The Flow of “Spirit Resonance”
Yu YouhanI want my art to be identified with Laozi’s ideas. The world is eternally alive and ceaselessly changing. – Yu Youhan
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. Minimal, monochromatic yet richly, dynamically enigmatic, Abstract 1988-1
presents a mesmerizing cosmic tableaux that shifts and rotates as the eye roves the canvas – a technically superlative and aesthetically iconic masterpiece hailing from Yu Youhan’s most celebrated series of abstract paintings. 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. The exceptional piece confronts the viewer with its brooding palette and rhythmic arrangement of short staccato brushstrokes, exuding gently surging momentums that overlay each other in a looming and visually enthralling composition.
Yu Youhan graduated from the Central Academy in 1973. In the early 1970s, as a fresh graduate from art school, Yu Youhan spent most of his time painting Post-Impressionist landscapes, still lifes and portraits owing to the restrictive atmosphere in the art scene in which creativity was strongly curtailed. The artist recalls, however: “After 1978, I had opportunities to create works as I pleased, and so I chose to paint things that were completely apolitical and put me at ease”. Yu first began his ground-breakinbg abstractions in the mid-1980s; according to the artist, the abstract works were expressions of “the inertia and freedom of movements in the universe” (Paul Gladston, Yu Youhan
, 3030Press, p. 35). 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. In Yu Youhan’s own words: “My abstract works do not simply embody social reality, but also nature and humankind” (Hans Ulrich Obrist interview with Yu Youhan, 2009). 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”.
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. A prominent pioneer amongst artists of the ’85 New Wave, Yu produced radical 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” (Paul Gladston, Yu Youhan
, 3030Press, p. 36). 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 (Ibid.
, p. 35). 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” (Edward Lucie-Smith, Yu Youhan
The eminence of Yu Youhan’s 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 abstractions allows the natural law and flow of the universe to guide both his art and his vision for a better world.