Yu Youhan
CIRCLE 1986-8
Los Verkauft 7,220,000 HKD (Hammerpreis mit Käuferprovision)
Yu Youhan
CIRCLE 1986-8
Los Verkauft 7,220,000 HKD (Hammerpreis mit Käuferprovision)

The Ullens Collection - Experimentation and Evolution


Yu Youhan
B. 1943
CIRCLE 1986-8
signed in Chinese and dated 1986, framed
acrylic on canvas
198 by 198.5 cm.; 78 by 78 1/8 in.
Zustandsbericht lesen Zustandsbericht lesen


Acquired directly from the artist


China, Beijing, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, '85 New Wave.
The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,
November, 2007 - February, 2008, p. 58


The '85 Art Movement gave rise to a host of subsidiary, regional art movements that differed in style and philosophy. Through the writing
of manifestoes and the leadership by several "main" artists, each group defined itself in its interpretation and proposition of a new art. While many hailed from the Northeast, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Southwest and other areas, the Northern hub of Shanghai, the birthplace of modern
Chinese painting, remained relatively inactive. Artists based in Shanghai lacked the sense of solidarity that their regional counterparts had. However, in 1985, Yu Youhan organized a "Six-Man Group Exhibition" in which Shanghai artists' search for their new art was made manifest. An instructor at the Shanghai Art & Design Academy at the time, Yu showed 11 of his works from his Circle Series, a definitive beginning to his exploration of abstraction.

Yu Youhan's early forays into the abstract may come as a surprise
when one considers his Pop works, exemplified by his Chairman Mao
Celebrating His Birthday
(Lot 105) of 1990's. Upon closer examination,
however, a clear lineage of evolution can be discovered and an
artistic logic emerges.

The formal investigation of composition guided his initial efforts. During 1982 and 1983, he produced Cézannesque studies with a hint of Miró. Circle Series represents an effort to encompass society, nature, human intellect and such. An abstraction that has form, however, cannot supersede the need for expression— as the artist waged on his investigation, he didn't neglect to contemplate the concrete meaning behind a Chinese abstraction. The artist made 20 works for Circle Series between 1985 and 1988. He attributes much of his inspiration to Laozi's "Daodejing," "I've never read his classics until the 80's, the fundamental doctrines in Laozi's book captured my mind immediately, I tried to make works that resonated with his ideas—the world is perpetually alive and ever-changing. If I should have a spiritual teacher, it would definitely be Laozi."[1]

In light of this, the arrival at "circle" as his main motif was never arbitrary. In Eastern philosophy, the "circle" or the "round" symbolizes
transmigration, equilibrium, neverending, with beginning and end yet
also without beginning or end, and more. So simple yet so graduated
in significance, it echoes the essence of Laozi's writings—wuwei
(without action), ziran (natural), danbo (apathetic to fame and wealth).
The composition of Circle Series 1986-8 (Lot 106) is modest. There
is a circular expanse of colour that anchors the square surface; the circumferential line extends beyond the periphery of the canvas. Spots
and dashes fill the circle, rendering every inch of space either painted
or left blank, representing pictorially the unity of the pure and the rich.
On more levels than one, Yu Youhan seeks to express the infinite potential of the circle, despite its absolute simplicity. The accrual of
conceptual depth did not distract the artist from formal experimentation.
Within the morphing circle, the interplay of water and pigment
generates varying hues of intensity and brightness on the surface of
the canvas, a combined result of the movement of the brushwork and
the manipulation of paint.

The 1990's saw Yu Youhan veer into the Pop aesthetic. The forces of
commercialization and capitalism that swept across the Chinese
nation in the late 1980's compelled the artist to ponder its transformation and development. Coupled with a satisfactory exercise of having formulated his own brand of abstraction, Yu sought new challenges. "I first dabbled with Political Pop in 1988. I've practically stopped creating any more abstract works after the first half of 1990 and moved into Pop. The time between 1988 and 1990 is the transitional period between the two."[2] Why Mao, then? He says, "I chose to depict Mao because I wanted to portray China, I wanted to portray history, I wanted to portray the experiences I have had in life. The sequential events of revolution and opening of doors under Deng Xiaoping's rule gave artists a greater allowance of creative freedom. I was then able to depict Mao, the icon of modern China, in my own style."[3] Once a staunch critic of imperial cults, Mao himself was deified overtime and became the object of blind worship. In Chairman Mao Celebrating His Birthday, Yu Youhan appropriated the Chairman's silhouette from a newspaper article and subsequently teemed the composition with patterns of flowers, dots and auspicious clouds in a bright concert of colours. His Pop Mao is congenial, pleasant, undeniably folk and perhaps even playful. The revered icon of Mao has been converted into a humorous ornament. No longer enthroned and perched on an altar towering above, Mao, under the direction of Yu Youhan, was human once again.

Mao as motif grew in currency and prevalence among the Pop artists
of China. There was of course Andy Warhol, forefather of American
Pop Art, who mass-produced the Chairman's face on his silkscreens.
In the 1990s, Wang Guangyi, Li Shan and Liu Dahong capitalized on
Mao's image in their works. On Yu Youhan's approach, however, Li
Xianting has said the following, "in comparison, Yu's Mao Series
adopts the colours, the designs and sometimes even the production
techniques of Chinese folk calendars, floral patterns printed or dyed
onto fabrics, features that constitute China's inimitable 'cultural
iconography.' Mao advocated 'art in service of politics' and 'creating
art that delights the workers, farmers and the masses.' All cultural
activity that followed Mao's speech 'Talks at the Yan'an Conference on
Literature and Art' revolved around the revival and reinterpretation of
folk art...Yu's Mao, then, is not a simplistic piece of cultural criticism,
but evocative of the profound humanism inherent to folk iconography."[4]

This humanism that Li spoke of is perhaps the most fitting descriptor
of the objective behind Yu Youhan's artistic quest all along. Starting
with Circle Series, Yu's imagery always revealed a Chinese quality—
underlining all the influences ofWestern abstraction and Pop elements
is a robust current of Laozi's philosophy and its requisite evolutionary
potential. Yu Youhan offered solutions to Chinese abstraction and
Chinese Pop. The pursuit of humanism in his art connects his vastly
different series, irons out any possible hint of conflict and in its place,
introduces a melodious harmony. The artist himself characterizes his
artistic trajectory as existing in a "dotted line" rather than in a straight
line. Just as he had in his initial experiments with the "circle," Yu
Youhan has always wielded his dotted line in myriad unexpected and
fascinating ways.


[1] "Yu Youhan: Abstract, Concrete" LEAP, March 2011: 144.
[2] "The World is Now Yours—Interview with Yu Youhan" Yishushijie, January 2009: 71.
[3] Excerpted from Lü Peng, A History of Art in Twentieth-Century China (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2006): 868.
[4] Li Xianting "The Ennui and the Dissipative Consciousness of Post-'89 Art: The Analyses of Cynical Realism and Political Pop" in What's Important is Not Art (Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 2000): 303.

The Ullens Collection - Experimentation and Evolution