top of page

FLOWING PHENOMENON - Abstract Expressionism in China

The following article is published in the FLOWING PHENOMENON, Art Catalogue by Shelley Tsang, 2020.



- Abstract Expressionism in China

“Although Paris has an unquestionable influence on my entire artistic career, I still want to say that I gradually rediscovered China.” -Zao Wou-Ki

For the five thousand years of Chinese art originated from the Neolithic Age to the contemporary art world, ancient Buddhist statues, traditional ink paintings, abstract expressionist art, and long-standing craft treasures bear our ancestors' admiration and knowledge of nature and culture. Oriental aesthetics contains a myriad of aspects, the various schools of thought have allowed numerous craftsmanship to take root, leaving ancient bronzes, jade-like porcelain, landscape poems, wood carvings, calligraphy and modern art treasures for later generations. Our thousands of years of aesthetic exploration is woven into an ambiguous net, magnificent and luxurious, and pervading in every part of the Oriental culture. At the end of this net is our Chinese modern and contemporary art.

Regarding to Chinese modern art in the past three decades, the 1980s can be regarded as a milestone. The 1980s is a crucial period that Western art once again penetrated the Chinese art scene, last time it was Western modernism introduced to China through Lin Fengmian, Xu Beihong, Liu Haisu and other predecessor painters in the early 20th century. Starting from the "85 Art Movement", China has officially entered the stage of modern art, and some of these artists have transitioned into the field of contemporary art in a short period of time. Unlike early China, that was influenced by European modernism, since the 1980s, Chinese artists have learned comprehensively and complicatedly from Western art. These references come not only from style but also from ideas. In this way, the coexistence of modern and contemporary Chinese art has been formed, which continues to this day.

Modern art in China since the 1980s has a large proportion of Expressionism-related creations. Art critic Wang Lin believes that the main reason is Chinese art tradition emphasises spirit and experience and has a strong sense of expression. The spiritual life of contemporary Chinese is complicated and overwhelming, and they need art to represent their spiritual world. The term "Abstract Expression" was initially used by the German critic Oswald Herzog in 1919 when he commented on Kandinsky's paintings. By 1944, American critic Sidney Jamis for the first time used "Abstract Expressionism" to define a group of young American abstract painters who emerged during and after the Second World War. This group of painters includes Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and many others. Expressionism encourages individualism, emphasises painting techniques, and has strong emotions, including self-representation and other characteristics that are rebellious, disorderly, detached from nothingness, and escapism. There are also works expressing a longing for the future. As a result, the German Expressionism, American Abstract Expressionism (New York School of Painting), and German New Expressionism have become the preferred reference for Chinese artists.

The exploration of abstract expression in ancient China was mostly embodied in the art of calligraphy. Chinese calligraphy has been exploring expressionism for hundreds of years before Western paintings gradually got rid of the shackles of physical form after Impressionism. Many Chinese calligraphers are just like abstract artists. Especially Wild Cursive Calligraphy, possibly because people cannot easily understand the linguistic meaning of Cursive Script, they are more focused on the emotions expressed in images and lines, rather than solely appreciating the art form itself. It partly explains why the history of Chinese painting is calmer than the West, and there does not seem to have much revolutionary change in style.

Image: The moon over a mountain gate II, Artwork by Shelley Tsang, FLOWING PHENOMENON (Shelley Tsang)

However, we still cannot equate the abstract forms of Chinese calligraphy and freehand brushwork with Western abstract paintings. After all, Chinese calligraphy and freehand brushwork are not abstractions away from "form", and they are still carried out based on forms. Western abstract painting is more of an abstract way of thinking. It no longer has too much connection with the figurative reality, but directly reflects the painter's flow of thinking. The abstract art of modern China is more sensibly integrated with the line-dominated expression technique of Chinese classical ink and water landscape painting while using the materials of Western painting for artistic expression. In these works, we can still distinguish the traces of the landscape. It is a kind of "relief of things to express will" in Chinese classical aesthetics, and it still has a form. The artists use paints and frames to condense the inner strength of the work but still leaves an unstoppable the poetic and moving pulse. This kind of expressionism, which expresses images through a subjective transformation of forms and lines, is the core of the Chinese painting system.

In 1929, Chinese artist Teng Bai and Mark Tobey, a famous American pioneer of abstract expression, had an interesting conversation when they were observing a goldfish bowl in New York. Teng Bai was the first Chinese to study sculpture in the United States. He is from Fengxian, Jiangsu, China, who is a close friend of Tobey. When he was studying at the University of Washington, it was the time when Impressionism, post-impressionism and new sculptures represented by Auguste Rodin swept the American art scene. Teng Bai asked Tobey, "Why do Western artists only paint dead fish?" Tobey was speechless at the moment. Later, they thought for a long time and reached a consensus: the artistic language in the East is expressed by "lines", while in the West is expressed by "forms". A dead fish is a form, a solid definite shape, while a live fish needs to be represented by a series of linear movements of water. These two early modern artists saw different worlds through each other's eyes. Teng Bai's Chinese painting and calligraphy class completely changed Tobey's life and art. Tobey once said when he sees a tree again, that tree is no longer a solid definite shape.

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung has always been interested in Eastern culture and religion. He has borrowed Eastern thinking for his Collective Subconsciousness concepts and its psychoanalytic theory he proposed in the first half of the 20th century. Jung's research is extensive, and he has deeply thought about Tibetan Buddhism, Indian Yoga, Chinese Taoism and the Book of Changes, Japanese Zen and Eastern meditation. Jungians was famous in New York in the 1940s, and it had a significant influence on the early style of New York School of Painting. When the Japanese Zen master Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki went to the United States to give lectures in the 1950s, it once again brought an enormous inspiration to the creative concept of the New York art scene. Since New York replaced Paris as the new world art centre in the 1950s, American modern art represented by the New York School has become popular all over the world. It became an active art type that artists from different countries may imitate or resist in the post-war and Cold War period.

The charm of Abstract Expressionism that has been impacted by Eastern thought extends far beyond Paris, and it has also affected Chinese artists who moved to Paris because of the turbulent political situation in the motherland. Modern Chinese artists who travelled or lived in Paris during this period were able to focus on internal reflection, combining Chinese and Western techniques to give birth to abstract or semi-abstract styles. The Abstract Expressionism artists have deeply recognised the pursuit of touch, freedom, and non-stubbornness in Eastern philosophy, and these creative concepts have inspired modern Chinese artists since the 1980s. The idea of Collective Subconsciousness was primarily absorbed by modern Chinese artists in the 1980s and was reflected in the artworks of many artists during the "85 Art Movement" period. Their art has a strong sense of alienation and strangeness, which reflects their reflection of the times and their desire to express personal spirit.

In the New York School of Painting, Willem de Kooning's creative concept is the most complicated and uncertain one. De Kooning once put forward the concept of "a glimpse" in an interview, emphasising the "evoking" effect of an existential scene or feeling that cannot be described. Many Chinese artists have borrowed his ideas. Zhu Jinshi, a Chinese artist who participated in the "The Stars Art Exhibition" and experienced the "85 Art Movement", once described in his "Notes": "Abstraction is a kind of flowing phenomenon, it is the information conveyed by special experience in the temporary state of experience of the reality and the current perception of the present." Zhu Jinshi's "temporary state of experience" is precisely what De Kooning referred to as "a glimpse". The two correspond precisely to the concept of Chinese art.

Chinese art is used to talking about artistic conception in extravagance while creating new things in chaos. Chinese painting and calligraphy have always regarded abstract images as the most mysterious artistic conception. Zao Wou-ki often quotes imagery and poems in traditional Chinese ink paintings. He explained that the intersection of poetry and painting attracted him the most: "I think the essence of the two forms of artistic expression is the same in reality. Whether it is brushing on canvas or writing on paper, they are both expressions of the breath of life. They can reveal the hidden meanings without the actual form, reveal the hidden meanings of the universe..." These hidden meanings are often left empty in the creation of Chinese art and poetry for people to fill with their imagination. Chinese artistic creation strives to express the abstract concept of the Chinese culture, presenting the realm of "being" and "nothing", showing sensibility, control and tension at the moment when the colour touches the lines.

The future development of Chinese art must find the root of civilisation in traditional Chinese culture. The inner experience of modern people has never left tradition. Therefore, to express the spiritual connotation, it needs to be traced back to the Chinese cultural tradition, especially the collective consciousness in Chinese civilisation, which is the most profound source of Chinese culture. As art critic Pi Daojian said when talking about experimental ink, this may be the key to understanding why this group of people never give up ink media and ink discourse, but often consciously question and challenge traditions. In their artworks that seem to break with tradition, we can always observe some of the spiritual connotations that are similar to Chinese classical painting. Chinese painting and calligraphy based on splashing ink and outlining lines, especially the abstract elements in Chinese freehand painting, are the unique abstract art language of China. This unique modelling technique and painting language access the depths of metaphysical consciousness that even poetry cannot express, reaching the extreme of human intuition.

De Kooning called his creative experience "a way of life." Chinese art critic Gao Minglu referred to the thinking mode of these Chinese artists as the "flow of life" in the "'85 Art Movement", which shows the similarities between the two. As art historian Wu Hong said, the feeling that their paintings give is not an abstraction in the general sense, but a more personal expression, which is the complex entanglement, collision and negotiation between reality and abstract. Chinese artists' reference to the West is inseparable from reflections on their traditions. This kind of reflection is no longer as simple as blindly absorbing or rejecting but contains infinite tension.

Image: Often has the smiling Emperor look on, Artwork by Shelley Tsang, FLOWING PHENOMENON (Shelley Tsang)

In the second half of the 20th century, Abstractionism provided an opportunity for American, European and Chinese artists to find an aesthetic consensus. Abstractionism drives people's introspection and attracts a generation of artists from the East and the West to blend the old and new trends of thought. Just like the avant-garde artists in New York accepted, resisted and transformed from the Modern Art in Paris in the 1950s, Chinese artists have also been making unremitting efforts to establish their own modern and contemporary art. In these more than 30 years since the "85 Art Movement", Chinese artists have maintained their inner persistence with an open mind, and carried out profound thinking between tradition, the present, the nation and the world. More notably, Chinese artists never forget the humanistic care that belongs to the national tradition, seek spiritual inheritance in active innovation, and explore eternity in the broad and profound Oriental culture.

bottom of page