- Huang Rui
- Red No.3(L)
- oil on canvas
The No Name Group (also known as the Wuming Group) was one of two avant-garde art collectives that played a crucial role in helping abstract painting gain eventual legitimacy in China in the 1980s. It was also was China's first 'outdoor' art group, and during the years of the Cultural Revolution, members would regularly travel together to the outskirts of Beijing to paint scenes from life. A younger cohort of artists, including Zhang Wei, Li Shan and Ma Kelu, joined the ranks of the group between 1972 and 1974. The No Name Group gained official recognition as an art association after the end of the Cultural Revolution and held two public exhibitions in 1979 and 1981. Zhang Wei later left the group and formed a small collective with Zhu Jinshi and Zhao Gang. It was during this time that he, and these other artists, began to experiment with abstract painting.
In fact, the early signs of Zhang Wei's departure from realism and his shift towards abstractionism are evident in BE1, a small painting from 1977. Zhang Wei drew inspiration at this time from his reading and study of sources such as the novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and its ideas of freedom and independence, Lao-Tzu's concept of dayin xisheng, daxiang wuxing or great beauty being imperceptible to human senses, as well as the paintings of Qi Baishi and Xu Wei. These sources increased his determination to persevere down his chosen path. On this, Zhang Wei said that he was seeking to paint something that "did not resemble a painting...in painting I want to return to myself."1 He was deeply influenced by an exhibition of the Boston Museum of Fine Art's collection of famous American paintings at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in 1981. Since China's opening up after the Cultural Revolution, numerous foreign artists and exhibitions had been permitted into the country. An action painting by Jackson Pollock made by dripped paint had a striking impact on Zhang Wei due to the work’s coincidental similarity to an experimental piece of his produced in the 1980s2.
AC12 (Lot 717), painted in 1984, is representative of Zhang Wei's experimental paintings from the 1980s. In AC12, like in his other works from the same series, no beginning or end is visible. All sense of brush strokes and layers disappears due to the to the sense of movement of the drips of colour. In Zhang Wei's words, "When I was painting this picture, I was trying to use the minimum of two or three different colours at most to keep the painting as simple as possible.You can see only one very small yellow dot in the upper centre of the piece, which accords with this idea of very careful and deliberate use of colour for visual effect [xise rujin]. Qi Baishi frequently emphasised this idea. He was a brilliant colour painter, one who never misused colour. After composing the large area of dark purple red, my little yellow dot acts like the banner of the general of a vast army, and also like the brilliant high note near the end of a symphony."3 Zhang Wei's paintings were an intense expression of a "subjective representation", in which he broke through the confines of circumstances and content, and went beyond a simple mimicry of Western abstract art. Critic He Guiyan commented, "Colour plays a dual role in (Zhang Wei's) paintings; the skill is in the visual representation of changes in mood, and their possession of elements of formalisation, although these forms are accidental."4
At the end of 1970s, members of the Stars Group (xingxing huahui), another Beijing-based outdoor art collective, and the No Name Group had frequent friendly dealings. On September 27, 1979, the Stars Group, including Huang Rui, Ma Desheng, Zhong Acheng and Wang Keping, organised an exhibition of over 150 paintings and sculptures of their members by hanging them on the exterior wall of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, sparking widespread attention. The Stars Group's radical position was apparent right from the outset. In Huang Rui's contribution to the exhibition, the Summer Palace series, for example, the artist depicted the ruins of the Summer Palace with anthropomorphic features, assigning it powerful symbolic meaning, in a style that straddled figurative and abstract.
Huang Rui's style thereafter began to move increasingly toward full abstraction. Like Zhang Wei, Huang Rui derived inspiration from his reading, which included the philosophy of Lao-Tzu and the I Ching. This influence informed his entire output of paintings from the 1980s, including the 'cold abstract' series Space Structure, also known as Space. In the summer of 1984, Huang Rui relocated to Osaka, Japan, and in October of that year held a solo exhibition in Osaka Central Gallery. At the exhibition, he became acquainted with Kazuo Shiraga, Motonaga Sadamasa and other principal members of the Gutai School. The group was one of the most important Japanese avant-garde collectives, and had been active mainly in the Kansai region since the 1950s. Kazuo Shiraga was the most radical member of the Gutai School, painting with his feet to produce canvases of twisting, writhing 'brush strokes' and thick layered paint. Huang Rui’s friendship with Kazuo Shiraga had a profound impact on his work from 1985 onwards, which is evident in his 1991 piece Red No. 3 (L) (Lot 718). The hard edges and finely coloured rectangular shapes of his earlier abstract style of the early 1980s were no longer apparent. Instead, in this piece, we see a large area of red, thickly applied in quick strokes, and overlapping blocks of black and grey at the corner of the painting, producing an effect of roughness and strong momentum. Of note, Huang Rui stopped making abstract expressionist works after 1992, which makes Red No. 3 particularly valuable.
The abstract painting that emerged in China in the early 1980s, represented by the work of artists such as Zhang Wei and Huang Rui, played a significant role in the development of modern culture in China. In addition, the activities and practice of the avant-garde art groups these artists formed paved the way for the later artists of the 85 New Wave, who were inspired to continue seeking creative and personal freedom, and who formed movements to resist the fetters of officialdom. It was the work of these pioneers – part of a developing movement and working at the fringes of society – that formed the early avant-garde of Chinese contemporary art.
1 "Zhang Wei – Waling Boers Interview", The Abstract Art of Zhang Wei 1977 to the Present, Boers-Li Gallery, 2012, p. 159
2 Ibid, p. 161
3 From a statement by the artist
4 He Guiyan, "'Landscape Narrative' and the Cultural Logic of Abstract Art – On the Painting of Zhang Wei", The Abstract Art of Zhang Wei 1977 to the Present, Boers-Li Gallery, 2012, p. 113