Inheritance and Development of Self-Negation Law
Zhu Qingsheng

Post in: Cover Feature | February 10 , 2012 | Tag in: LEAP 12 | INTERVIEW: Sun Dongdong / ILLUSTRATION: Yu Xiao / TRANSLATION: Katy Pinke, Dominik Salter Dvorak


The unforeseen emergence of abstract art in the modernism of late-1970s China can be attributed to two major factors. One is political, one artistic. First, the political: after the founding of new China in 1949, art policy labeled abstract expression as bourgeois; it was “reactionary,” counterrevolutionary, and forbidden. This meant that just before and just after Reform and Opening, the choice to explore abstract expression itself was enough to indicate ideological liberation. Second, the artistic: at a time when Western art history had already seen figurative realism replaced entirely by abstract art, the mainstream in China was instead Western realist painting and sculpture—introduced and popularized by Xu Beihong and Wu Zuoren and further solidified by the study of Soviet work—as well as the new Chinese painting (a transformation in which Western realism played a pivotal role). The evolution of art was thus prone to follow the Western model; abstract art, at that time, was referred to as “Western modernism.”

Does China’s abstract differ in value from the West’s abstract? Can it serve as a force for the further advancement of abstract art as a whole? The first question is simple: although China’s current “abstract” is not in fact fully “contemporary abstract” nor even the “pure abstract” that flourished back in abstract art’s glory days—it falls more in line with the “classical abstract” of Kandinsky and Mondrian than anything else—as long as it serves the practical capacity of advancing contemporary art in China, there is still “value” to be found.

The second question is one of extreme importance and one that is fairly complicated. After Kandinsky’s working years, abstract saw a period of criticism at the end of the 1920s. This wave of criticism effectively designated everything preceding it as part of the first abstract, which at that time had already been surpassed by another kind of abstract art—for the time being we will call it “the second abstract.” In reality, the second abstract did not evolve out of the abstract of Kandinsky or Mondrian—theirs followed a different path, departing from Picasso and Cubism, and even from the earlier Cézanne. Rather, Pollock and others in the Abstract Expressionist movement are its American representatives, and in Europe it came to fruition with Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, and then later with color field painting (monochrome painting) and Minimalism. With the second abstract, the material and the spiritual are entirely homogenized—a truly unprecedented development in the evolution of artistic creation. The essence of the second abstract is embodied in the complete break from subject-object dualism, and the realization of spiritual entities in material form. In light of this, we can see that in the case of both the first and second abstract, “form” and “color” themselves are the main subjects; that is to say, one can see form, material texture, and the artist’s grasp of the medium cohere in one picture plane. Abstract art must now move forward from this groundbreaking achieve- ment, to continue the advance into its “third” movement.
What is the “third abstract?” In reality, the third abstract is a revelation of the meaning that is conserved somewhere between physical form and the traces it leaves behind over the course of a life—ultimately, a potential state of being in which human existence is truly preserved. At one end there is what is called “process abstract.” In terms of artistic strategy what this implies is the devotion of serious effort into freeing calligraphy from ink and characters; it is an emancipation of the art of writing from the realm of floating brushstrokes and ink -and-wash technique—a meeting of ancient Chinese in-depth theory and subtle creative methodology with the lively internationalist language of the abstract. This “process abstract” moves beyond the second abstract and its combined affectations—namely, the insipid repetition of minimalism and religious indulgence. Next, on the other end of the third abstract is the utilization of material. A material entity can be directly converted into a material object of observation, and this material object of observation in turn can be transformed into material qua material; when it is indeed returned to this state of material as such, it now possesses even deeper meaning as an entity in and of itself than it does as an object of observation. It is not appreciated due to some strangeness of form, nor due to its having been selected, dissected, and unceasingly discharged; rather, its wonder arises out of the sheer consciousness it awakens in us with regard to the greater set of problems and questions in which it has now been implicated. Because of this, the material can now be unconditionally probed for meaning, and this meaning can be unconditionally interpreted and extended outwards by the audience.

Each phase in the evolution of abstract art can be said to have encompassed two branches: in the first abstract period these are respectively exemplified by Kandinsky and Mondrian. In the second phase, they are represented by Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. In the third abstract, writing’s distancing of itself from characters and drawing’s efforts to retain its romantic charm and grace constitute one side; the direct conversion of material into the stuff of consciousness makes up the other.

Art is that part of spiritual activity which bears the weight of what humankind cannot use language to express. It is continuously in search of its own emancipation. At present this search for emancipation is targeted at knowledge, and at reason itself. It has in mind the all-encompassing controls and restrictions placed on each individual by his or her consciousness—whether this consciousness be derived from patterns of external violence or from a system of internal knowledge and thought that believes itself to be infallible. This important function of art will never be replaced by deliberation, theory, or science. The mission that the third abstract faces now in the world of contemporary art is perhaps, as stated above, art’s negation of meaning. In the process of creation, the central task for the “third abstract” is to leave the darkness of humanity to form; but in this rejection of meaning and emphasis on showing, an opening is produced by which human can relate back to human, an opportunity for people to emancipate themselves.