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Tradition and the Individual Talent

Philip Dodd(Chairman of Made in China)

It is one of the most remarked-upon dimensions of twentieth century western art: its need to renew itself by appropriating art from outside its own traditions. What we have come to call postwar U.S. Abstract Expressionism went to Chinese calligraphy to find necessary resources, as has been well-documented by the recent Guggenheim exhibition The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia 1860- 1989. Artists such as Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Mark Tobey became absorbed by East Asian calligraphy, with its sense of order and control; its preoccupation with the brushstroke was borrowed by certain American artists as a way of engaging with the movements of their own body and their own inner workings. Or take Paul Klee and his nostrum that ‘Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible’. To make such an art, Klee had to go to the art of children and to that of outsiders to help him forge the necessary language.

Contrary to their western counterparts, contemporary artists from China do not necessarily find themselves in a crisis of relationship to their tradition, as is clear when I talk to Wang Huangsheng down a line from Beijing. He is someone I have known for seven or eight years, both as an artist and as one of the most influential curators and museums directors, first at Guangdong Art Museum and more recently at the Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. His museum experience is relevant to the choices he has made as an artist, insofar as it has exposed him to installation art and to video - both of which he has practised. But his primary loyalty is to ink on paper, the basis of his show at the October Gallery, and the loyalty is a deliberate choice. And why - because of what the tradition of Chinese ink painting offers him as a contemporary artist. Wang Huangsheng’s art is the art of the line (compare Paul Klee’s much quoted aphorism that ‘drawing is taking a line for a walk’) and when I ask him what the line means to him, he does not hesitate.

For him the line is ‘a mark of universal recognition’; it also articulates ‘spiritual freedom’ but also, and here he is insistent, it is freighted with the power and resonance that China’s long tradition of calligraphy gives it. ‘Calligraphy is the art of the line, and the lines in calligraphy are the movements of the brush as it moves across the paper’, he tells me. For Wang Huangsheng, the line reveals the real time of the process of making the work (the Chinese way is not to raise the brush or pencil from the paper) but also the ‘time of my heart’ as he calls it. The line is ‘able to articulate abstract or psychological concepts which otherwise cannot be expressed’. He repeats a saying in Chinese, 大象無形, which translated means, ‘Great form has no shape’ which sounds remarkably close to Klee’s nostrum quoted earlier. Yet if Paul Klee seemed a transgressive artist challenging the post Renaissance separation between writing and visual art to ‘make the visible’, the tradition of Chinese calligraphy effortlessly ensures that there is not nor has there ever been such a separation and remains the traditional and usable form for revealing inner processes (even the tradition of Chinese landscape painting is not primarily a matter of representing a seen landscape but of representing the interior landscape of the artist’s mind).

It is easy to see that western art history, and the museums which are forged by this history, find this troubling. In London, the British Museum collects and exhibits ink painting; the Tate does not do so; in New York, MOMA does not collect ink painting but the Metropolitan does and recently has staged an exhibition of contemporary ink painting which characterized it not only in terms of medium but also in terms of spirit. For western art history, tradition and the contemporary seem almost antithetical. Wang Huangsheng is clear that China’s vision is firmly fixed on the future and on integration with the international world (including the art world) – trends that are both necessary and to be welcomed. But it is precisely at such a moment, he believes, that it is important, to use his words, ‘to linger on the special characteristics of Chinese culture’. His ambition is to mix the ‘special characteristics of Chinese art with international art to make new cultural forms’.

Like many of the interesting artists of China, Wang Huangsheng came to maturity during the ‘80s, the period of ‘opening up’ after the death of Mao Ze Dong in 1976 – which means also that he lived through the Cultural Revolution, an attempt among other things to cancel tradition. Wang Huangsheng’s father belonged to the Literati tradition of artists and in the early ‘70s was sent into the countryside, as was the case of many others. It was at this time that his father encouraged his son to learn Chinese calligraphy. When he tells me this, I ask him if his father had the opportunity to see his recent work. ‘Yes, he saw it a couple of years ago when he was 103’, he told me. ‘What did he say?’ I ask. ‘Did he like it?’ ‘Yes’, Wang Huangsheng replied. He told me, ‘It is different’. As he said this, it brought to mind Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the story by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, where Menard writes out Don Quixote word for word, only to feel that it is different. Wang Huangsheng’s art is loyal to tradition but in order to make something new, something different; his art shows, among much else, that it is possible to belong to the future without abandoning loyalty to the past.