The Gentle Provocateur
I want my art to be identified with Laozi’s ideas. The world is eternally alive and ceaselessly changing.
– Yu Youhan1
Dazzling and luminously radiant, 1991-3 (Lot 607) is a mesmerizing kaleidoscope that shifts and rotates as the eye roves the canvas – a technically superlative work stemming from Yu Youhan’s first phase of abstraction from 1985 to 1991. The exceptional piece employs vibrant chromatic colour, rendering it a rare piece that stands out from the artist’s largely monochrome abstractions during this period. Exhibiting a host of warm hues executed in short, charged, and rhythmically repeated strokes, the piece exudes surging circular momentums that overlay each other in a visually enthralling composition, constituting a sophisticated embodiment of Yu Youhan’s signature ‘circle’ yuan motif. Yu Youhan combined spontaneous gestural marks reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink painting with the all-over visual effects of Western abstraction, constructing a brilliant mosaic that bathes the viewer in its warm auratic presence. In the 1990s Yu Youhan turned to focus exclusively on Political Pop, positioning the current lot at the pivotal precipice of the artist’s defining abstraction.
Yu Youhan first began his circle abstractions in the mid-1980s. The recurrent motif came about through two large-scale abstract paintings produced between 1984 and 1985, which are expressions of “the inertia and freedom of movements in the universe”. In Yu Youhan’s own words: “My abstract works do not simply embody social reality, but also nature and humankind”.2 The artist’s interest in such a relationship is derived from the Daodejing: “Intellectually I am mainly indebted to the Daodejing. I am very fond of Laozi’s basic worldview and therefore want to create a feeling of endless vitality in my painting”.3 A mature evolution from previous works which feature distinct circle shapes, the present lot pulses with divine circular flows, communicating the rhythms of the universe’s guiding force.
One of the foremost trailblazers of abstraction in 1980s China, Yu Youhan graduated from the Central Academy in 1973 with an initial aesthetic of Post-Impressionist landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. Starting from the mid-1980s, Yu produced ground-breaking geometric and painterly abstractions that combined aspects of the works of Paul Klee as well as the early ‘plus and minus’ abstractions of Piet Mondrian with traditional Chinese approaches to image-making. Unlike Western painters, Yu Youhan resisted any obliteration or reworking of his paintings, opting to achieve an intuitive “spontaneously progressive part-by-part balance between passages of painting across a canvas”.4 As Paul Gladston argues, Yu Youhan’s works were “inescapably challenging” in the context of the 1980s China where the iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution still persisted strongly in the public consciousness.5 Edward Lucie-Smith further comments that Yu Youhan was “one of the first ‘Western style’ painters [of the post-socialist era] in China to find an artistic language that was unmistakably his own”.6
The eminence of Yu Youhan’s pioneering abstractions was underscored by their inclusion in the seminal exhibition “China/Avant-garde” in Beijing in February 1989 which encompassed the activities of the era-defining ’85 New Wave. Soon afterwards in the early 1990s, Yu Youhan burst forth onto the international stage as a seminal contributor of the Political Pop movement. In the ensuing decade, whilst exhibiting at prominent global stages such as the 1993 Venice Biennale, Yu Youhan worked through a succession of diverse styles, from Political Pop to expressionistic figurative paintings to landscape works that combined Chinese and Western techniques and sensibilities. Returning to his pre-Political Pop abstract style in the mid-2000s, Yu Youhan came full circle from his stylistic and cultural pluralism to articulate a critical ‘post-West’ contemporary art7 – one that combined political subversion with a rich “spirit resonance” (qiyun shengdong). In observing the provocative yet gentle nature of Yu Youhan’s oeuvre, from his tenderly smiling Maos to his captivating abstractions, Mathew Collings writes: “[Yu Youhan] is concerned with softening the badness of the bad things [...] Amelioration through patterns”.8 In following the natural genesis of all matters, like the biological formation of a forest, Yu Youhan’s circle abstractions allows the natural law and flow of the universe to guide both his art and his vision for a better world.
1 “Yu Youhan: Flow and Embodiment,” LEAP, February 2011, p. 144
2 Paul Gladston, Yu Youhan, 3030Press, p. 35
3 Hans Ulrich Obrist Interview with Yu Youhan, 2009
4 Refer to 2, p. 36
5 Ibid, p. 35
6 Edward Lucie-Smith, ‘Yu Youhan’, 2006
7 Refer to 2, p. 12
8 Refer to 2, p. 9