“What I paint seems to be something that expresses itself as nothing, not conveying any meaning,” Zhang Wei says. “But, in fact, human life is basically the same…the true meaning lies in the value of life itself.” In his abstract paintings, the Chinese artist thrives on a tension between the expressive gesture in abstract expressionism and the quiet force of calligraphic brushstrokes and pure concentration of Chinese ink painting. Between rapid execution and perfectly balanced composition, the white ground becomes its own shape, and color becomes a carrier of meaning. The present book completely focuses on the abstract paintings of Zhang Wei. The artist co-wrote the story of contemporary art in China, which developed with staggering speed after the Cultural Revolution, as a member of the legendary No Name Group and a pioneer of abstraction…who at the same time always followed his own path and worked outside of any collective on his unique artistic perspective combining Eastern and Western tendencies. After an introduction by Hans Werner Holzwarth, curator He Guiyan follows the development from Zhang Wei’s early abstractions in the late 1970s and early ’80s—inspired by the ink paintings of Qi Baishi or the first Beijing exhibition of American abstract expressionism—toward his ever more fragile compositions of today. In a conversation with Colin Siyuan Chinnery, Zhang Wei explores his own biography and tells of the radical cultural shifts in society that formed the basis for his artistic growth.
LANDSCAPE INTO ABSTRACTION
When artists no longer pursue the goal of recreating the illusion experienced by the retina, art will return to the picture plane and take it as the start. According to the American critic Clement Greenberg, defending flatness has become the most important feature of modernist painting since the mid-to-late 19th century, deviating from the visual mechanism based on perspective since the Renaissance to prioritize form over content and eventually elevating formalism to the cultural zenith of modernism. However, for Zhang Wei, the significance of the two-dimensional plane is that it allows him to express himself with complete freedom. From this perspective, Zhang Wei’s abstraction is not based on Western abstract art, nor does it take the stylization of form as the goal of pursuit. Instead, he seeks to merge the boundaries between form and content, or to consider form as content: “For instance, my thoughts on the form of color and the relation of color to image,” he asks himself. “One is a shape, the other is a color, what exactly does it mean when they appear in my paintings? Does color represent anything, or what does it characterize and symbolize in the subconscious? I am not quite sure if there’s really a meaning, or whether it’s just color itself. I also leave a lot of empty spaces in my compositions. Do they appear as content, or are they are merely the expression of another kind of shape within my composition?”
In other words, in Zhang Wei’s works color plays a dual role, which reflects both the change of emotion through visual perception and a variety of formalistic elements in the pictures not derived from generalizations of the outer world, but composed of shapes naturally formed by color. Thanks to traditional ink painting, especially inspired by the Ming Dynasty painter Xu Wei and his splash-ink style, Zhang Wei strengthened the free flow and permeation of ink in his paintings in the 1980s, which greatly reinforced the expressiveness of color. In his developing approach to abstraction—sometimes influenced by Western expressionism, at other times responding to the modernist 85 New Wave movement in China—he never changed the core spirit of his painting: the stance and defense of subjective expression. This partly stems from the personality of the artist, who is outgoing and straightforward, but there was also a Western influence at the time outside the direct model of expressionist painting: in the 1980s, Western humanistic philosophy set off one wave after another in China: “Sartre Fever” around 1981, “Freud Fever” around 1985, and a short time of “Nietzsche Fever” in 1987, involving many areas of Western modern humanistic thought—existentialism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, hermeneutics, structural anthropology, and voluntarism. In 1981, for example, Zhong Ming published the article “Talking from Sartre: On Self-Expression in Painting” in Art Magazine, which caused widespread controversies in the Chinese art world. According to Sartre’s understanding, there is no transcendental self in this world. The essence of human beings, the meaning and value of human existence, needs to be confirmed by self-action. That is to say, existence precedes essence, and only the actions of the individual can give meaning to his existence. For Zhang Wei’s generation of artists, their interest in Western philosophy was not to solve metaphysical issues, instead, they hoped to find a theoretical basis for their art, and focus their cultural criticism on the present reality. Therefore, the artist’s admiration for self-expression is still an important part of the Movement of the Emancipation of the Mind after the Cultural Revolution and the Humanistic Enlightenment in China in the 1980s.
Thus abstract art carries a specific cultural significance in the political and cultural context in China. The first wave appeared around 1981, but as the authorities launched the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign of 1983, the practice of abstraction was forced into submersion. In this political atmosphere, paintings with abstract features subsequently possessed a new spiritual value, just as landscape painting had in the 1970s: the rebellious nature of avant-garde culture. During the 1980s, abstract art was often seen as an embodiment of Western liberalism, which was incompatible with the official doctrine.