Modern industry does not enter his art. But Wu’s pictures don’t look like traditional Chinese paintings. Certainly no old master would foreground the close up aggressive brushwork of Spring and Autumn of the Motherland (1997).  Like Western modernists, Wu loves blankness, as in A Big Manor (2001). He likes to set figurative details in a blank background, Calabashes over a Pavillion (2001) is an example. And he can make odd color combinations, like the green, yellow and violent spots in Wisteria (1991) and odd subjects, Parrots (1990), for example, come off.  None of these paintings much resemble the art of his Western peers. Wu studied oil painting in Paris in the late 1940s and late in life came to America. But even abroad he retained his very Chinese sensibility. The colors and point of view in his The Grand Canyon of America (1990) defamiliarize a familiar subject.

Wu Guangzhong, Pines and Rocks of the Lao Mountains," 1987, Ink and color on rice paper, H. 70.9 in x W. 37.4 in (180 x 95 cm), Shanghai Art Museum
Wu Guangzhong, Pines and Rocks of the Lao Mountains,” 1987, Ink and color on rice paper, H. 70.9 in x W. 37.4 in (180 x 95 cm), Shanghai Art Museum

The virtuosity of ink handling on scrolls means that the Chinese, like Clement Greenberg’s modernist abstractionists, were concerned with “the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted” (“Modernist Painting,” 1960).  And so it is natural that some of Wu’s paintings are grouped together in this exhibition as  ‘Abstractions’. Spring as Something of Threads (1991) with the leisurely curving ink lines on a color-dotted background is a good example. But in truth, even his paintings with figurative subjects like Wild Geese of the Taihang Mountains (1991) look abstract to Westerners because of his focus on surface brushwork. The magnificent ink and pen drawings are, I grant, a different story; Longxu Island (1946) might come from a quattrocento master.

“Art is wild, ”Wu said, “and the crucial point of an artist lies in individuality. An artist ought to refuse to be fed by others, run his own course, and keep his spirit and style at any price.”  He was an aesthete who believes that aesthetic art is good for the people. The extreme political pressures of his time touched his life for a time, but never his art. His old age style, well represented in this exhibition, reveals a triumphant survivor. The contemporary Chinese artists who attract attention in the West move in very different directions. But since some young artists in the People’s Republic extend his ways of thinking, I do not believe that his marvelously exotic visual culture is obsolete, not yet.


The quotations by Wu from his “Abstraction and Form,” reprinted in the exhibition catalogue except the one in the last paragraph, which comes from a catalogue quoted in my earlier review, with Liu Haiping, is “Wu Guangzhong, National Art Museum of China,” Burlington Magazine, CLI (May 2009): 348-9.