Abstracting Tradition

Abstracting Tradition

What links Song Dynasty ceramics with mid-century Modernism? Alexandra Seno explores the terrain
What links Song Dynasty ceramics with mid-century Modernism? Alexandra Seno explores the terrain

T he dissolution of the pictorial into sheer texture, into apparently sheer sensation, into an accumulation of repetitions, seems to speak for and answer something profound in contemporary sensibility,” wrote Clement Greenberg, one the most famous art critics of the 20th century and an early champion of New York Abstract Expressionist painting.

Though Greenberg was referring to the art of his day, he could just as easily have been writing about the exquisite ceramics made during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) in China. The most-sought-after examples include bowls, jars and vases with simple but elegant shapes decorated with subtle monochrome glazes or striking non-figurative patterns.

The relationship between these classic Chinese ceramics and the groundbreaking abstraction of post-war American artists is not lost on Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s chairman in Asia and worldwide head and chairman of Chinese works of art. “The beauty of the artistic experience lies in its timelessness, and that is especially true with the language of abstraction. A 20th-century action painting and a 13th-century Chinese splashed pot could hardly be further apart, but the spontaneous gesture of the artist’s hand can trigger the same profound emotion in both cases.” These shared characteristics will be further illustrated in the forthcoming 50th anniversary auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April.

An exceptional heirloom “Jian” “yuteki temmoku” tea bowl, Southern Song dynasty

For many of today’s collectors, the traditional boundaries between categories of art and objects have melted away. The rapid spread of knowledge about other cultures, aesthetic movements and historical periods has led to a new appreciation of the similarities between creative practices that would once have appeared to be unrelated. 

Consider gongshi, also known as scholar’s rocks. These are naturally occurring lumps of limestone that have been eroded into impossibly intricate shapes, and have been prized in China, Korea (suseok) and Japan (suiseki) for centuries. They vary in scale from examples that weigh a kilo to those that are boulder-sized. They are all unique in their shape, colour and texture. They were even attributed spiritual characteristics. The most prized represent abstract aesthetic qualities that only came to be appreciated in the west in the 20th century.

An approximate three-year visit in the 1940s to study the temple caves of Dunhuang in Western China transformed the oeuvre of modern ink painting master Zhang Daqian. He made copies of Dunhuang’s Buddhist murals, figures rendered in vibrant blue-greens and red – colours that featured prominently in his free brushwork abstract landscapes. The Sotheby’s sale includes his Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, two-panel splashed ink and colour work on gold paper.

Chu Teh-Chun in his studio

The painter Chu Teh-Chun was another pioneering 20th-century Chinese artist to combine the artistic traditions of his homeland with the contemporary trends being developed in Europe and America. He trained in traditional Chinese painting and became a teacher before moving to Paris in the 1950s, where he spent the rest of his life. His works are clearly formally indebted to the ancient tradition of landscape painting but are thrillingly gestural and swirl with vibrant colour.

Another Asian artist whose ancestral heritage clearly inf luences his work is Japanese photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto. Before he became a famous artist, he was an antiques dealer in New York, buying and selling ancient objects – including Buddhist sculptures, Japanese calligraphic works and pre-human fossils – which allowed him to dig into traditional arts and philosophies. His collection also includes analogue camera equipment. This has spurred on his fascination with the passage of time and allowed him to create his long-exposure monochrome images of seas and horizons, which are near abstract in nature.

From left to right: Lee Ufan, The Shadow of the Stars II, 2014; An illustration depicting the scholar Mi Fu paying respect to a scholar’s rock in his garden

The Korean artist Lee Ufan was a stalwart of the Mono-ha movement, a group that emerged in Japan in the 1960s whose key principle was the rejection of f igurative representation in favour of engagement with materiality. Ufan voraciously collected classical ink paintings, objects and porcelain from his native country. And his paintings, installations using rocks and even occasional forays into minimalist ceramics underscore his reverence for the materials that are used in traditional arts.

In the first half of the 20th century, several American artists were grappling with the problems of pictorial representation and became increasingly drawn to the meditative and abstract elements of Chinese and Japanese culture. One of Georgia O’Keeffe’s favourite books was The Secret of the Golden Flower, a 17th-century Chinese Taoist text that describes Buddhist meditation techniques.

“One of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Favourite Books was a 17th-century Taoist text”

Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000

The abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler considered the Spanish artist Joan Miró to be one of her most important inf luences – Miró often talked about his love of Chinese painting. Frankenthaler was an enthusiastic student of Japanese woodblock printmaking and made many works on paper. Late in her career, in the 1990s, one of her major projects was the woodblock-print series Tales of Genji, which was inspired by 11th-century Japanese text about life at the imperial court.

“Brice Marden became a collector of scholar’s rocks after seeing them in China and Japan”

Brice Marden, part of Cold Mountain Series, Zen Studies 1–6, 1991

Today, artists have brought forward such influences in dfferent ways. Brice Marden, known for his Minimalist gestural paintings, became a collector of scholar’s rocks after seeing them in Hong Kong, China and Japan in the 1990s. Very often he brings up their spiritual quality in articulating what his work aims to achieve. He has spoken of the way they carry an energy similar to one he tries to capture in his work. “I’m drawn to the idea of the scholar’s rock, the artist keeping a rock in his studio as a microcosm or macrocosm,” he told Gagosian in 2018. He also draws on Chinese calligraphy and eastern philosophies – including in his Cold Mountain Series, Zen Studies 1–6, from the 1990s.

It is also revealing to look at the personal archives and libraries of inf luential artists to gain insight into what they were thinking about. The German-French painter Hans Hartung (1904–89) owned several rare publications illustrating Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. In Spain, the artist Fernando Zóbel, a collector of Japanese paintings and Chinese objects, had many volumes about Asian ink painting on his shelves. In 1966, he opened the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca, which was visited by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, the following year.

For Chow, it is the visual complexity of many great historical works that has had a particularly profound inf luence on artists of today. He says: “an aesthetic sense of chaos and asymmetry is the key to reading Chinese art, for example, and this has trickled into the language of abstraction.”

Top banner: Zhang Daqian, Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, 1973

Sotheby’s Magazine 50 Years New in Asia

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