Huang Rui — In Free Pursuit of Abstraction (I): The Liberating Joy of Cubism

Huang Rui, Portrait of a Girl, 1982. Oil on canvas, 70 x 45 cm. Courtesy of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
Huang Rui, Yuanmingyuan Rebirth, 1979. Courtesy of M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong.
Huang Rui, Portrait of a Girl, 1982, oil on canvas, 70 x 45 cm. Courtesy of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.
Today magazine founded by Huang Rui and Bei Dao.
Installation View of 40×40 Art History Shaped by 40 Artists at Powerlong Museum, Shanghai.
Huang Rui reading the manifesto asking for freedom of expression in 1979.
Huang Rui, Chai-na / China series, 2010s. Paintings, silkscreen and oil on canvas.
CoBo Social Market News Reports

Seminal Chinese artist Huang Rui was a leader of the avant-garde Stars Group in 1979 and also a mastermind of the 798 Art District in Beijing. Huang played a pivotal role in the emergence of non-conformist art expressions in a Post-Mao era. In the first of this two-part interview, the artist sheds light on how Cubism and Abstraction were key to his artistic practice. 

INTERVIEW : Selina Ting, Kirsten Wang
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist


Can you talk about how you see Cubism

In a sense, Cubism first destroys your body, then takes your previous perception of things and shapes it into painting or sculptural forms. I am a painter, so to paint is to reflect what you see and observe. But one can also add imagination to what is reflected, for example, one could choose some scenarios from memory, which is a little bit like classical painting, adding, tracing back, or copying a scene in one’s mind to illustrate an instance. But Cubism is very different. From what I see, many abstract artists have very good intuition and rich emotions, like some poets, when certain emotions are captured, their temperament would naturally be revealed. But why would they stop at this perceptual level? That is because one can’t always rely on abstract expressions to sustain oneself. There are many people who are truly extraordinary, whether in terms of their knowledge, or intuition, but after the intuitive type reaches forty, they would encounter a creative crisis. I conclude that as an abstract artist, if you have never undergone Cubist training, you would be stunted by a creative crisis, as Cubism would constantly urge you to cast aside differences, and engage in self-reflection.


So it is a challenge of the mind

Yes. My words are like old bones, wasn’t Cubism around a hundred years ago? A thing of the last century? But it’s still the point of origin. It’s like how musicians today still need to go back to Bach and Mozart, they are the origin points. I have to embark on destruction from that specific spot, but you also need a process of reconstruction. Destruction is all very good, but a reconstructive process is not so easy, it takes a lot of hard work. And the reconstruction itself is a profound awareness of destruction. Here in Beijing, we witness destruction every day, but it cannot be reconstructed. That is a question of discontinuity. Reconstruction needs an origin point, it needs original structures, original memories, as well as original viewpoints, thoughts, and observation methods. Back then I was fortunate to play around with Cubism for a while and learn from it, and even now I am no different. You ask me if I see artworks today? I do, but I would quickly observe to see whether they are in dialogue with Cubism from the start of the twentieth century. If there was potential for dialogue hidden in the work, I would hear a kind of voice and feel a fondness towards it.


Huang Rui, Yuanmingyuan Rebirth, 1979. Courtesy of M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong.
Huang Rui, Portrait of a Girl, 1982, oil on canvas, 70 x 45 cm. Courtesy of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.


When you saw the Picasso exhibition in 1981, it was a way for you to comb through and organize your ideas. If that exhibition never took place, do you feel that you would still have encountered Cubism in the social or artistic confines during that time period? Or would you have gone in another direction?

I first encountered Cezanne. He played a decisive role. Why were his paintings decisive? Because we don’t know how to paint. I am a rather emotional person, I like to use big brushstrokes to scatter color everywhere, but I don’t know how these colors could be spliced and connected. In fact, the splicing methods are quite specific, like how to use the color palette, how to wield the paint brush. Cezanne’s paintings are very clear. I looked at many works in the exhibition of French rural landscape paintings, even though Van Gogh’s paintings made me tear up, he wasn’t able to solve my painting problems like Cezanne did. Asides from how to connect colors using brushstrokes, Cezanne naturally emanates outwards from a center point, he is anti-perspectival. I don’t know if theorists have talked about his work in this way. When you look at his perspective, brushstrokes, and that which lies in between, you will find that all the lines radiate outwards. Picasso has also grasped Cezanne’s essence, for example, in Three Musicians, Guernica, and even Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, all the lines radiate out. When you have grasped the core of a mode of expression, you can step out of the main subject at any time, because there’s a meter in your mind that constantly beats.


As the father of Modern Art, Cezanne has inspired many artists to come. But many Western scholars have concluded that the reason why Cezanne has inspired to many, is because he didn’t know how to paint. Back then, realism was the standard of the day, so the more likeness the better. So how did Cezanne’s lines and sense of space allow him to be such an important source of inspiration for so many artists?

Actually, it was not necessary that Cezanne’s mastery of painting be on the same level as his concepts. The most important thing was that he realized something. What was he conveying to the audience, language or painting? I think he has made it pretty clear when he said: “I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.” How brilliant is that!

At that time, I didn’t know what Cubism was really. But I slowly realized that it made me experience the joy of self-liberation, then I started experimenting and practicing. When I first started, it was a new method. The brushstrokes weren’t simply smeared on, but intentionally placed. Van Gogh went even further, I remember one time I went to see a show in the eighties, I stood really close to a painting by Van Gogh and stared at it intensely. He painted a golden wheat field, but when you observe closely, he actually used tiny brushstrokes made of red and white, using this combination to depict a golden color. This person is crazy! But within the madness is a kind of realness, the realness of life, that’s how it was in his life. I felt that he was speaking the truth the moment he touched the color, it was a kind of destiny. You pick up the drawing board, and place the colors onto the canvas, you are not smearing or daubing the colors but placing it meticulously. I like that very much.


You also wrote poems, did you express this idea through your poetry?

I was mostly fooling around with poetry. I was young back then, hormones sought you out and made you feel that everything was unfair. I wanted to paint more, but we didn’t have canvases or paint. There was nothing available in Beijing really. My family wasn’t the poorest, but we were still pretty poor. I didn’t have the luxury of using any materials that I wanted. I remember going to the art supply store, they didn’t have anything, and told me to come back in two weeks! So, I knew from early on that I couldn’t exercise my imagination or balance my learning and imagination entirely through painting, that’s why I took to writing poetry.


You got to know many poets, including the time you spent at Today magazine. In your mind, why were poets and artists so close? What was the overlap? Did they have common dialogues with each other in terms of ideas, expression, and modes of presentation?

I knew many poets and had trusting relationships with them. Writing poetry is like plowing the field, you need to thoroughly turn the earth over, and establish your roots deeply. A person to have truly turned the field inside and out is Gu Cheng, it’s a shame that he has passed away. The language of poetry is not limited to an idea, it has to turn imagination into a visual feeling. That is what poetry and painting have in common.


Today magazine founded by Huang Rui and Bei Dao.


Do you recall the way you painted at that time? How did you start when faced with the canvas? Was there a method that put you in the mood to make art?

When I came into contact with Cubism, I started poking around and experimenting with the subject of space, even now I still cannot part with it. Back then, it was a question of how I could resolve the problem of space through composition. When tackling the question of perspective and departing from perspective, subjects, and fractured subjects, what role does the subject take on? I think this is also a question of whether you belong to the contemporary or not. When you go with the contemporary flow, you are in parallel with the subject, you have to journey with it, act on it, then return, but you can’t make it your goal. That is the biggest difference between us and the academic style. For the latter, once they have determined the goal, they work towards that goal. But that’s not the case with us, the goal is merely a point of transition. It could be above you, on your left, or on your right.

You will encounter many problems when you are trying to reach a goal. In order to prove that they have reached the goal, the academy would lie at all cost. Everybody has problems, even our brilliant politicians have a hard time accomplishing goals, despite having mobilized the resources of the entire country.


How do you understand the relationship between Cubism and Abstraction? How does your own practice relate to Abstraction? Or do you only identify with Cubism?

Cubism is my point of departure, it has taught me many things, even though it is also very limited in terms of its direction and movement. In comparison, Abstraction has not ended—it has nothing to do with positive or negative developments. The possibilities for Abstraction are very broad, it exists in many forms. You could interpret it, but also question it at the same time. You could be opposed to interpretation, or opposed to a position of authority. That is what Abstraction is in my eyes.

In fact, with artmaking also emerges liberation of the mind. If an artist disagrees with this and doesn’t try to infinitely expand his or her mind, I would think this artist is very limited. What does he or she make art for then? Artmaking has to create a spiritual structure, which takes place simultaneously as the artwork is realized, so one thing is closely linked to the other.

Last year, I participated in a group show organized by Lu Pang at the Powerlong Art Museum in Shanghai, called 40 x 40 From 1978 to 2018, Art History Shaped by 40 Artists. I would probably offend many people by saying this, but artmaking is built on constant practice and struggles, one needs to keep moving forward. But many people don’t even keep up with “Reform and Opening”, or even just with ‘propaganda slogans’. On route to economic rejuvenation, they remain stiff and inflexible, and stalled at some point on their path to success. Where did the problem begin? I think it has to do with a certain spiritual impoverishment, or a lack in self-examination, these people are truly going towards a dead-end. Why is that? From the seventies to the eighties, they once called for the freedom of artmaking or expressing the mind, but once their ‘freedom’ has been recognized by the market, their voices for freedom waned. You will not see them appear in any petitions or movements, you won’t find them in any place that conflicts with the system. That’s a phenomenon.


Installation View of 40×40 Art History Shaped by 40 Artists at Powerlong Museum, Shanghai.


Those are circumstances that all contemporary Chinese artists are faced with…

Aside from this spiritual critique, I think that abstract painting needs to continue. Some people are able to find the form with which to express themselves, that is, constantly returning to a point of origin. If we don’t learn from the past, and remain lacking in historical knowledge and concepts, we would be lost. But if you are someone who pursues spiritual liberation, there is still value in working towards such a goal. In the world of abstract painting, you can still reveal natural emotions.


Do you find that political environments of the past, compared to the reality of today, seek the same things in terms of spiritual freedom or critique? Or is it that due to differences in the social realm and reality, people have different aspirations, which are then reflected in their artwork?

If this is addressed, then we can focus on the works themselves. But if not, it always remains a problem, an obstacle. We can talk about the process of making art, or the good and bad in abstraction… But for me, the first thing that needs to be addressed is: are you someone who values the freedom of spirit?


Huang Rui reading the manifesto asking for freedom of expression in 1979.
Huang Rui, Chai-na / China series, 2010s. Paintings, silkscreen and oil on canvas.


Then are there points of similarity between Western abstraction and what you just talked about? Do you feel that you can find the above-mentioned spiritual requirements in Eastern philosophical thinking?

I think that spiritual demands is actually an expressive form as well. Speaking of the literati, they need to first maintain a certain distance between various groups and their interests. The literati are comparatively aloof, they emphasize freedom, and care not for sparing other people’s feelings. The history of Chinese painting, from its origin point to Bada Sharen, from Shi Tao to the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, their critical spirit and aloofness have remained the same. It is in fact a political and social expression in itself. I think that I have never broken away from this kind of literati training.



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