Zhang Wei is regarded as one of the first abstract painters in China. 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 the artist’s aim for personal freedom of expression by dedicating himself to a non-representational form. In his paintings, Zhang picks up particularly the immediate and intuitive approaches of action painting.
INTERVIEW : Selina Ting, Kirsten Wang
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
‘Nameless’ Artist Leaves the country, yearning for home
What was it like to see Western abstract artworks for the first time?
I don’t remember when, maybe I did see it but I didn’t even realize it was art, because we didn’t have the privilege or environment to be educated in it. When I saw the collection at the Boston Museum, I was astonished! Upon entering, I saw Winslow Homer’s The Lookout – “All’s Well” (1896) and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948). I almost wanted to leave, as I walked further with the flow of visitors, I already wanted to go home. But when I got to the last exhibition gallery, I was greeted with a large painting by Helen Frankentahler. She mixed water with acrylic paint. There were but two patches of color, nothing else. It was amazing! Then I turned around to see a big painting by Jackson Pollock, I was plunged into darkness. That is because I was already making abstract paintings by myself. I felt that my path was right, since other people’s paintings were so well made! I was super excited, and went to see the show everyday.
Some years later, I met a young female assistant who took part in the organization of that show, she told me the backstory behind it. It turned out that the American museum got into an argument with China, because the Chinese Ministry of Culture said, “I can exhibit your collection, but I need you to take out all the abstract works”. The Americans replied, “if we were to take out the abstract part, then we won’t show any works at all!” The Americans stood firmly by their position, because they wanted to show the entirety of American culture to Chinese audiences, not forcibly remove certain parts. The female assistant described how the crates filled with paintings were left aside on the floor of the museum. It was only until two days before the show opened that the Ministry of Culture agreed to show all the paintings. They took a particular dislike and apprehension to this type of artwork, thinking that abstraction was dangerous, it allowed too much room for imagination.
So to paint at that time was also a mode of political struggle?
It can be understood this way. The No Name Group was targeted at the Communist Party’s cultural system, whereas the Stars Group centered on the Party’s political system. This is how the Stars Group explained it to us afterwards. I agreed with them. We didn’t necessarily want to make a revolution like some of the others, at least they had such a desire to do so. Although things started to open up later, but the 1985 show was still forced to shut down. Ten of us abstract painters put together the Ten Person Graffiti Painting Show, consisting of graffiti-like scribbles and scrawls. It took place at a space we rented at Chaoyang Theatre in Beijing. On the first day, a lot of police came and shut down the show, we were almost arrested. Of the ten people, many were members of the Stars Group and the No Name Group. There was Ma Desheng and Yang Yiping from the Stars Group, and Ma Kelu and me from the No Name Group. Feng Guodong and Gu Dexin didn’t belong to either group.
You mentioned that nobody was doing abstraction when you painted BE1, how come there was a ten-person show then?
I made the work in 1977, the ten-person show was in 1985. Many years had elapsed in between. In 1979, I started experimenting with small abstract paintings, with just a little inkling of what abstraction was. After a year I realized I could truly paint in an abstract manner. Back then I had discussions with Zhu Jinshi everyday, and looked at each other’s paintings. We would stay up until dawn at my place, and talk about the books he read. I turned text into visual material, we inspired each like that. From 1980 to 1984, I made so many paintings. In 1985 I painted all day like crazy.
After you started making abstract painting, did you influence other artists, asides from Ma Kelu and Zhu Jinshi?
There was Zhao Gang, Tang Pinggang, and Feng Guodong. I already knew Ma Kelu in 1972, we both painted landscapes in the No Name Group. I met Zhu Jinshi earlier, we influenced each other. I was quite alone when I first painted abstract work, so when he started making abstract paintings with me in 1980 or 1981, it was as though we had a collaborative relationship. Zhao Gang and Zhu Jinshi were all members of the Stars Group. When I first met Zhao Gang in 1978 or 1979, he was still painting figuratively. It was around 1983 that Tang Pinggang, Feng Guodong, and Ma Kelu started transitioning from figuration to abstraction. Then we started forming a group one after another, including others like Wang Luyan and Li Qiang. It was an atmosphere of collaboration, so it attracted others. For example, people like Huang Rui and Ma Desheng came to my place and hung out, even though we didn’t spend that much time together. But they were also experimenting with abstract paintings.
Did Chinese critics and curators only start to research abstraction after 1985?
I left China in 1986, there weren’t really any curators then. Asides from foreign friends, nobody paid us much attention. There was a group of foreigners in Beijing who supported us very much. Some of them worked in embassies, some did business, some were students or intellectuals. For example, Michael Murray, who wrote essays on my work later, was a professor of art and philosophy. When he first came to Beijing University to teach, a foreign friend told me to come. I wanted to leave as I didn’t understand a word. But as they hosted dinners after the lecture, I thought, dinner is good too! So I went [laugh]. The philosophy professor asked me: “What do you do?” I said I was a painter. Then my foreign friend introduced me: “Zhang Wei is a good friend of mine, you have to visit his place, he makes many abstract paintings!” The professor was very interested, so he went to my place. “Wow, so many!” he commented. He wanted to organize a show for me. I told him that I had many friends who painted, and showed him all my friends’ work. Afterwards, he spent three years to curate a show in New York. It opened in 1986 at the City Gallery in New York. This first public showing was pretty important for me, without it perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to go to the US. A small catalogue was produced for the exhibition. The cover had red text against a black background, and read “Avant-Garde Chinese Art: Beijing/New York”. Aside from Ma Desheng, Yan Li, Xing Fei, Li Shuang, there were also figurative works, like Ai Weiwei’s painting of Mao Zedong, which looked like paint was flowing down from Mao’s body.
Can you talk about your experiences after you went to the US?
I went to the US on a tourist visa, then I switched to a student visa. Up until the Tiananmen Square protest, Chinese students in the US were all granted green cards, so I slowly became an US citizen. At first I sold paintings on the street, then I sold paintings in galleries in Soho. Before going to New York, my work didn’t have much Chinese elements. But when I returned to China in 2005, my work already looked very Chinese.
I made a painting just for the June Fourth Incident of 1989. Although it looked abstract, it was evocative of life under oppression. At that time I felt I was at a crossroad, not knowing where to go. And that brushstroke almost embodied my lack of direction or destination, or more, my chaotic mind. In fact, when I was painting, I intentionally wanted to paint in a Chinese style, pink like Huadan’s makeup in Chinese opera. During that period, I missed China a lot, I was even listening to Qiu Shengrong performing “Tongchui Hualian”. Qiu Shengrong, a master of Chinese opera, had a resonant voice and specialized in playing Bao Zheng. He had a slight build, but with makeup he transformed into a warrior, listening to his voice and tunes brought me back to the cultural atmosphere of China. Then I would incorporate this kind of stage aesthetics into my composition and colors. The paintings I made in New York were largely related to the Chinese opera stage.
Did you meet Waling Boers after you went back to China? Can you talk about your collaboration?
Yes, we met in 2010. First I was only in group shows, so we didn’t really collaborate. In 2011, he officially signed me on to be represented by his gallery. This person is quite amusing, he went to my studio, which was not far from the 798 district. It was filled with old work, and it was dirty too, as dust and cobwebs were everywhere. He picked up a painting, and said “Wow, this is so dirty, but I want to take it with me!” He called me the next day, and told me “Zhang Wei, I sold it!” Surprised, I said “What? I wanted to sell it but nobody wanted to buy.” He replied, “Yea, I have a good client.”
Afterwards he took some of my paintings with him one by one. Then I did two solo shows with him, one was works I made in the 1980s, and they were all sold out. The second time was new work, but almost nobody bought anything [laughs heartily]!
About the Artist
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.