Artistic Inquiries of the 1980's
In an essay entitled "What is Important is Not Art," the critic Li Xianting writes, "The '85 Art Movement was not an artistic movement, but rather a movement of intellectual liberation."1 This verdict is because the '85 Art Movement departed obviously from the humanistic concerns of the preceding Scar Art and Stream of Life movements, and instead entered the realm of philosophical meditation. A leader of the Northern Art Group, which was an important participant in the '85 Art Movement, Wang Guangyi's reading encompassed such giants of philosophy as Kant, Nietzsche, and Hegel. Their influence accounts for a certain Utopian grandness and superficiality in Wang's art, but philosophical depth still served as the ultimate object of the Northern Art Group in their imagination of a "Northern Civilization": "Painting should accurately translate lofty philosophical ideas, not the sickly or the sensational. In painting the convergent goals of the humanistic spirit and beauty create a positive influence in society."2 Frozen North Pole from 1985 represented one of Wang's first iconographic types. Imbued with a Nietzschean sense of tragedy and a cold, lofty religious feeling, this painting has a sombre and cold gray palette. Blob-liked human figures with their backs towards the viewer further give an aura of distillation and solemnity. Frozen North Pole was an illustration of Wang's artistic philosophy as well as "Northern Civilization." This striking early work was perhaps a little too metaphysical, and Wang's artistic philosophy would change over the 80's, but the geometrically regular composition, cold colour scheme, and abstract human figures in Frozen North Pole would become his basic vocabulary of all his creations of the decade.
The first evolution of Wang Guangyi's artistic philosophy occurred in 1986, when he was transferred to work at the Zhuhai Painting Academy. This marked an important turning point. Wang wrote autobiographically that "the Post-Classical series was created while I worked as a professional painter in the Zhuhai Painting Academy. I should say that the transfer to Zhuhai was for me a very important experience. After leaving the north, I began to think calmly about the true causes of the evolution of cultural history and other general cultural truths. I began to analyze critically Hegel's absolute Spirit and Nietzsche's ideas. I felt that art, seen from a cultural perspective, always comes from tradition, but as its own cultural fact, art always has its residual issues that can serve as a starting point for the present. So I settled on the theme of retouching 'classical art' and created the Post-Classical series. Only then did I truly begin to participate in contemporary art as a contemporary artist, rather than painting simply as a person who loves art."3 It is evident that in creating this series Wang Guangyi was fully self-conscious. After Frozen North Pole, what and how to paint became a pressing question. In Zhuhai, a city relatively secluded from modernist trends, Wang Guangyi reviewed many books on classical paintings. This rekindled his interest, which began when he was a university student, in such masters as Da Vinci, Ingres, and Poussain. Wang was also inspired by Ernst Gombrich's theory of the continuous interplay between schema and correction. "Correcting traditional images is precisely an artist's task. So-called creativity perhaps exists in this work of correction."4 In so doing Wang Guangyi experienced the transcendence and solemnity of history and left behind vague pure philosophizing and narrow regionalism. When the endless stream of newfangled imagery had become tiresome, Wang took a self-conscious step towards the postmodern.
The images in the Post-Classical series originate from classical prototypes in art history, such as David's The Death of Marat, Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son, and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Wang Guangyi performs "corrections" on these classics using the idiom developed in Frozen Northern Pole—a lifeless, frozen aura, a cold palette, and static and balanced compositions—and at the same time purifies this idiom. The famous prototypes consequently become more spiritually solemn, lofty, and quiet. The Post-Classical series received immediate critical attention and response. In 1987, under Li Xianting's editorship, Zhongguo meishu bao [China Art Gazetteer] introduced the Post-Classical series prominently on the front page of its 39th issue. Li believed that these works "borrow from a broader cultural context and at the same time articulate a new significance for the choice of tradition. They are no longer about solipsistic root-seeking or recycling within a closed cultural system."
Within the Post-Classical series, Post Classical Series: After Mona Lisa (Lot 807) is particularly notable, not only because in it Wang Guangyi relatively retains the original background details, but more importantly because it reveals Wang's Pop sensibilities. As he later recalled, "my thinking at the time was this: Mona Lisa has already become the perfect image of the human face, but what happens if we turn it around? Perhaps people should ask this question. This is a key question. Da Vinci's painting is a masterpiece. Duchamp's painting is also a masterpiece." Technical virtuosity aside, Mona Lisa's controversial and mysterious quality has made it an icon in art history, as Duchamp and Warhol both realized before Wang. Duchamp added a mischievous mustache to Mona Lisa, whereas Warhol treated her as a mechanically reproduced object. In Wang's version, the faithful replication of the original's background details and basic palette only serves to emphasize the back image at the center. Mona Lisa's mysterious smile is replaced with a heavy and amorphous thing. Whereas Duchamp's appropriation of Mona Lisa was to prove the anti-traditional and destructive force of Dada, Wang Guangyi demonstrates the creativity and validity of his "correctional" perspective. What this work demonstrates is the progression of the internal logic of his personal creative vision.
Wang Guangyi's interest in rational analysis and image correction did not subside after the Post-Classical series. In 1987, he created the Red Rationality and Black Rationality series. The former can be seen as the continuation of Post-Classical and retains its compositions, icons, colours while introducing the eye-catching red grid. On the other hand, Black Rationality completely departs from the previous works. Here large silhouetted heads are set behind black grids, and the near-monochrome palette of the previous series is replaced with red and blue backgrounds and humanoid figures of different colours. The use of the grid is bold and risky. Its equilibrium and symmetry lessen the religious aura of the images and transform them into conceptual icons. The addition of mysterious letters like 'A,' 'O,' 'R', and 'T' has been related by Wang to a segment in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Introduced in 1989, before the birth of the Mao Zedong series, the Rationality series seem transitional. Indeed, at this time Wang's artistic vision was shifting from a religious rationality to an analytical rationality. This is borne out by his wife's appearance in Black Grid: Artist's Wife (Lot 808). Wang says this was not the first time he painted his wife Liu Junzhi.
Sometime in 1985, when Wang was engaged with the Frozen North Pole series, he caught sight of his wife in a wool sweater sitting in front of a window with her back facing him. That image inspired the amorphous humanoid shapes that were to appear in Frozen North Pole. Set against a landscape background in the present painting, Liu Jinzhi's bust recalls the composition of Mona Lisa. Wang has used an unusual dark-yellow color scheme that connotes nostalgia. Absorbed in thought, Liu Jinzhi seems to be a Chinese counterpart to Mona Lisa as a timeless ideal of beauty, and Wang's rendition of her face is entirely in line with traditional Chinese aesthetics. She is at once the painter's wife and an abstraction. But her elegant harmony is marred by disorderly dotted lines, the English letters in the corners, and the number stamps that suffuse the picture, which in the end creates an absurdist impression. In this painting we sense clearly traces of Wang Guangyi's obsession with classics and their concomitant religious and mythic fantasies in the 80's. On the other hand, while the dotted lines, letters, and number stamps diminish Wang's classicism, they manifest his conceptualism. This painting lucidly demonstrates the rivalry between the two. In this rivalry aestheticism is minimized or even transcended. To "correct" historical truths may have been a pictorial triumph, but it was unacceptable to Wang's rational spirit. He would later divide his creative output in the 80's into three phases, writing, "the Third Phase (1988-1989): In this phase I began to doubt the artistic concepts of the previous two. 'Lofty spirituality' and 'cultural correction' had been nothing more than pointless presuppositions, results of a malignant development of humanistic passion. My task now was to cleanse the 'proliferation of meaning' caused by an illogical growth of humanistic passion. I had first to cleanse myself. I thought that the nature of contemporary art was to generate a conceptual aporia, which was possible only by analyzing artistic language. Artworks with a conceptual aporia would stop people's critical judgments in their tracks." The self-doubt of this period led to Wang's desire to "cleanse away humanistic passion" and gave birth to the Mao Zedong series.
This "cleansing of humanistic passion" was directed against the abstract and hollow humanism of the '85 Art Movement. In this regard, Wang Guangyi hoped to amplify the criticism of reality in his art. His Mao Zedong series was an experiment in this direction: "I was very tranquil painting Mao Zedong, as if I were depicting an extremely mundane object. I first added a small grid to a photograph of Mao and then transfer the image in outline to a large canvas using this grid. I then filled in the colours from the top left to the bottom right corner. Once the paint was dry, I added evenly spaced black grid-lines with a ruler as well as such letters as 'AO' and 'OA' in the four corners. My original intention in creating Mao Zedong was to provide a basic way to cleanse away humanistic passion, but ironically its appearance in the 'China/Avant-Garde' exhibition inspired a huge amount of humanistic passion in viewers, who in turn projected humanistic significance into it. This was the social background of my attempt to cleanse away humanistic passion."
Mao Zedong's image is highly multivalent in China, combining social, cultural, political, and venerational significances. The appropriation of his image was thus far more controversial than that of classical European paintings. But Wang's own account suggests that he was not concerned with the complex meanings of Mao's image. His creative process was rather indifferent and composed. He retained the colours of Post-Classical and the grid and letters of Black Rationality--the only difference was the insertion of Mao's image. Nonetheless, to choose Mao as a subject was inevitably to increase the work's impact. As Wang said, his indifference was ironically negated by the viewers' humanistic passion. The Mao Zedong series generated controversy in the official examination of the 1989 "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition and had to be temporarily removed. It was allowed to be exhibited after the organizers' detailed explanation to the authorities, but even then under two conditions. First, Wang Guangyi had to append a text next to his work declaring Mao Zedong's historical greatness. Second, the "O" in the corner had to be changed into a "C"; Wang Guangyi believes that this was because "AO" was suspected to be a pun. In fact for him it did not mean anything, and so he made the requested changes. Eventually the painting with Mao framed by "A" and "C" was exhibited. The present Mao Zedong: AO (Lot 806), also made in 1989 but not part of the "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition, is thus of much originary significance.
The Mao Zedong series undoubtedly represented an important turning point in Wang Guangyi's creative career. It brought him tremendous attention from Chinese and international media and critics. Because of the pre-exhibition controversy, he was interviewed by Time magazine. In November of the same year, a French and an Italian art magazine covered his work. On the other hand, in the tense political environment of the time, he was fired from his job at the Zhuhai Painting Academy. These various changes in Wang's life were accompanied by transformations in his artistic development. Yan Shanchun's characterization of the Mao Zedong series' pivotal role in both Wang's career and the artistic milieu of late-80's and early-90's China is right on the mark: "it may be said that Mao Zedong represented the end of Wang Guangyi's rationalism as well as the end of rationalism in the Chinese contemporary art movement. Afterwards, with the Great Criticism series, he embarked on 'Political Pop,' whose origination in Mao Zedong is often overlooked. Two years later, the 'Mao Zedong fever' swept China. This phenomenon reflected the Chinese' complex feelings and was a fusion of the many conflicted responses of idolatry and delusion, hope and despair, fantasy and nostalgia. Wang Guangyi's Mao Zedong seemed to be heralding the arrival of this fever."
Coming after the slightly unrefined Frozen North Pole, the Post-Classical, Rationality, and Mao Zedong series encapsulated Wang Guangyi's creative output of the 1980's. It was only having worked through the correction of history and myth in Post-Classical and the cleansing of humanism in Mao Zedong that Wang could create the renowned Great Criticism of consumer society in the 1990's, and even freed himself from the limitations of painting to experiment with other media and materials. Wang's progress towards postmodernism in the 80's is evident, and his thinking and self-adjustment throughout the decade laid the crucial foundation for his later development.
1 Li Xianting, Study of Contemporary Chinese Art: The Significance Does Not Lie in Art, Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House, 2000
2 Wang Guangyi, "What Sort of Painting Do We Need in This Epoch", Jiangsu Pictorial, Vol. 4, Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 1984
3 Yan Shanchun, Lü Peng et al., Wang Guang-Yi in the trend of contemporary art, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, 1992
4 Wang Guangyi, "An Answer to the Three Questions", Mei Shu, Vol. 3, 1988
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