A side-by-side look at pioneers of Abstract Expressionism and distinct responses to the movement by overseas Chinese artists.
A bstract Expressionism, one of the twentieth century’s most influential developments, was born in New York City in the aftermath of World War II. Although the style had its roots in European modernism, its first generation of artists—many of whom were European immigrants—thrived in an American metropolis that had become modern art’s capital city while war raged in Europe. By encouraging heroic individualism and the gestural application of paint, Abstract Expressionism would offer postwar artists a sense of renewal and freedom.
The first American art movement to achieve international stature, Abstract Expressionism had an immediate global impact. Its reach extended to Paris, where a number of Chinese-born artists exhibited and immigrated after political upheavals in their homeland. This pioneering generation of expatriates encountered new ideas about art that reflected its influence. While fellow artists who had remained in China painted to serve politics, the community of Chinese-born modernists who visited or worked in Paris turned inward to serve themselves, painting in abstract and semi-abstract styles that hybridized Eastern and Western approaches.
The ascent of China’s art market has brought global attention and prominence to the works of notable Chinese-born artists who worked or exhibited in Paris including Walasse Ting, Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Zhang Daqian and Hsiao Chin. Each artist found their own distinct way to engage with and respond to abstraction. Comparing their paintings to those of their American counterparts is an enlightening exercise that highlights striking similarities and contrasts.
Franz Kline & Walasse Ting
Study for ‘Cross Town’ by Franz Kline (1910-62) is a study on paper made to serve as the model for a larger work on canvas. The dynamism and energy of the artist’s brushwork and his use of black have invited comparisons to Asian calligraphy, but Kline insisted that his art had different origins: “Calligraphy is writing and I am not writing.” Despite the artist’s own words, an examination of Kline’s oeuvre shows that he had an affinity for the creation of forms that resemble signs and symbols.
When Walasse Ting (1929-2010) traveled to New York in 1959 after six years in Paris, he painted large gestural works like Shooting Star on the roof of his studio. Inspired by the lyrical abstractions of the French artists connected with the Art Informel movement, Ting experimented with a style of “action” painting not unlike the technique practiced by Kline. Ting’s works of this period are also an extension of Chinese traditions, with forms that had evolved from written characters or made references to classical poetry.
Philip Guston & Zao Wou-ki
The Visit by Philip Guston (1913-1980) was painted in 1955 when the artist was deeply engaged in experimenting with the rough brushwork and textures made possible by oil paint. Painting improvised forms that defy easy recognition, Guston created images that emphasized his creative freedom while offering up questions about the nature of art and creation. The philosophical bent of Guston’s art has resonance with the role of artist-scholar prominent in the Chinese tradition.
Zao Wou-ki (1920-1913) painted his 1958 Untitled oil on canvas after meeting Guston and other American artists during a four month visit to the United States in 1957. Having lived in Paris since 1948, Zao was deeply interested in Western art and once said, “Cezanne helped me find myself, to become a Chinese painter again.” Filled by semi-abstract glyphs and figures that resemble early Chinese characters, the interplay of improvised forms and abstract space in Untitled has a format similar to Guston’s Visit.
Mark Rothko & Chu Teh-Chun
Mark Rothko’s (1903-1970) acrylic on paper painting Untitled from 1968 features hovering planes of color floating in an atmospheric realm. Interested in expressing profound human emotions, such as “tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on,” Rothko said that viewers who are only interested in the color relationship of his art are missing the point. The visual space of his paintings, which reflects Rothko’s interest in the idea of the unconscious, has a nuanced sense of atmosphere and light that is achieved without reference to perspective, a characteristic it shares with traditional Chinese landscape paintings.
Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014), once a classmate of Zao Wou-ki at the Hangzhou Art Academy, arrived in Paris in 1955, and he would spend the rest of his life in the city. Inspired by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, developed an oeuvre of abstract landscape paintings that embraced both East and West. “With the Western color relationships and abstract lines of calligraphy, I hope to mold a new style of abstract painting,” according to Chu. The artist’s 1963 oil on canvas No. 144 contains and frames its energies in a way that emanates poetic and emotional vibrations.
“With the Western color relationships and abstract lines of calligraphy, I hope to mold a new style of abstract painting.”
Helen Frankenthaler & Zhang Daqian
In the fall of 1952 Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) made her first “soak-stain” painting on unprimed canvas. Winter Shore, painted three decades later, shows how she continued to use the flow of paint, applied in splashes and washes, to evoke abstract landscapes.
Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) was the avatar of a long line of Chinese traditionalists who had been exposed to American and European modernism during his extensive world travels. His remarkable “splashed-ink” paintings, which feature broad washes of ink and pigment are interspersed with landscape features and forms. Zhang’s dramatic 1966 ink painting Rumbling Thunder Over City Gate shows that he shared Frankenthaler’s interest in the expressive power of color and fluidity to evoke weather.
Kenneth Noland & Hsiao Chin
Kenneth Noland (1924-2010) is considered a key figure in a movement that followed Abstract Expressionism: Color Field painting. Described as "Post-Painterly Abstraction" by critic Clement Greenberg, a 1964 exhibition by the same name included the artist's works. Noland’s 1965 acrylic on canvas Dry Choice features a four-color chevron formation that responds to the diagonal orientation of the canvas. Along with other color field painters of the 1960s, Noland found ways to fuse geometry and color to create new and individualistic harmonies and formations.
After living and working in Taiwan for most of the 1950s, artist and activist Hsiao Chin (b. 1935) settled in Milan in 1959. There, he founded the Movimento Punto, an important movement that emphasized silent contemplation. The bold symmetrical geometries of La Forza Della Meditazione (The Power of Meditation) shares a stylistic kinship with the early paintings of Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella while also evoking a theme of Buddhist consciousness. Beginning in 1966 Hsiao spent time in New York City, where he became friends with leading American artists and continued to develop his imagery, fusing the traditions of Chinese brush painting with key developments gleaned from European and American modernist abstraction.
An International Phenomenon
Abstraction offered artists from the United States, Europe and China an opportunity to find common aesthetic ground during the second half of the twentieth century. It was an international phenomenon. By encouraging artists to look inward, it invited a generation of artists from the East and the West opportunities to explore and incorporate a broad range of both innovative and traditional influences.
"Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China."