We are pleased to share with you
New York Times features Brush and Beyond,currently on view at our New York location
available online: and in print on April 6, 2018, Page C19.
After visiting Paris in the late 1920s, the trailblazing Chinese abstract painter Wu Dayu (1903-88) set up an art academy in Hangzhou,where Western and Chinese artistic pedagogies would be intertwined. Following the Communist revolution, his commitment to abstraction led to serious trouble; he was ousted from the academy to make way for Soviet-trained Socialist Realists, and during the CulturalRevolution, he painted in secret. Nine of Wu’s small, uncommon abstract paintings, all undated, are the principal reason to see this showcase of three Chinese artists, curated by Gao Minglu, the eminent Chinese art historian.
Wu’s vigorous, expressionistic improvisations often elided passages of figuration, especially of landscape. In one watercolor, believed to be from the 1950s, soft-edged triangles of navy and plum jostle with floral motifs in thickly daubed black. The paintingrecalls Qing-era landscape painters, like Wang Hui, as much as it echoes Kandinsky, Klee and Frankenthaler. Some hastily scribbled pastels from the end of Wu’s life appear frankly childlike, though a few, in their firmly slashed lines of orange or teal, displayan aesthetic freedom that had few parallels in China before the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, who led China after Mao.
For Americans encountering these paintings in a New York gallery, it’s all too easy to assess them with the same handy tools we apply to modern Western painting — to fall back on our assumptions that gestural abstraction was artistically, even politically,progressive in itself. But you can’t just graft European and American aesthetics onto Chinese art history. In the context of the early People’s Republic, the Socialist Realists, who drowned their individuality in murals of smiling farmers and strutting soldiers,were considered the vanguard. Wu, by contrast, faced denunciation for his commitment to abstraction; many of his paintings were destroyed.
Yet Wu’s unorthodox liberty eventually offered a model to two living painters, both senior figures of contemporary Chinese abstraction, whose art is in the show. Two recent works by Yu Youhan, who was born in 1943 and was sent to the countryside during theCultural Revolution, feature large circles composed of thousands of short, sharp strokes. And splashy canvases by Zhang Wei, who was born in 1952, have a careless dynamism and personal idiosyncrasy that Wu would have appreciated.
By Jason Farago