Fine Arts in 1965. In the 1980s art world, Yu Youhan was a respected patriarch and a teacher to many Shanghai artists. Continuing Wu Dayu’s explorations in abstract art, he exhibited three abstract paintings in the 1989 Modern Art Exhibition, distinguishing himself as a true pioneer from the mainstream figurative painters of the time. Although Yu painted in the Political Pop style in the 90’s, since 2007 he has returned to abstraction. 2008, painted in that year, features intermittent calligraphic lines on a background of colour patches, varying in tone as the two interact. A new development from Yu’s Circle series, this is one of his important late abstract paintings.

The Shanghai artist Feng Lianhong recalls visiting Yu Youhan in 1984, “I happened to see him painting a Circle painting… He told me painting abstractly is very difficult. He said a painting needed to not only modernity but also a feeling of nationhood. This was an important idea that guided our painting practice at the time.”1 Yu, in his large-scale solo exhibition at Yuanspace in Beijing this year, again expressed his preference for abstraction, “This style is at once Chinese and international. To achieve both requirements, I painted the Circle series of abstract paintings. For me, I felt that they fulfilled my requirement that painting belong both to China and the world at large.” Yu began painting abstractly in 1980 and began the monochrome Circle series in 1985. After a break of over ten years, in 2007 he resumed his exploration of abstract art.

Not fond of Soviet social realism, Yu Youhan became deeply interested in Impressionism and Western modern art. Already in the early 1980s, he painted a series of landscapes based on Western modernists. At the 1980 Modern American Art exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Yu saw a work by Wu Dayu and was inspired to study and create abstract art.

For Yu, abstraction is not only about emotional expression, but rather has social and philosophical significance: “My abstract works do not simply want to embody social reality, but also to embody nature and humankind. [My paintings] are like associative thinking—an interrupted thought is continued elsewhere.”2 Yu’s interest in the relationship between humankind and nature is derived from the Daodejing: “Intellectually I am mainly indebted to the Daodejing. I am very fond of Laozi’s basic worldview and therefore want to create a feeling of endless vitality in my painting. Laozi can be said to be my spiritual mentor.” Daodejing opens with the sentence, “The Dao begets One, One begets Two, Two begets Three, and Three Begets the Myriad Things.” This is precisely the ultimate subject of Yu Youhan’s abstract art. One brushstroke and one passage can represent and reflect the entire work, and the spirit of the entire work inheres in every detail, just as in 2008 the various calligraphic lines vary according to the shape and colour of the background passages. Although life is in constant flux, we can see in all its details the fundamental nature of the universe. 

1 Fang Lianhong, “Modern Painting: The 1985 Six-Person Joint Exhibition at Fudan”
2 Hans Ulrich Obrist Interview Yu Youhan, 2009 

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG