Illustration: Wang Xu

On May 5th, 2011, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in conjunction with the China Art Foundation, hosted Strategies of Contemporary Art: Past and Present, East and West, inviting American master of abstraction Frank Stella and preeminent Chinese avant-gardist Huang Yong Ping to bump heads on a mélange of topics, ranging from education to inspiration and beyond.


Huang Yong Ping: I think that subversion and or being able to challenge the mainstream art practice is the quintessential spirit of contemporary art. If I were to have been born in the nineteenth century, I don’t think that I would have used the exact same approach to my art. I probably would be just like everyone else, a disciple of the masters. Contemporary art is all about dismantling that continuity.

Frank Stella: It [novelty and originality] is a discussable idea now. But at the time when you’re doing it, I had no ideas about anything except what I was making and whether I liked it… The point is that, for me, the artist has to identify himself and a sense of his time and a sense of his work, or whatever the evolution might be. But then he’s a small part, a really infinitesimal part, really, of the history of art.


Huang Yong Ping: I think inspiration actually comes very, very little from the so-called Chinese painting tradition… to me, other things that are related indirectly to art actually give me a lot of inspiration, including thought, philosophy, witchcraft, folklore— these are the things that actually inspire me more than the so-called traditional Chinese painting. I’m inspired by a lot of people who came before me, a lot of masters and artists. But at the same time I have to admit that I have a certain habit, and probably a bad habit… of using their ideas or somehow being inspired by them, and moving on.

Frank Stella: I like to think it’s all conscious. For example, loving Caravaggio, or loving the art of the past, loving the art of my own time… I like the work they make, but more than anything, I’m looking. I’m looking here, I look as much as I can at everything, but most of all I’m looking for a good idea.


Huang Yong Ping: I can’t give you a simple answer (about my working process). It really depends on the work that I am involved in. For some works, it’s something that requires a lot of thought to go into it. Other times for some works I put a lot of effort and think a lot about it, but the end result is something that came out as a very simplistic work.

Frank Stella: You have to like what you do. And then try to deal with it, which is to make something and then reach a level where you can let go of it, where you think it’s worth having done it.


Huang Yong Ping: Stella and I are coming from a very different background. For example, when I was a student… the books (of Western art history) I mentioned before, the teachers didn’t even bother to instruct you on how to make sense of that particular history, also the preface of these books would actually have some kind of statement criticizing the content that you were about to read— almost like a disclaimer for all students. Definitely at the time it was still very conservative. Against this particular background the students became very rebellious and wanted to subvert.

Frank Stella: The academy here (in the US) is perhaps more insidious, maybe. The only point I want to offer is that it’s true that when I moved from the normal academy, or normal level of education, into the art academy, I was in an environment where “anything goes.” And so, that’s it. You have the restriction— you’re bound by complete freedom to do anything you want.