Zhang Jian-Jun — A Pioneer of Chinese Abstraction

Zhang Jian-Jun, Contraction ・ Expansion, 1983
Zhang Jian-Jun, Still Life with Banana, 1978
Zhang Jian-Jun, Tree, Pond, and Bird, 1980
Zhang Jian-Jun, Eternal Dialog (Black), 1982
Zhang Jian-Jun, Existence (Noumenon), 1984.
Zhang Jian-Jun, Existence (Noumenon), 1987.
Zhang Jian-Jun, Contraction ・ Expansion, 1983
Zhang Jian-Jun, Existence (Noumenon), 1988
Zhang Jian-Jun, Human Beings with Their Clock No. 4, detail, 2016.
Asia Society

Born in 1955 in Shanghai, artist Zhang Jian-Jun graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy’s Department of Fine Arts in 1978 and moved to the United States in 1989. Currently, Zhang is a professor at New York University Shanghai. He lives and works in both Shanghai and New York City.  Throughout his career, Zhang has been exploring the themes of existence, time, space and transformation; he expresses his personal perspective on humankind and the universe through the integrity of language and constantly explores the existence of the ontological status. In the 1980s he led a daring trend of abstract art; from the 1990s onward, he abandoned the pre-existing style and started his way to conceptual art, practicing installation and performance art. In the following interview, we tried to understand Zhang Jian-Jun’s artistic concern through his early period of experimentations.

TEXT: Selina Ting
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist


To better understand the socio-political context of your early work, can you tell us how life was as an artist living in the post-cultural revolution China in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Were there any artistic activities going on? What kind of work or styles were in the mainstream? How did artists live and work at that time?

Not long after the Cultural Revolution, I remember very distinctly that I was able to purchase works of classical Western literature and philosophy in bookstores, such as books by Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dickens, as well as works by Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzche, Sartre’s existentialism, and Freud’s interpretation of dreams. There were also collections of books edited by Chinese scholars, such as a series of books called Facing the Future, related to the humanities, the origins of witchcraft, history, the culture of various different civilizations, also Daoist thought by Laozi and Zhuangzi, Zen teaching, and Yinxu culture… So for me, and especially for those of us born in the 1950s, this was an unprecedented eye-opening experience. These experiences, I think, became a potential source of motivation and knowledge for my thinking and artmaking as I later participated in contemporary art experimentation.

In the art world, government-organized art exhibitions were mostly comprised of ‘propaganda’ works, the only change was that there was a different direction for the propaganda slogan.

But at that time, there was a small number of young, and mid-career artists who had started their respective experimentations in art. In 1978, I was greatly inspired by the flowing lines and bright color palette of Chen Junde, who was teaching at Shanghai Theatre Academy and had established a post-impressionist style of painting. His style was also deeply influenced by his teacher Liu Haisu. Through Professor Chen, I started appreciating the Fauvist works of painter Guan Liang.

In 1979, the library of the academy I was attending purchased a set of Western modernist art catalogues printed in Japan. There were 25 books altogether, they covered artists involved in the early Impressionist movement and onwards, including Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bonnard, Rouault, Matisse, Kandinsky, and Picasso…etc. I recall that there were only three sets of such catalogues among all of China’s official cultural institutions at the time, one was at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, the second at Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, and the third at Hangzhou’s Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Art). These art history calogues were instrumental to expanding our horizons. Asides from that, we practically didn’t have any other access to contemporary art from around the world.

During that period, there was no commercial art market, so I never thought about exchanging my artwork for money. The entire society operated on an egalitarian wage system. Nobody was wealthy, in other words, everybody was poor economically. But there was also a particular atmosphere to that era, an impetus to try to absorb as much new culture and thought as possible, a fresh type of idealism.


You were lucky enough though to have a decent position at the Shanghai Museum of Art and had the opportunity to make work, right? 

When I started working at the Shanghai Museum of Art, I was but a normal employee. But as the daily work was not demanding, I cleared out a corner in the storage space, and painted there whenever I had spare time. Or I would paint when I returned home after work.


Zhang Jian-Jun, Still Life with Banana, 1978
Zhang Jian-Jun, Tree, Pond, and Bird, 1980


You mentioned in your conversation with curator Karen Smith that the many visits to the grottoes in Dunhuang were instrumental in inspiring you and finally took you on a decades-long journey in Abstraction. What did you see and what did you discover during the journeys? How did these new experiences inspire you in your artistic practices?

In 1979, I visited the Daoist temple Yongle Palace, then the Buddhist Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes. In August of that year, I stayed at the Dunhuang Grottoes for almost a month, and painted everyday inside the grotto.

My experiences that year played a fundamental role in my artmaking, it was a transition point. Of course, it was not limited to the formal study of the Dunhuang murals. Like many painters at the time, what truly touched me was the powerful sense of internal spirituality contained within the murals. The formal composition of the murals was not much different from the “one-point perspective” that I learnt at the academy, in other words, painting the external reality that I see.

When I returned to Shanghai in the fall of that year, I discovered that I was no longer satisfied with the post-impressionist and fauvist works that I had previously been so familiar with. As the temples and grottoes I visited were either of Buddist or Daoist religion, I started acquainting myself with Daoist works by Laozi and Zhuangzi, as well as Upanishads texts from India. Afterwards, I rediscovered calligraphy, seal-carving, and Yinxu culture… For someone who was born in the 1950s in Shanghai, I had almost never paid any attention to ancient Eastern culture. (The only exception was that I studied calligraphy with my father for a period of time when I was 5.)


Zhang Jian-Jun, Eternal Dialog (Black), 1982


If we look at these early pieces, we see that the palette is very restrained, just black and white, or monochromatic tones. The composition features contrasting parts, or circular movements and spaces. You also started to introduce natural materials into your two dimensional work. There is a whole universe there that holds itself at the centre. You gave the series a very metaphysical title, “Noumenon (Existence)”. Can you tell us a bit about this series? What were the motivations as a young artist that led you to create these works?

In 1980, I started directly incorporating natural materials by placing sand and pebbles onto the canvas, thereafter I introduced wood, pottery fragments, rice paper, and ink, mixing them to generously cover the entire painting or parts of it. The direct inclusion of natural materials in my work revealed the existence of nature itself, not the representation of nature.

Specifically, pottery, cotton paper, and ink bear traces or emblems of human civilization, whereas wood and stones are naturally-existing materials. For the two to come together as one, or to have a dialogue with each other, in my mind, demonstrated that Zhuangzi’s Daoist thought had already shaped my artmaking.

Movement/stasis, joining/separation, one side is an integral part of the other, nature/culture complement each other, and constitute harmony. It revolves around order/transcendence in ancient Eastern philosophy.

From my mixed-media work, Eternal Dialogue made in 1982, onwards, arcs and circular movements became recurring motifs in my work. It is a repetitive moment, or traces of a process. ‘Time’ appears here. I should point out that, in the artist statement written on the invitation card for the ’83 Experimental Painting Exhibition, which took place in 1983, instead of using text, I simply drew a circle, as well as an arc. That is because language would limit the ‘spatial’ range in the work, whereas the transcendental exists in one’s intuition, and one’s grasp of an instant. In my artmaking process during the entire span of the 80s, I almost always refuted any textual elaboration of my work. As the concept for a series of work I made in the 80s demonstrate, I have transitioned from the “existence” or “phenomenon” posited by Western philosophy to a more chaotic, intermingling Eastern consciousness that is “noumenon”.

Back then, my friend Wu Liang wrote the following text: It is fortunate that Jian-Jun is a painter, what Eastern philosophy brought to his art was only discoveries in terms of experience, not discoveries in terms of cognition. It is fortunate that Jian-Jun reads in order to find inspiration, not answers. As such, he has never been tied down by the repetitive, mechanical accumulation of knowledge common to traditional Chinese culture. (Excerpt from: Sunset Once More, written by Wu Liang in 1987, published in 1988.)


Zhang Jian-Jun, Existence (Noumenon), 1984.
Zhang Jian-Jun, Existence (Noumenon), 1987.


Aesthetically speaking, what do the nature materials signify for you?

Compared to the colors in Earth’s natural light spectrum, black and white have more analytical, logical, and metaphysical properties. They are polar opposites, the beginning of chaos.


You showed some works from the series in 1983. How did your friends react to them? Were you too avant-garde in the eye of your contemporaries? Were they inspired by your work?

My series of mixed-media abstract works in the ’83 Experimental Painting Exhibition excited many of the viewers who came to see the show. A painter friend who I met in Shanghai a few years prior said, it is those works of mine that made me the idol of not only him, but also his painter friends at the time. I remember that there were also a number of young students attending Fudan University that saw the show, they conversed with me about astrophysics or philosophy with unusual enthusiasm. We talked about everything under the sun: Einstein, quantum mechanics, Hegel, Kant, Daoism…

Even though the show was forced to close a day and a half after the opening, it made me into a relatively renowned avant-garde artist in Shanghai.

Due to the fact that I employed an unconventional method of artmaking that was absolutely unprecedented in the show—directly incorporating natural and mixed-media material into the paintings, in addition to their abstract form—I was the artist most heavily critiqued by government officials. An article published in the newspaper named and denounced eight works in total, in which number one to four were all my works.


Zhang Jian-Jun, Contraction ・ Expansion, 1983


Did you know anything about American abstract-expressionism at the time? And did you understand that what you were experimenting at that time was Abstract art? 

In 1983, I was not very familiar with American Abstract Expressionism. But back then I already knew of Kandinsky’s abstract works, particularly his strong colors. Also a few relatively open-minded magazines had briefly introduced Pollock’s action paintings. It was not until the mid to late 80s that I gradually started learning about works by Motherwell and Rothko. The first time I saw these works in person was in the fall of 1987 at MoMA New York as a visiting artist of the ACC (Asian Cultural Council).

In 1979, I started making a few black and white abstract paintings in a manner similar to calligraphy. One of the works survives to this day, it was named Pathos. Contrary to Kandinsky’s abstract works that I got to know then, after the form had undergone the process of “abstraction”, I was not constrained by the fetters of “emotion”. In the early 80s, my works already exhibited a relatively clear usage of black and white, starting with Eternal Dialogue (1982). And with the direct introduction of natural materials, all of these changes must have had something to do with the merging of Zhuangzi’s Daoism, mysticism, and classical Western philosophy in my thought at the time.


You then expanded your natural material choices from stone, sand, glass… to rain, water, fire. Can you tell us about these new experiments?

In the mid to late 80s, I started thinking about the element of “water”, but as I was limited to the concept of being a “painter”, despite having natural materials such as stones and wood be a part of my work, I still remained inside the frame, and the painting still hung on the wall. As such, in 1987, using rice paper and ink, I completed a series of abstract work entitled Nature (they were exhibited at my solo show at the Shanghai Museum in 1987). The traces of water, vapor, wind, and air current in the paintings were all related to “water”. It was not until I departed Shanghai for New York in 1989, that these multi-media paintings, which would normally be hung on the wall, descended to the ground, and transitioned from “painting” to installation. Such is the way that “water” uninhibitedly, and straightforwardly made its way into my work.

Rainwater. As a form of water, rain occupies a special state. Suspended between heaven and earth, it turns back into water once it hits the ground. In some of my works, rainwater comes into direct contact with the rice paper, melding together with ink on the paper and producing ink marks, one that I had no complete control over.


Can we take the work Rubbing Sun as an example to further elaborate the idea of natural materials?

In Rubbing Sun, water is used to rub fire. Using man’s miniscule action to take part in the movement of natural objects, leaving a microscopic trace. Of course, these traces also abide by the laws of nature, and indeed fade with time. Such process of fading also evades human control. (For example, the rate in which water marks fade is determined by the temperature at the time; it allows the water marks to create different kinds of visual imagery on the rice paper, depending on the time.)

Tomorrow, the sun will rise, just as before. If anyone tries to rub the sun again, ephemeral traces would still be left behind. Humans are miniscule, but if in the process of rubbing the sun, we can still be aware of our tiny existence within nature, we submit ourselves to nature. Thus the sun co-exists with myself, as well as with my work.


You first visited New York in 1986 with a fellowship, then in 1989 you moved to New York where you lived and worked till early 2000s. What are the changes in your practices during this New York period?

In 1987, I was invited by the ACC to be a part of their visiting artist program, and visited New York for the first time. Then in 1989, I officially moved there. My life and experience of artmaking in New York had a tremendously impact on my subsequent works. I was able to reflect on the particular experiences that I had acquired from Chinese traditions in a different cultural environment. What was also important was the ubiquity of “Man”. Whether the idea of “heaven, earth, and man” in Daoist mantra, “daily life” in Zen Buddhism, or the notion of “participation” in Western culture, they have all profoundly shaped my practice. Furthermore, New York is a place where different ethnicities, cultures, and religions converge, it gave me a more global perspective to look at people, a “bird’s eye perspective”, if you will.

These works are more concerned with the nature of “Man”, that transcends different cultures and religions, as well as cultural phenomena resulting from a specific form of social change.


Zhang Jian-Jun, Existence (Noumenon), 1988


Today your work focuses more on Abstract Ink and sculpture, are they a continuation of your earlier work?

At the same time that I focus on phenomenon reflected by changes in people, society, and culture, I also continue to make work about the dialogue that takes place between an individual’s inner spirituality and the natural cosmos, the co-existence between the internal and the external, the balance of self.

From this point of view, the aspect of the “internal” is consistent with my earlier work, in other words, a continuation.


Zhang Jian-Jun, Human Beings with Their Clock No. 4, detail, 2016.


Thank you.


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 artist

Jian-Jun Zhang was born in 1955 in Shanghai. In 1978, Zhang graduated from the Fine Arts Department of the Shanghai Theater Academy. In 1987-88, Zhang was supported by the Asian Cultural Council of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York to go to the US to do research and to create new artworks. Zhang was the Assistant Director and Head of the Art Research Department of the Shanghai Art Museum in 1986-1989. In 1986, Zhang won the First Prize at The First Shanghai Young Artist’s Exhibition, organized by the Shanghai Art Museum, China.

In 1989, he moved to the US and continued his work as an artist. In 1990, Zhang was honored with a grant from The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York, USA. In 1994, Zhang received The Gustavo Nicolich Fellowship at The Djerassi Foundation’s Resident Artist Program, California, and has a sculpture in the Permanent Collection. In 1995, Zhang was honored with an award at Art Matters Inc., New York, USA. In 1996, Zhang yet again won a grant at The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York, USA. In 1997, Zhang received a fellowship at The New York Foundation for the Arts for his Sculptural work, as well as at The Connemara Conservancy, Dallas, Texas. In 2002, Zhang won a grant from The Annie Wong Foundation, Hong Kong. Most recently, in 2014, Zhang received yet another fellowship at The New York Foundation for the Arts, The Gregory Millard Fellowship for his Sculptural works.




Selina TING (Editor-in-Chief, CoBo), is a curator and a specialist in contemporary art with over 10 years of professional experiences both in Asia and Europe. Stationed in Paris and Brussels between 2004 – 2014, she has a network traversing the Chinese, Asian and Western art world. In the last 5 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of initiArt Magazine and Whitewall Magazine (China Version). Selina has published extensively on her research projects as well as on general issues regarding art and culture. Selina is currently Editor-in-Chief of CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.


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