LAO ZHU: THE THIRD ABSTRACT
The unforeseen emergence of abstract art in the modernism of late-1970s China can be attributed to two major factors. One is political, one artistic. First, the political: after the founding of new China in 1949, art policy labeled abstract expression as bourgeois; it was “reactionary,” counterrevolutionary, and forbidden. This meant that just before and just after Reform and Opening, the choice to explore abstract expression itself was enough to indicate ideological liberation. Second, the artistic: at a time when Western art history had already seen figurative realism replaced entirely by abstract art, the mainstream in China was instead Western realist painting and sculpture— introduced and popularized by Xu Beihong and Wu Zuoren and further solidified by the study of Soviet work— as well as the new Chinese painting (a transformation in which Western realism played a pivotal role). The evolution of art was thus prone to follow the Western model; abstract art, at that time, was referred to as “Western modernism.”
Does China’s abstract differ in value from the West’s abstract? Can it serve as a force for the further advancement of abstract art as a whole? The first question is simple: although China’s current “abstract” is not in fact fully “contemporary abstract” nor even the “pure abstract” that flourished back in abstract art’s glory days— it falls more in line with the “classical abstract” of Kandinsky and Mondrian than anything else— as long as it serves the practical capacity of advancing contemporary art in China, there is still “value” to be found.
The second question is one of extreme importance and one that is fairly complicated. After Kandinsky’s working years, abstract saw a period of criticism at the end of the 1920s. This wave of criticism effectively designated everything preceding it as part of the first abstract, which at that time had already been surpassed by another kind of abstract art—for the time being we will call it “the second abstract.” In reality, the second abstract did not evolve out of the abstract of Kandinsky or Mondrian— theirs followed a different path, departing from Picasso and Cubism, and even from the earlier Cézanne. Rather, Pollock and others in the Abstract Expressionist movement are its American representatives, and in Europe it came to fruition with Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, and then later with color field painting (monochrome painting) and Minimalism. With the second abstract, the material and the spiritual are entirely homogenized— a truly unprecedented development in the evolution of artistic creation. The essence of the second abstract is embodied in the complete break from subject-object dualism, and the realization of spiritual entities in material form. In light of this, we can see that in the case of both the first and second abstract, “form” and “color” themselves are the main subjects; that is to say, one can see form, material texture, and the artist’s grasp of the medium cohere in one picture plane. Abstract art must now move forward from this groundbreaking achievement, to continue the advance into its “third” movement.
What is the “third abstract?” In reality, the third abstract is a revelation of the meaning that is conserved somewhere between physical form and the traces it leaves behind over the course of a life— ultimately, a potential state of being in which human existence is truly preserved. At one end there is what is called “process abstract.” In terms of artistic strategy what this implies is the devotion of serious effort into freeing calligraphy from ink and characters; it is an emancipation of the art of writing from the realm of floating brushstrokes and ink -and-wash technique— a meeting of ancient Chinese in-depth theory and subtle creative methodology with the lively internationalist language of the abstract. This “process abstract” moves beyond the second abstract and its combined affectations— namely, the insipid repetition of minimalism and religious indulgence. Next, on the other end of the third abstract is the utilization of material. A material entity can be directly converted into a material object of observation, and this material object of observation in turn can be transformed into material qua material; when it is indeed returned to this state of material as such, it now possesses even deeper meaning as an entity in and of itself than it does as an object of observation. It is not appreciated due to some strangeness of form, nor due to its having been selected, dissected, and unceasingly discharged; rather, its wonder arises out of the sheer consciousness it awakens in us with regard to the greater set of problems and questions in which it has now been implicated. Because of this, the material can now be unconditionally probed for meaning, and this meaning can be unconditionally interpreted and extended outwards by the audience.
Each phase in the evolution of abstract art can be said to have encompassed two branches: in the first abstract period these are respectively exemplified by Kandinsky and Mondrian. In the second phase, they are represented by Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. In the third abstract, writing’s distancing of itself from characters and drawing’s efforts to retain its romantic charm and grace constitute one side; the direct conversion of material into the stuff of consciousness makes up the other.
Art is that part of spiritual activity which bears the weight of what humankind cannot use language to express. It is continuously in search of its own emancipation. At present this search for emancipation is targeted at knowledge, and at reason itself. It has in mind the all-encompassing controls and restrictions placed on each individual by his or her consciousness— whether this consciousness be derived from patterns of external violence or from a system of internal knowledge and thought that believes itself to be infallible. This important function of art will never be replaced by deliberation, theory, or science. The mission that the third abstract faces now in the world of contemporary art is perhaps, as stated above, art’s negation of meaning. In the process of creation, the central task for the “third abstract” is to leave the darkness of humanity to form; but in this rejection of meaning and emphasis on showing, an opening is produced by which human can relate back to human, an opportunity for people to emancipate themselves.
TAN PING: FEELING AND ANALYSIS
In 1980 I entered the printmaking faculty of the Central Academy of Fine Arts to study woodblock printing. At that time the teaching still very much existed within the traditional atmosphere of realism. From core teachings to practice, all remained firmly within this same category. Though that period was also one of intense activity in terms of thought, modernism was very influential, and within CAFA several people were keeping a close eye on such developments. I too had a kind of rebellious spirit, and a yearning to learn new things; nearly all of my time out of class was spent trying to develop a new formal language of expression.
At that time there weren’t many Western art books around, but CAFA had a set called the Completed Series of World Fine Arts, which for us was a great source of inspiration. We learned about the development and evolution of the various aesthetic schools that make up Western art history, all the many different styles and attitudes, alongside which my own artistic vocabulary would come to develop. Within the space of two years, I crammed in about 100 years worth of art history.
After graduating I stayed on at CAFA to teach, and by that point my creative output had already entered into a relationship with abstraction. But at that time I was somewhat relying on intuition, I thought that abstract form was really beautiful and that making abstract works was the most avant-garde direction to take. To be honest, I really didn’t have much of an understanding of abstraction. There wasn’t much formal writing that properly introduced abstract art, though everyone was interested in the kind of things it could produce.
In 1987 a very significant experience led me to genuinely take up abstract art. One very important stage of the process of making a copper plate is dipping it into acid for a length of time: ten seconds and not much will have changed, but after half an hour the acid will have corroded the copper quite significantly. One day I etched a human figure onto a copper plate and put it in the acid to start the corrosion process. I completely forgot about it, and came back four hours later to find that acid had completely corroded the copper, creating a kind of formless materiality. I really liked the way it looked, and so made a few prints of it. The prints came out really distorted, broken, no longer of the human figure of tradition I had painted, a unique form, tied to its own material qualities. From that point onward, my eyes seemed to possess an ability to perceive the abstract.
In terms of my own understanding of abstract art, the most important period must have been when I went to study in Germany in 1989; their notions of abstraction were completely different to those in China. It is often said that Germany has a tradition of rationalism, but even more it is a country concerned with functionality— this you can tell from its industrial design. Unlike the education in China, in their classrooms students would carry out exercises in accordance with analytical methods. For example, when practicing structural composition, every element deemed extraneous to the basic form would be eliminated. No matter if painting people, landscapes, or architecture, the focus was always on that thing’s essential structure.
If exercising the expression of feeling— for example, the expression of music— the teacher would have us paint to music, to feel the rhythmic relationships within the music. Each time the music would be different and so each time the drawings would come out differently. This was certainly an exercise in abstraction. We also had exercises in synthesis: we would do durational sketches, spending up to a week, or sometimes more, on a single sketch, so that we could combine all the various elements within the sketch towards discovering a kind of harmony.
The abstract artists that come out of Germany’s art education system are already incredibly efficient and qualified, but here in China many artists won’t start working in abstraction till after they’ve graduated. You can tell this from their paintings: although they seem abstract on the surface, they are in fact composed from a figurative perspective, and are not necessarily genuine abstraction.
So in designing the basic structure of the course at CAFA, I made it such that realistic and still-life drawing formed only a very minor part of the curriculum, the remaining majority of the time being dedicated towards exercises that developed analytical skills in both figurative and abstract processes. This series of exercises worked towards the ability to think in the abstract, vital to anyone who wants to become an exceptional designer. Later on, a lot of students got into abstract art, and quite honestly soon became completely unhindered in their ability.
An ordinary viewer wouldn’t be able, nor would many different kinds of art specialists we have here (at CAFA), to judge the merit of an abstract work. It requires a particular and well-cultivated aesthetic gaze. Whenever I have an exhibition, or explain the meaning of abstract art to an audience, I try to apply it to something that is part of their everyday life, thus making it much easier to understand. For example, “When you choose what to wear, apart from choosing a style, doesn’t the arrangement of a color scheme require an ability to perceive in the abstract?” I also often put sofas in front of my paintings, so that the audience are able to get closer, as if they were looking at them at home. Its important to start in this way: if you don’t, and go straight into explaining the compositional issues of abstraction, ideas of method and practice, the average viewer will find it very difficult to understand, and will not have much desire to try. Only when he can experience a piece intimately, when he can begin to appreciate it and develop a relationship with it, will he want to know who its by, what’s interesting about it, what kind of style and compositional approach it takes. If you don’t make the effort to introduce it, he will simply say that he doesn’t understand, and walk away.