The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Wang Guangyi

Initialled WGY and dated 88.12; signed in Pinyin and Chinese and dated 1988 on the reverse, framed

oil on canvas
118.6 by 99 cm.; 46 3/4 by 39 in.
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France, Paris, Passage de Retz, Next Generation Art Contemporain D'Asie, 27 June - 9 September, 2001
Brazil, São Paulo, Museu de Arte de Brasília, China- Contemporary Art, 2002, p. 97
France, Monaco, The Grimaldi Forum, China: Everyday Treasures – in the Footsteps of François Dautresme, 2004


Wang Guangyi, Timezone 8 Ltd., Shenzhen, 2002, p. 96
Christine Buci-Glucksmann ed., Modernités Chinoises, Skira, France, 2003, p. 46
Wang Guangyi, Art and People, Sichuan Fine Art Publishing House, 2006, p. 109



Wang Guangyi's role in the development of the Chinese avant-garde since its nascent stages cannot be overemphasized. In 1985, he formed with his contemporaries the "Northern Art Group," a congregation of like-minded individuals who believed in the functionality and the spiritual potential over the formal properties of art. While fellow artist Shu Qun advocated "Content and Form Relation," Wang Guangyi propelled the discourse further and proposed "Expunging Zealous Humanism." It was an ideology that entreated for a return to rationalism, thus solidifying Wang Guangyi's throne as one of the forebears of Rational Painting in the 1980's.

In "China/Avant Garde" of 1989, Wang Guangyi's triptych Mao Zedong: AO was displayed centrally in the second floor hall of the National Art Gallery and prompted shockwaves in the art community. The first artist who was bold enough to capitalize on the image of Mao, the artist went as far as to cover the Chairman's face, depicted in a morbid, somber tone, with black and white dotted lines. It was his hope that through his painting, he could effectively quell the people's indiscriminate ardour and mindless worship for Mao. In place of it was to be a rational analysis and objective re-examination of the great leader. In time, Wang Guangyi's art would draw closer and closer to the political currents of his country, culminating in his most feted Great Criticism Series. Begun in 1991, the series would go on to be shown at the 1993 Venice Biennale, catapulting Wang Guangyi onto being a contemporary Chinese art of international renown.

This season, six works created over the span of years 1988 to 1993 are being offered. Between the landmark Mao Zedong: P2 of the artist's Mao phase and Great Criticism Series: President (Lot 813) of the Great Criticism phase, there are four more works that were made between 1988 and 1990. All revolutionary and groundbreaking in their own right, each one denotes one of Wang Guangyi's stylistic transformations over the course of his career and together, they build a visual testimony to the formation of his inimitable artistic identity.

In 1984, Wang Guangyi graduated from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art and settled in Harbin. Between his graduation and 1987, Wang and his companion Shu Qun, with whom he founded the "Northern Art Group," was constantly searching for a pictorial strategy that would capture the vitality embedded deep in the "frozen" aesthetic they so adamantly purported. Tracing their inspiration for such an art back to their Northern roots, they asserted that only this approach would effectively purge forms of art stale, antiquated and pompous. Frozen Northern Wasteland Series was thus born and constituted the most energetic, stimulating and culturally rich body of work during the '85 New Wave. On this series, Wang Guangyi has once articulated in issue 18 of "Fine Art in China" newspaper in 1985, "Frozen Northern Wasteland Series is not just a painting effort, it is a laudatory declaration of our ideological and cultural condition. When humans have suffered the philosophical paradoxes of life, they are left with the residual hopes of rebuilding an existential harmony. What I'm doing is to create a space for myself, and here I convey my ideas and my thoughts." Concept, since the very beginning, has figured heavily in the creative endeavours of Wang Guangyi and forms an axis in his pictorial language. In turn, the concept behind his art lies in his care and concern for the human being.

Once the fundamental investigation of life has grown mainstream within the '85 New Wave, Wang Guangyi yet again redirected his focus onto the perception of tragedy. One might identify the source of this new direction as Intimate readings of Nietzschean philosophy coupled with Wang Guangyi's own obsession with Classicism and Neo-Classicism during his academic years. Tragedy is the spiritual core of classical paintings, and it is also a collateral effect that results out of the eternal struggle between rationalism and emotionalism, where rationalism emerges the victor. It is in this thread that Wang Guangyi began Post-Classicism Series in 1986 and subsequently, Black Rationalism and Red Rationalism. The appropriation of Western classics onto his canvases is implemented so as to allow for a reinterpretation. In his Rationalism series, on the other hand, alphabets and colour blocks are wielded in order to do the following, "Existing cultural iconography is not infallibly correct, nor does it retain absolute authority. We might review them with a critical eye and engage in modification if necessary. This very ability to correct cultural confirms the meaning of our existence." Directives to examine everything closely and re-evaluate pre-conceptions are professed passionately by the artist. They are obligations that drive the evolution of his oeuvre and resurface again and again in ever-changing manifestations.

A patent extension of Black Rationalism and Red Rationalism, Three Sections of Human Body I (Lot 814) was painted in 1988 and preserves the same deconstructionist and "correctionist" impulse. On three sections of a woman's body, black dotted lines and random alphabets are inscribed, in effect reconfiguring any possible pre-existing conceptions of the female nude. Mao Zedong: P2 (Lot 810) was painted a year prior to Mao Zedong: AO, the very first work in which Wang Guangyi adopted the Mao icon in his efforts of pictorial analysis. Truly a monumental moment for the artist, it marks his swerve away from applying his rationalism onto Western works in his Post-Classicism Series. In 1988, Wang Guangyi attended the Huangshan Conference where he presented an esquisse for his Mao Zedong work and his theory on the expunging of zealous humanism in art. In applying his rationalism on Mao, he "wished to find out that which connects my daily life with my acquired knowledge." A white figure rendered in the instantly recognizable silhouette of Mao is front and center of Mao Zedong: P2. Thick, red dotted lines symbolize the artist's earnest rationalism, wielded to unpack the true impact that Chairman, more specifically the Chairman's image, holds over his vast population of subjects. Mao Zedong: P2 signifies the artist's departure from his preoccupation with Western works of art and subsequently the advent of his tackling of classic Eastern subjects and Chinese cultural iconography. In an unexpected turn of events, the Tiananmen Incident broke out soon after the exhibition of Mao Zedong: AO. A cosmic force seems to unite a new page in the writing of art history with that of modern history.

Since 1989, Wang Guangyi's art underwent two major phases, earlier the A Masterpiece Covered by Quick-Drying Industrial Paint Series and then later the celebrated Great Criticism Series. In the first series, he would freely splash industrial paint on classical masterpieces he has expertly replicated and on top of it, print his own text. Chinese Tourist Map: Beijing (Lot 815) technically belongs to this series, yet offers in addition a unique sociopolitical timbre. Executed after the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, the work alludes unmistakably to the event. Tiananmen dominates the composition, while Mao's portrait is somewhat obscured. The "weather report" denoted on the upper left corner reveals that a storm is imminent in the city of Beijing, an allegory for what fatal tragedy was about to take place in the square. Swathes of black, red and yellow industrial paint invade the edges of the canvas, leaving very little of the original image underneath visible. The dripping effect of the pigment further conjures certain gory, gruesome associations. Attaching to the work the ironic title of Chinese Tourist Map: Beijing, Wang Guangyi cordially invites the sightseer to witness this fateful day at the popular tourist spot.

After A Masterpiece Covered by Quick-Drying Industrial Paint Series, the artist began to turn his eye toward Pop Art. Mass Produced Holy Infant: Green and Holy Mother and Child mark the last, transitional efforts immediately prior to Wang Guangyi's definitive turn into his Great Criticism Series. The governing concept behind these works remains aligned with his Post-Classicism Series and Rationalism Series, exhibiting the same heavy influences from Western painting. A subtle recession of his fixation on rational analysis, however, shone through. In Mass Produced Holy Infant: Green (Lot 812), the unmistakably Pop ritual of motif duplication is found, formulating a potent statement of denunciation on the wave of consumerism that has overcome the nation and thus paving the way toward the inauguration of his Great Criticism canvases. There are four works in the Mass Produced Holy Infant Series, identical in composition but differing in colour. The infant, in turn, is appropriated from the babe on the lap of Madonna in Leonardo da Vinci's The Madonna of the Carnation. Also in the spirit of his recent Post- Classicism Series, the iconography featured in Holy Mother and Child (Lot 811) is derived from Raphael's Esterhazy Madonna. Large blocks of red, an imposing arch of blue and bold bars of yellow frame and interrupt the drawing. Numerous imprints of numerical codes add to the chaos of the composition, a pictorial element that would persist into and become indispensible in his eventual Great Criticism Series. Visual strategies employed in the execution of these works went on to congeal into an artistic practice that became the early 20th century standard of Political Pop in China.

In his essay "On Expunging Zealous Humanism," Wang Guangyi said the following about his own work, "Between 1985 and 1986, we were all living in a mythological romanticism. Starting in 1987, however, a few artists started to question this tendency and presented works that were rationalistic and analytical. More artists, in 1989, have escaped this ideal altogether. The quandary remains two-pronged. First, there is the possibility of mythological expression under the premise of zealous humanism—this is a form of passion for making art for art's sake and not for the sake of investigation. Second, there is the discovery of a contemporary artist's own identity through the logical negotiation of the mythology problem— in this, we can perhaps identify the boundaries that separate contemporary art from modern art and also from classical art." The spectrum of Wang Guangyi works on offer comprises a complete and thorough account of Wang Guangyi's dynamic artistic career and evolving creative vision. Every major stage of development is represented, making manifest the road he had travelled in order to arrive at the genre-defining Great Criticism Series and finally leaving his indelible mark in contemporary Chinese art history.


The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China