- Yu Youhan
- Circle 87-2
- acrylic on canvas
- 131.5 by 130 cm.; 51¾ by 51⅛ in.
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Born in Shanghai in 1943, Yu Youhan graduated from the Central Academy of Arts and Design in 1973 and then continued to live and work in Shanghai. With a career trajectory spanning the Mao era, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-liberalisation period, he has experienced all of the dramatic social, economic, and political transformations of modern China, all of which left indelible impressions on Yu Youhan and his generation. In the eighties, when China became more liberal politically and culturally, many stylistically diverse artist groups quickly emerged throughout the country. Mostly defining themselves with group manifestos and led by a few vocal artists, these groups attempted to promote certain new artistic concepts and consequently gave rise to the ’85 New Wave, which is considered the first contemporary art movement in China. Having been the cradle of modern Chinese painting, the Shanghai art scene was relatively calm at this time. Nonetheless, in the “Six People Group Exhibition” organised by Yu Youhan in 1985, we witness Shanghai artists’ pursuit of modernity in painting. Yu’s own submissions, eleven abstract paintings in the Circle series, inaugurated his later experimentations in abstraction. In fact, Yu Youhan abstract style is highly reminiscenent of American "colour field paintings" of the forties and fifties, such as those by Morris Louis and Franks Tel.
Among artists of the ’85 New Wave, Yu Youhan was doubtlessly one of pioneers of abstraction. This was intimately related to his historical context. In the early seventies, artistic creativity was strongly curtailed, and as fresh graduate from art school Yu spent most of his time painting landscapes, even though he remained attuned to the shifts in the larger cultural environment: “After 1978, I had opportunities to create works as I pleased, and so I chose to paint things that were completely apolitical and that put me at ease. I liked to read Laozi [i.e. the Daodejing] and admired very much his philosophy of ‘non-action’ (wuwei). As a result, from 1980 onwards, I entered the realm of abstract painting. In 1984/85, I began to create abstract paintings with ‘circle’ as a theme.”1
Created in 1987, Circle 87-2 (Lot 1036) may be regarded as a representative work of Yu Youhan’s Circle paintings. In this very simple composition, irregular circles, rendered with dense staccato brushwork, occupies the center of a black square. Within each circle, the brushwork turns like a whirlpool, as if generating a kind of energy, while the strong contrast between black and white seems a metaphor for the Daoist notion of the balance of yin and yang. Through Yu’s brush, unity and multiplicity are fused as one. Unlike earlier works in the Circle series, which feature the formless wash, play of negative space, and calligraphic brushwork of Chinese ink paintings, Circle 87-2 is much more definite and determined in brushwork and evokes the texture of a pen drawing. This was related to his close contact with Western abstract art. In 1981, a group of famous American paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, were exhibited in Shanghai, including 12 abstract paintings. This was a shock to the post-Cultural Revolution Chinese artists and viewers, who had been immersed in Soviet socialist realism. The exhibition was a profound influence on many contemporary Chinese artists, including Yu Youhan. By his own account, before this point his understanding of Western abstract art had been limited to Mondrian and Kandinsky and the like, and the exhibition opened his eyes to completely new forms of abstraction and changed his mode of thought. 2 This may explain the expression, as seen in Circle 87-2, of Eastern philosophical content through the methods of Western abstraction. Throughout a variety of formal experimentations, Yu Youhan insisted on one principle: the circle, which for him is all-encompassing despite its simplicity. This is consistent with the famous opening line of Laozi, “The Dao begets one, one begets two, two begets three, and three begets the multitude,” and also further explains Yu’s motivations in his initial choice of the theme of circles: “In the back-and-forth of my thinking and practice, I have settled on a simple image—the circle—as the primary subject of my paintings. Because of its stability, the circle can express both the beginning and the end of everything, and thus can also serve as a metaphor for both the fleeting moment and eternity. The circle symbolises the movement of cycles, as well as the movements of expansion and contraction. So it manifests capacious generosity, reason, and harmony. The circle can be a dot or an infinitely large surface, a microscopic particle or a macroscopic overview. Self-enclosed, the circle is quiet and withheld. In my paintings, I try my best to unify the opposites of plainness and wisdom, quietude and activity, the eternal and the ever-changing, and ‘nothingness’ and ‘being.’”3 Yu Youhan’s choice of the circle as a master symbol is no accident. In Eastern philosophy, the circle represents reincarnation, stability, eternity—both all that begins and ends and all that is without beginning or ending. A seemingly simple but actually profound and richly evocative symbol, the circle precisely embodies the spirit of Laozi’s philosophy: non-action, nature, and understatement.
Yu Youhan has said, “I want my art to be identified with Laozi’s ideas. The world is eternally alive and ceaselessly changing. If I had a spiritual teacher, it would be Laozi.”4 His decades-long creative career has been a vivid realisation of Laozi’s philosophy of non-action. Non-action is not inaction; rather it suggests a mode of being that goes with the flow. Non-action also animates Yu Youhan’s views on history and on the present: “When I created the Circle series, I was being escapist. I thought society was too noisy and wanted to find a place, an ivory tower, to hide.”5 Although the Circle series began in Yu’s desire for reclusion, China’s transition into a capitalist society in the late eighties made him attend to the country’s transformations and development. He began to search for inspiration for stylistic change in the times: “Art is humans’ emotional expression towards nature and the outside world. If the outside world changes, an artist should respond to these changes and at accordingly.”6 In the early nineties, Yu Youhan put on hold his experimentations with abstraction and, employing the techniques of Pop Art, created a series of “folk historical paintings” with Mao Zedong’s image as a theme. For these paintings, he was championed as a spokesperson of Political Pop by critics such as Li Xianting and has garnered an international reputation.
As a representative work of Chinese abstract art of the eighties, Circle 87-2 was exhibited in 2007 in “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art,” the inaugural exhibition of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Also in this year, Yu Youhan restarted the Circle series, which continued until recent years. Forhim, the circle thus also represents a 20-year cycle of reincarnation. In any case, the spiritual qualities embodied by Circle 87-2—a philosophical mindset at once n self-sufficient, ever-changing, and infinitely open—have motivated and animated Yu Youhan’s art throughout his long and productive career.
1 Gladston, Paul, Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese Artists (Hong Kong: Timezone8, Blue Kingfisher, 2011), p. 28.
2 Refer to 1
3 Yu Youhan, “Beginning with Conception,” 1985, unpublished, cited in Fei Dawei (ed.), ’85 New Wave: China’s First Contemporary Art Movement, Shiji chuban jituan, November 2007, p. 60.
4 “Yu Youhan: Flow and Embodiment,” LEAP, February 2011, p. 144.
5 “The World Belongs to You: An Interview with Yu Youhan,” Yishu shijie, January 2009, p. 71.
6 Refer to 5