Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – A Conversation with Zhang Wei & Wang Luyan (II)

Zhang Wei and Wang Luyan at Wang’s studio, Beijing, March 2017
Zhang Wei, OR3, 2007, oil, fan, plastic bags, wood, metal screws, and electric wire on linen, 220 x 180 x 60 cm
Zhang Wei, Z-AC1733, 2017, oil on linen, 180 x 220 cm
Zhang Wei, Z-AC1733, 2017, oil on linen, 180 x 220 cm
Installation View of ZHANG WEI’s show in Berlin.
Zhang Wei, Z-AC1754, 2017, oil on watercolor paper, 56x76cm.

Between them, Zhang Wei (born 1952) and Wang Luyan (born 1956) have witnessed and co-written the story of Chinese contemporary art, which begins in 1976, with the death of Mao and the wider opportunities opening up after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like many of their later friends and colleagues, the two were in their early 20s, self-taught, and setting out to discover art out of an inner urge. Zhang Wei went to the Beijing parks to paint and met similarly-minded young men and women with whom he would form the core of the No Name Group, then mainly an association of plein air painters in a roughly impressionist style. Wang Luyan became an early member of the more political Stars Group. When both groups staged their influential first exhibitions in 1979, Zhang Wei was already on his way to abstraction, while Wang Luyan went on to develop his own kind of conceptual art founded on paradox in the late 1980s. The one emigrated to New York in search of greater artistic freedom, the other stayed in Beijing, where he played an active role as an artist, collector, and curator.

IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists & Boers-Li Gallery

Zhang Wei and Wang Luyan at Wang’s studio, Beijing, March 2017


JIA WEI: Following the time that Zhang Wei returned from America in 2005, what changes do you see in his work?

WANG LUYAN: I don’t think there’s a big change in his nature. Changes are certainly there, but they are fairly subtle. For example, his early abstract paintings of the late ’70s and ’80s seemed to be more internal, but this is not meant as a criticism. In his current paintings, his expression is more direct and more flattened, either his information or emotions are conveyed at a faster speed. His colors are more emotional. I feel that this is his temperament, and the logic of his artistic development.

ZHANG WEI: When I first came back to Beijing, I lived in the countryside of Haidian district in the north of Beijing. Luyan said that I should move to Chaoyang because that’s where the artists are. I didn’t want to move at first simply because I had no rent money. “Painting at home is not going to work,” he said. “You need to enter this system, immerse yourself in this atmosphere.” Then Luyan offered me his studio and I took his advice to heart and rented it. But when I first came to the studio, I really had no idea what to paint, so I just chain-smoked every day. “You can’t do anything if you keep smoking all day long. You rented this studio for nothing!” Luyan said. Only then did I slowly begin.

WANG LUYAN: Back then, I had a hard time understanding Wei. He would be smoking whenever I called. “Still smoking?” “Yeah,” he answered. “Sitting while smoking?” “Right.” He could not paint when he was not happy or in the mood. I said that if you were never happy or in the mood, then you would never work. The reason that I didn’t understand him was that my mood has absolutely nothing to do with the way I approach my work. Whether I am happy or unhappy, I can always work. This is the difference between us.

ZHANG WEI: When I came back, I felt everything was just as unfamiliar as when I had left China for the United States in 1986. I only really started painting in 2007 under the encouragement and support of Luyan and Zhao Gang, who arranged an exhibition at the Courtyard Gallery for me. It was a kind of negation of my past, but also a challenge to the future. When I was doing my art, I was very happy and truly enjoyed the process. I fixed a lot of materials onto the canvas [the series “Installation Paintings,” 2007–2009; see e.g. p. 48]. That gave me a broader range and more extensive choices. Picking up a thing at random and looking either at the color or the shape, I just put it on the canvas, even a toilet plunger. This randomness gave me more choices and I gave myself more power. I began to come into my own again and started truly doing my own paintings.

Now I ask myself to do less on a painting, to express less on the work. This makes painting even more difficult, but the result looks really free-spirited and joyful. But going through the process is even more difficult.


Zhang Wei, OR3, 2007, oil, fan, plastic bags, wood, metal screws, and electric wire on linen, 220 x 180 x 60 cm


JIA WEI: How would you describe the influence of Western culture on your painting?

ZHANG WEI: It’s partial. Emotionally, what I love in my heart, to an important and immense degree, is China’s culture. No matter how contemporary the issues and what they imply, none of them would make it worth for me to exchange the Chinese traditions just for a Western sense of contemporariness.

WANG LUYAN: Both Zhang Wei’s early and current paintings are joyful. As I mentioned before, there is some- thing internal to his work of the ’80s. While his paintings today are not a deliberate pursuit of flatness, yet he counters the so-called profoundness and spirituality of the traditional values with what appears to be an external view. So his relationship with Chinese traditions is not the defining point. It’s an open concept; it may be the aesthetics of landscapes, or flowers and birds. It can also be the aesthetics of Qi Baishi.

ZHANG WEI: What Luyan says is that what I paint today is no longer based in the traditional view of landscapes.


Zhang Wei, Z-AC1733, 2017, oil on linen, 180 x 220 cm


JIA WEI: How do you paint landscape in a traditional manner? Did you train such skills? Aside from the traditional manner of painting the shape of a mountain and transforming it into an abstraction, on what is such an approach based?

ZHANG WEI: This sort of training can be derived even from reading. The way nature is described, or the writer’s experience of nature expressed in a book. When you look at the real mountains long enough, certain feelings emerge. There is a kind of optical accumulation of nature, the accumulation of feelings. You can cultivate this sort of sensibility by listening to people when they talk about the mountains they’ve seen, when you see the mountains painted by others. The cultivation of such sensibility is cumulative. The richer the cultivation, the more you will be able to express mountains in diverse ways. And you will feel a spectrum of different emotions about nature, mountains, trees, and flowers, depending on the changes in your mood and in natural conditions. The sceneries of rainy mountains, wind-swept mountains, winter mountains, and sum- mer mountains present many possibilities to inspire a renewed understanding of mountains. When you paint them, they can be revealed with a light touch, or it can also be a profound manner of expression.

In fact, good expressions all have abstract meanings and abstract emotions. That kind of communication is not conveyed by figurative images. Truly realistic paintings that look like photographs convey very little information. A painting may appear to show a mountain but in fact there are many things behind the form. The artist no longer conveys this abundance of information solely with the shape of the mountain. Both ancient and con- temporary art rely on the experience of visual observation for the communication of information.


WANG LUYAN: Yi-jing. [Yi-jing describes the work’s “artistic mood,” which incorporates both the subjective conception of an “idea” and the objective perception of an “environment,” both contained in the image.“Yi” is the unity of emotion and reason; “Jing” is the unity of form and spirit. In the process of integration, these forces permeate and restrict each other.]

ZHANG WEI: Yes, on the one hand there is artistic mood, and on the other there is personal emotion. Traditional ink painting is very rich in content, but this is not the ideal that I strive for. It is not abstraction. It is lyrical expression through the depiction of scenery. It is still an externalization of the mountains and the artist’s own feelings.

Traditional painters have their own advantages. First they purify themselves emotionally and their ways of thinking. They start by calming themselves down and entering a state that is distinct from daily life. Basically, traditional literati painters put themselves in a special environment. For example, they have to work by the windows and on clean tables; the windows have to be wiped clean, and they wear clean clothes. Only then, they may possibly begin. In other words, that is what they do beforehand. They need to start by putting themselves in a more pure, freer situation.

In the ’70s, we did not have a free and unrestricted environment. We seemed to be fleeing the city to escape from political pressure and ran into the mountains. The difference between the ancients and us is that we do not have their emotional freedom or the freedom of their environments. For us it was a learning process, most of us were in the early stages of learning how to paint, and some of us were absolute beginners. But the understanding of traditional painting came gradually. Even today, I still ponder the influences that tradition has on me.


Zhang Wei, Z-AC1733, 2017, oil on linen, 180 x 220 cm


WANG LUYAN: Granting that the roots of your works are based in the traditional methods of observation in the Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty, and the Ming Dynasty, or in the traditional content of artistic mood and poetic mood, I still believe there is no literal meaning in contemporary art. While Zhang Wei’s value as an artist lies in the highly intense Eastern nature of his works incorporating modern Western aesthetics. In this fusion, he has found a very unique way of forming the core of his art. For example, I own an early piece by him that was painted with a large scraper. Although it is impressionistic, what it is being conveyed here is not an artistic mood. The language of his brushwork is an expressive language, not the introverted restraint found in traditional Chinese painting.

Introversion, artistic mood, and personal emotion in Chinese traditional ink painting are conveyed through a process of revelation. Exposing introversion is unrelated to expression. Expression is the vocabulary of Western art, and the abstract language of Zhang Wei’s art is informed by his Eastern roots and Western expressiveness; the contradictions that emerge from this encounter are his special characteristics. The power of his work is born out of these conflicts; this energy is not harmony and must not be harmonious, since harmony will not have power. Zhang Wei’s paintings exist in a state of opposition. This is his singularity.

ZHANG WEI: I am interested in changing the nature of traditional form and its undiscovered possibilities. Since I am drawn to many aspects of tradition, it is more interesting for me to incorporate these things consciously into the current language. If you simply admire, you will repeat. But I’m not repeating tradition. I want to change it completely. It seems that transformation is particularly important to me.

WANG LUYAN: Transformation is a special rhetoric for contemporary art. It is more advanced than appropriation. The expression of the West is extroverted, individualistic, tensional, and external. Zhang Wei combined it with Eastern introversion and a distinct power emerged. This is not an appropriation of Western values. Appropriation is a unidirectional action, and not the existence of a relationship. This relationship is a confrontation between two different cultures, and perhaps not a relation by chance. The encounter rather happens exactly because they are different.

ZHANG WEI: In the ’80s, I was releasing my emotions as much as possible. I am now trying to control them as best I can, but I need to actualize this restraint. There are more contradictions now; I didn’t feel as contradictory during those years when the social pressures that I experienced created the contradictions I felt, and they were psychological. The contradictions now are close to being scientific. It’s a kind of research, a kind of exploration. I didn’t explore in the ’80s. I just expressed things directly.

I’m giving my paintings more opportunities, but from all these opportunities there arises a potential failure. Failure may be a new endeavor, a new beginning. What my new paintings are doing so far, in many cases, is still a process of understanding for me. I’m still searching for this understanding somewhere between experimentation and exploration. As for anyone else, it is possible for me to misread my works and impossible to learn from them comprehensively. Many possibilities have not yet emerged or not been recognized by me. For instance, my thoughts on the form of color and the relation of color to image: 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?


Installation View of ZHANG WEI’s show in Berlin.


JIA WEI: Speaking of content, what content do you think of when you make an abstract painting?

ZHANG WEI: What I fundamentally value is the intrinsic difference between people, and the most basic difference between people is in temperament. You can’t see temperament, it is something spiritual, but in my paintings it can only be reflected through color and shape. So while temperament is invisible, I hope to express it through color and shape.

Temperament predetermines the height of sublimation of the work. If temperament exists on a spiritual level, the simpler the form, the more power is embodied in such purity, and it is more able to express the qualities of temperament. Temperament will be sub- merged under a complex composition rendering it indiscernible. I think that the most important thing that I have to express in my paintings, besides visual beauty and the simplicity of form, is the soul of my temperament. Composition, color, and shape are all means to an end.

This process reflects the accumulation of experience and my aesthetic training. It is a form of comprehensive self-cultivation, which helps me to judge my progress in the process of painting and serves as my intuition to know when a painting is done. On the one hand, it is experience. On the other hand, it is the understanding of painting as an art form. There are also my personal aesthetic preferences. I will use all my accumulations to seek for an answer in an instant. But I do not want to let this process drag on too long. If it drags on too long, I will lose my keen sense toward the works.


Zhang Wei, Z-AC1754, 2017, oil on watercolor paper, 56x76cm.


WANG LUYAN: What is the structure that constitutes Zhang Wei’s works? One is the lifestyle and the individual state of Zhang Wei plus his unique personal experience. From his canvas and painting materials, as well as his body, we can sort out a structural thing. And then it may be easier to understand Zhang Wei’s works by interpreting them through this structure. Instead of interpreting his works while simply facing them, his individual state must be understood.

We feel the presence of his body in the large works and the movements of his body to complete a painting. Through this process, we can sense the system conveyed by the artist’s body. And we can tell that the speed of movement is extremely fast. How do we explain why he must complete a painting so quickly? Some collectors call this into question: why does he paint so fast and very little? But I think his quickness is a need. The rapidness leads him to create in an instinctual way rather than with a rational, deliberate approach. But at the same time, he is slow. In what way is he slow? When he is monitoring the entire process of the creation of his work, he may stop at any time. Because his paintings are done quickly, a lot of chances may arise. Since quickness is devoid of careful consideration, these are exactly the chances he seeks. However, he only keeps these chances by judging their necessity. Therefore, he will repeatedly look at the work after completion, and review the painting for many days to understand it.

All existing experience of painting is produced by thoughtful deliberation. All creative experience of careful consideration is eliminated by his quickness. We can excavate what is being expressed through this quick- ness. We can feel the rapid movement of the artist’s body, and his energy is reflected through speed.


JIA WEI: Chinese calligraphy is also fast.

WANG LUYAN: From the perspective of aesthetics, no matter how you view them, these two, three brush- strokes are superfluous. So he wants to save them with the next one.

JIA WEI: When you finish a painting, this equates to the end of the whole process?

ZHANG WEI: Often that’s true, but there are exceptions. I will hang the painting on the wall and look at it for a few days, or even longer, in order to decide if there is something that needs to be changed. But generally, I try not to change it anymore. I would rather start afresh. Changes are easily detected, and one can tell which part comes before or after. With these changes, the order of time becomes a bit more layered. This is what I do occasionally.

Most of the time, the process of painting gradually takes me to a place where I am completely focused on the work, and it creates a distance from real life. This is a state where I can feel particularly good. It means that in the process of painting, my work again inspires me to wonder whether to continue further or whether I should make changes again. Are there any parts that need to be enriched some more? Or I may feel that the painting is wrong in many places, may have overdone it, so I have to start over again. The painting never ceases to communicate with me during and after the process. The conversation continues into the future. Sometimes even when I go home at night, I keep looking at a photo of the painting taken on my mobile. I have to look at it again before going to bed. The next morning, I will rise really early and never abandon it in my thoughts. Or I’ll be anxious and hurry to the studio to “meet” the painting. It’s rather like having a love affair with the work especially when I gain a new understanding of it so it becomes even more interesting. This situation will last two or three, sometimes even four or five days after I have finished painting the piece. Yet the painting does not “end” at any given moment. It truly remains in a state of communication with me.



(First published in 2019 in English and German in “Zhang Wei / Wang Luyan – A Conversation by Jia Wei, with an Introduction by Hans Werner Holzwarth”. Translation from Chinese by Elaine Woo. ISBN 978-3-947127-10-8. Copyright by the authors and Holzwarth Publications GmbH,



Also check out our coverage on Chinese Abstraction:

Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – Introduction by Hans Werner Holzwarth
Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – A Conversation with Zhang Wei & Wang Luyan (I)
Huang Rui and David Elliott in Conversation
Huang Rui: Ways of Abstraction
Jian-Jun Zhang and Karen Smith in Conversation



About the artists


Zhang Wei is regarded as one of the first abstract painters in China. Beginning his career in the 1970s as part of the unofficial artist collective Wuming, Zhang followed the groups intent to express an individual artistic approach apart from the established art forms at that time. Encounters with western Abstract Expressionism and its protagonists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg in the early 80’s, offered Zhang a different view on his own artistic practice and encouraged his aim for personal freedom of expression by dedicating himself to a non-representational form. His paintings pick up particularly the immediate and intuitive approaches of action painting. Nevertheless, alongside references to western modern painting, Zhang’s works also allude to traditional Chinese ink and calligraphy techniques. Similarly, his practice reminds of the Asian tradition of “qi”, that describes painting as a process of releasing energy when ink and paper touch through the brush.


Wang Luyan is a Chinese conceptual artist. Trained as a mechanical engineer, the artist is known for his highly critical artworks of China’s newly competitive, materialistic society. Born in 1956, Luyan was actively engaged in China’s avant-garde art movement since the late 1970s, and deeply involved with the New Measurement Group, a three-member initiative of Conceptual artists that existed from 1988 to 1995. The founding of the group was spurred on by the fascination these artists had for Western philosophies – an interest they shared with many others throughout China – after experiencing decades of intellectual suppression under Mao. Introducing the rules of analytic geometry into their practice, the New Measurement Group explored the possibilities of communicating experiences and perceptions through quantities and measurements as opposed to erratic individuality. When the group eventually disbanded, its members destroyed all the documents and materials relating to their practice in a fire, preferring to maintain its legacy conceptually. His works have been presented in collective and solo exhibitions in China and internationally.




Jia Wei is the managing partner of Boers Li Gallery. She is graduated from University of Georgia Business School, Jia Wei started her career as representative for the British Funded Red Mansion Foundation, by which she helps to build a collection and supports Chinese art in various ways. Between 2009 and 2015, Wei served as the Head of Poly Auctions Group in Beijing as an expert in Chinese artsg, played a significant role in Beijing Poly Auction’s success, being China’s biggest and one of the top three auction houses world-wide.  After seven years at Poly, she moved on to join Boers Li Gallery as managing partner.  Throughout her career, Wei’s main objective is to expand the market for new developments in art and at the same time make Chinese art accessible for a fast growing group of new collectors.

Since its foundation in 2005, Boers-Li Gallery has exhibited and supported the various generations of Chinese contemporary art, exploring its history and pioneering young artists in all media. The gallery represents artists from the first avant-garde movements emerging after the Cultural Revolution, including the 1970s underground period of the Stars and No Name Groups, from the Beijing Abstract Art Movement in the early 1980s, the 85 New Wave Movement, the New Media Movement in the 1990s, to the most recent generation of the Post Internet era. Today, with venues in both Beijing and New York, Boers Li Gallery is equipped to establish and emancipate the history of Chinese contemporary art and different Chinese traditions that continue to influence, and to start a dialog between the cutting-edge of the Chinese avant-garde and selected Western positions that pursue ideas for a globalized world.



Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply