Lot 1040
  • 1040

Yu Youhan

1,600,000 - 2,500,000 HKD
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  • Yu Youhan
  • Circle 
  • acrylic on canvas
  • executed in 1990
signed in Chinese, framed


ChinaToday Gallery, Belgium
Acquired by the present owner from the above


This work is in very good condition with only minor wear in handling around the corners. No evidence of restoration under UV examination.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Circle of the World
Yu Youhan

I want my art to be identified with Laozi’s ideas. The world is eternally alive and ceaselessly changing.
– Yu Youhan1

One of the foremost trailblazers of abstraction in 1980s China, Yu Youhan combined spontaneous gestural marks reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink painting with the all-over visual effects of Western abstraction, constructing an immersive and evocative tableaux that bathes the viewer in its sublime auratic presence. In the 1990s Yu Youhan turned to focus exclusively on Political Pop, positioning the current lot, Circle (Lot 1040), as well as 1991-3 (Brushwork II Curated Sale Lot 607) at the pivotal precipice of the artist’s defining abstraction. Enigmatic and softly luminous, Circle presents a mesmerizing cosmic tableaux that shifts and rotates as the eye roves the canvas – a technically superlative and aesthetically iconic work hailing from Yu Youhan’s most celebrated series of abstract paintings. The exceptional piece confronts the viewer with its brooding palette, looming circle (yuan) motif and rhythmic arrangement of short staccato brushstrokes, exuding gently surging momentums that overlay each other in a visually enthralling composition. 

Yu Youhan first began his circle abstractions in the mid-1980s. The circle 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”.2 In Yu Youhan’s own words: “My abstract works do not simply embody social reality, but also nature and humankind”.3 The artist’s interest in such a relationship is derived from the Daodejing (“Book of the Way”): “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”. Employing dots and lines of varying thicknesses and lengths, Yu Youhan encapsulated the fluctuating yet ceaseless flows of the material and spiritual world, subsuming his being and artistic impulses to the unseen forces and instincts of the universe.

With a career trajectory spanning the Mao era, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-liberalisation period, Yu Youhan experienced the full scale social, economic, and political transformations of modern China, all of which left indelible impressions on Yu Youhan and his generation. In the 1980s, when China became more liberal politically and culturally, many stylistically diverse artist groups emerged throughout the country. Mostly defining themselves with group manifestos and led by a few vocal artists, these groups gave rise to the ’85 New Wave, the first contemporary art movement in 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 art – one that combined political subversion with a rich “spirit resonance” (qiyun shengdong). 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