Chinese Abstraction Series: An Introduction to Zhang Wei & Wang Luyan

Hans Werner Holzwarth (middle) with Zhang Wei (left) and Wang Luyan (right)
Zhang Wei, Z-AC1754, 2017, oil on watercolor paper, 56x76cm.
Wang Luyan, W Army Watch, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180 cm

“Communication is very important for artists, and I am not referring to the kind of value standard for success or failure, or of the value of sales in the market. I do not mean that artists achieve success through communication. Instead, artistic exploration must be realized through the exchange of ideas. For example, now we are communicating, a kind of communication not limited to the scope of something presented in an exhibition. The exchange we are having is related to art and relevant to the works; the works are just absent from the scene.” — Wang Luyan

TEXT: Hans Werner Holzwarth
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists & Boers-Li Gallery

Hans Werner Holzwarth (middle) with Zhang Wei (left) and Wang Luyan (right)


I first met Zhang Wei through Jia Wei and Waling Boers of Beijing’s Boers-Li Gallery in 2016 in his studio in Beijing. To Wang Luyan I was introduced in Berlin later that year, when he came for the opening of Zhang Wei’s exhibition at Galerie Max Hetzler. During my next visit in Beijing, Zhang Wei drove me over to Wang Luyan’s studio and we had tea and talked about their art, their history, about art in general and other philosophical issues. During this conversation, Wang Luyan compared their separate ways of working to the brain (himself) and heart (Zhang Wei). Then, in late March 2018, we met again in the company of Jia Wei to follow up and record their conversation for this book.

Between them, Zhang Wei and Wang Luyan 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 met similarly-minded young men and women in the Beijing parks where he went to paint, including Ma Kelu, Zheng Ziyan, and Li Shan, who would form the core of the No Name Group, then mainly an association of plein air painter s in a roughly impressionist style . Wang Luyan became an early member of the more political Stars Group. Both groups had formative exhibitions in 1979, always navigating through the possibilities left by the state police still monitoring activities.

When the No Name Group staged their now famous exhibition in Beijing’s Beihai Park in 1979, Zhang Wei had already left the main premises of landscape painting that the group followed, first with some political paintings, then with abstract experiments he started in 1977. He left the group around the turn of the decade, and subsequently came into closer con- tact with artists from the Stars Group, who were more oppositionally inclined and spoke for “political democracy and freedom of artistic expression,” as Wang Luyan characterizes them in conversation. Zhang Wei’s friends from these circles include Mao Lizi, Ma Desheng, Yan Li, Yang Yiping, and Li Shuang whom he already met in the 1970s. “It was only in 1983 that I met Luyan,” he remembers. “Basically we didn’t discuss much then, but we would look at each other’s paintings. We were mostly together with other friends at that time, there were so many discus- sions. Luyan would be involved in our activities, but he was quieter and not likely to express himself. Still we were brimming with passion and interest in art, and a youthful spirit existed between us. So we became great friends that were very familiar with each other. After I went to the United States in 1986, we parted ways for almost two decades, because Luyan stayed in China.”

“Back then I was an observer,” Wang Luyan adds. “I personally think Zhang Wei was rather prominent in this atmosphere. His individuality and style stood out.


Zhang Wei, Z-AC1754, 2017, oil on watercolor paper, 56x76cm.
Wang Luyan, W Army Watch, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180 cm


My artistic values at the time were similar to theirs; I was doing ink paintings while they painted in oils. My works were relatively mediocre in comparison. That was precisely the reason I rarely spoke in their milieu.” He would find his artistic voice in a more conceptual direction, especially after founding the New Measurement Group in 1988 with Gu Dexin and Chen Shaoping. While successfully exhibiting abroad, Wang Luyan also became a major figure in Beijing’s art scene, organizing exhibitions and generally helping other artists by making connections and collecting their work.


Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – A Conversation with Zhang Wei & Wang Luyan (I)
Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – A Conversation with Zhang Wei & Wang Luyan (II) (To be published soon)
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.




Hans Werner Holzwarth started as a photographer and corporate designer, first working at MetaDesign in Berlin, then setting up his own company, Design pur, with fellow designer Anja Nienstedt in 1988. In 1993, Holzwarth became the freelance art director for Scalo, the international publisher for photography, art and popular culture, where he was responsible for the conception and design of all books and presentations. For these, he received many awards including the Federal Design Achievement Award of the National Endowment for the Arts for Robert Frank: Moving Out (1995) and the Kodak Fotobuch Preis for Robert Frank: Moving Out(1995), Jock Sturges and Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh (both 1996), and Tina Barney: Theater of Manners (1997). In 2000 he founded his own imprint, Holzwarth Publications, to work with contemporary artists on artist books and exhibition catalogues for galleries, especially Galerie Max Hetzler, and museums such as the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Kunsthaus Bregenz and most recently a Georg Baselitz monograph for Fondation Beyeler, Riehen. Since 2008, Holzwarth has also been editing oversize monographs for the publisher Taschen, again collaborating closely with artists to produce special limited art editions that come with original artworks. Titles so far include Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool, Albert Oehlen, Neo Rauch, Ai Weiwei, Darren Almond: Fullmoon, Beatriz Milhazes and David Hockney: A Bigger Book.

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