The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Yu Youhan

Signed in Chinese, framed

Executed in 1992

acrylic on canvas
80 by 100 cm.; 31 1/2 by 39 3/8 in.
參閱狀況報告 參閱狀況報告


Private Collection, Asia


Christine Buci-Glucksmann ed., Modernités Chinoises, Skira, France, 2003, p. 42



Yu Youhan (b. 1943, Shanghai) has played a key role in defining Shanghai painting not as a school but as a sensibility, himself working in a range of styles from Minimal Abstraction to Pop Art and from there into more painterly explorations of text and image. Appropriation is a key marker of his work, leading to an understanding of graphic relationships that is simultaneously personal—as an aspect of the artist's regular practice—and political, defining and intervening in public discourse. This is possible because Yu believes at least implicitly in aspects of the Yan'an doctrine, the idea that art should exist for and act on behalf of the people; with this in mind, his appropriation of political iconography is rarely as cynical as that of his peers, but rather serves to entertain and provide pleasure for the viewer by drawing on the aesthetics of popular art forms. Paintings of the resulting style often incorporate decorative and floral components, existing consciously as domestic objects that occasionally borrow symbolic power from the circulation of propaganda and pseudo-spiritual iconography. The artist's contributions as a founder of Pop Art in China (before, even, its turn toward Political Pop) and in terms of the question of crosscultural appropriation are inestimable, continuing through a stylistic trajectory that begins in the '85 New Wave with calligraphic abstraction and remains open-ended and flexible today, filled with the well-intentioned accessibility of the beloved icons that he celebrates and critiques.

One of the few exemplars of progressive abstraction from the first half of the 1980s, 1985-4 (Lot 823) appears casual and unstudied. Two off-white ovals, both oriented horizontally, are aligned one on top of the other over a blood-red background capped by a curve of black at the top, while this entire composition is covered with short black lines that turn toward each other, form lines, and appear to swim across the canvas with palpable energy, interrupted only by a series of slight drips at the bottom. Clearly influenced by the Abstract Expressionism that he had been studying at the turn of the decade, Yu here appears to draw also from a calligraphic tradition: the structural flow of the piece seems to share more in common with the material properties of ink than the acrylic of which it is created, while the energy of each stroke suggests the communication of psychological interiority shared by both lineages.

Yu Youhan takes on a set of qualities that could stem from either Action Painting or calligraphic tradition: "Circles" celebrates the random, the automatic, and the uncontrolled, but embeds all of these facets within a larger system that recalls a self-contained universe of elements or atomic particles. As in the Daoist theory that influenced his thinking during that era, the work involves a visual play of the few and the many, unconsciously commenting upon the ability of proportionate similarity to suggest universes within universes. It is decidedly not a conceptual project, however, but rather demonstrates how a form—here a circle or dot—can become an empty signifier ready to be filled with the thoughts and emotions of the artist; this is a component of calligraphic practice, in which the same characters appear differently based on the state of their creator, and it also foreshadows Yu's adoption of the portrait of Mao, which he would mobilize some four years after this painting to stand in for any number of possibilities. Here, however, the take on visual heritage remains fundamentally constructive.

The later canvas Mao and a Girl (Lot 820), also executed in acrylic on canvas, may be one of the most iconic images in the style of Pop Art to be produced in China, all the more notable because it bends its genre into alignment with Yu Youhan's interest in the politics of decorative painting. On the left side, a smiling and clapping Mao is framed mid-stride in a grey suit over a blue and lavender background, while, to the right, a shapely young woman walks in the opposite direction away from the viewer on a yellow field, wearing a white hat and dress adorned with impossibly colorful patterns and graphics. Aside from the obvious study in contrasts, Yu here gestures toward one of the most unique aspects of the appropriation of the pop genre to the Chinese context: rather than dealing directly with celebrity and information-based consumerism, the painter abstracts the parallel notions of iconic domination and graphic design in order to produce a new set of visual effects entirely.

Later pieces like Mao in New York (Lot 821) and People's Heroes of Today I (Lot 822) abandon the graphic traditions of Pop and the clean lines of Socialist Realist portraiture in favor of what would become known as "Gaudy Art." Yu Youhan earns this latter designation in part because of his continued fascination with decorative textile and floral patterns and the almost graffiti-like sloppiness of his pigment, maintaining some distance from the direct critique of nouveau riche consumerism that otherwise characterized the movement. The figure of Mao, too, remains almost omnipresent in this body of work, drawing on possibilities of crosscultural recognition and political currency to instill the composition with a sense of necessity. By the beginning of the People's Heroes series, however, Yu had been discouraged from working with this familiar visage; in this work, he seeks alternative subject matter in the form of dancers, athletes, and common people.

Pop Thermos (Lot 819) represents Yu Youhan's earliest experiment with the appropriation of the genre conventions of Pop Art, and may in fact be one of the very first such pieces created in China. The composition is simple: on a background split evenly between two fields of pink and blue, the figure of a hot water thermos is repeated five times, once in full and four times in part. In terms of colour scheme the artist has obviously picked up the brute visual nature of advertising via Pop Art, while in terms of subject matter too he seeks an analogue to the infamous Warholian soup cans and soda bottles. Lacking a strong trademark, however, Yu turned toward a cogent and recognizable object that serves a functional purpose in nearly all Chinese homes: the large thermos that keeps boiled water hot for later serving. In style, however, this piece is executed as a painting—flat, but not as finished as the reproductions of Pop work with which the artist had been in contact; he was interested in the ability for painting, as both object and practice, to enter the lives of the people.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China