Where does it all begin? Contemporary Abstract Art in Asia and the West

Beyond Influence: Where Does It All Begin?

Philip Dodd

The circuit of artistic influence is complex and never-ending: the late 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was much influenced by Chinese philosophy. In turn, Schopenhauer was very important to Western modernists such as the artist Wassily Kandinsky, one of the earliest Western abstract artists and theorists. In the late 1970s/early ’80s in China, after the death of Mao Zedong, translations of foreign classics began to appear in increased numbers in China—Kandinsky’s writings among them—which helped to ‘liberate’ Chinese artists from the tyranny of social realism and help them to turn towards abstraction. This was the case with one of the artists in the present exhibition, Zhu Jinshi.[1]

Yet despite the complexity of influence, for much of the twentieth century the economic dominance of the West has entailed a cultural dominance, which has assumed that Western culture has influenced culture from Asia or that the trajectory of Western culture is the trajectory of global culture. A recent much reviewed exhibition in London at Gagosian Gallery is symptomatic. Called ‘The Show is Over’, it is an exhibition of largely US abstract art whose argument is that the death of painting can never be pronounced while artists make paintings about the death of painting.[2] The argument of the catalogue wonderfully conflates the trajectory of a certain kind of American art with the fate of art in the world. It is an old if melancholic error.

But it is just one symptom. A major exhibition of early Chinese painting has also just opened in London at the V&A Museum. The critic of the Guardian newspaper is overwhelmed with pleasure to discover that Chinese painters were making landscape painting before Western Renaissance artists—even though he seems blissfully ignorant that the tradition of landscape in China is a tradition of the idea of landscape painting rather than the ‘scientific’ tradition of landscape painting of the Western tradition.[3] These are just two ‘local’ examples—I write this essay in London—of how the West continues to confuse itself with the world or shows sublime ignorance of art traditions beyond its own.

On the other hand, the economic rise of Asia is inevitably leading the West to begin to re-examine the place of Asia in Western history and imagination, and the influence of Asia in the West. A recent Guggenheim exhibition very persuasively provided evidence that Asia has been as influential in the West as has the West on China.[4] Where, for example, would Western modern poetry be (think of Ezra Pound) without Chinese ideograms or American minimalist music (think Steve Reich), without the Southeast Asian musical instrument, the gamelan.

Without doubt, it is salutary to begin to understand how much the circuit of influence flows East to West as much as West to East. It is equally cheering that Western museums are beginning to acknowledge that there are stories of art rather than one Story of Art, but I hope this show makes a different (however modest) contribution to the reframing of art, especially contemporary art.

When I was invited to curate an exhibition for the opening of Pearl Lam Galleries in Singapore, I suggested it should focus on abstract art from a variety of cultures and traditions—there are artists in the exhibition from the US and China, Indonesia and Europe—for two reasons. First, this exhibition seems to me to follow on from the groundbreaking exhibition that inaugurated Pearl Lam’s Hong Kong gallery, Chinese Contemporary Abstract, 1980s until Present: MINDMAP. If that exhibition revealed just how various and strong abstract art in China has been since the 1970s, this much more modest exhibition explores what abstract artists from around the world have in common and what is it about their cultural location that makes them distinctive. In itself, this exhibition reflects a decentred art world.

Second, while there is much talk of a globalised art world, there are too few exhibitions and too few exhibition spaces which allow us to place next to one another works of the same period from different cultures (despite the fact that Paris’ Centre Pompidou’s Les Magiciens de la Terre, which exhorted us to do just that, is twenty-five years old this year). This show tries to do this. Its conviction is very different from that of the auction houses which find it better to package emerging art markets in national (Chinese) or regional (Southeast Asia) terms.

At one level, this exhibition simply brings together to Singapore five very good artists, all of whom have established reputations and whose work is in important public and private collections. They come from China, Europe, USA and Indonesia and all of them work, for want of a better word, as makers of abstract art (Pat Steir says rightly that in one sense her work is not abstract because it does not ‘abstract’ from life).

At another level, the exhibition aims to allow us to see exactly what complexities lie behind the over-simple phrases ‘global art’ or art in a ‘globalised world’ and to see how even what appears to be the universal language of abstract art is marked, shaped by its articulation in different cultures. This exhibition is a modest attempt to drive a stake through the heart of the argument that says abstract art is Western-dominated or all art is increasingly homogenous. Both Gao Minglu’s and Enin’s essays in the catalogue remind us so persuasively that this is not the case.

But the exhibition also hopes to move beyond the question of influence of East to West or West to East; hence, the ironic nature of the title of the exhibition Where does it all begin? Contemporary Abstract Art in Asia and the West. To my own mind, to frame artistic production in terms of influence is far from satisfactory, partly because it seems to me to derive from the late nineteenth century Western idea of heredity and of the writings of figures such as Freud.

My argument, and the argument of the exhibition, is that all artists are rooted as well as routed: they belong to particular cultures at particular historical moments, but are also shaped by their imaginative connection with other cultures. This, I would argue, is nothing new. Some of the great court paintings of three Qing emperors in China were painted by Jesuit missionaries; one of the great architectural landmarks of the eighteenth century, the ‘Chinese’ pagoda by Sir William Chambers in Kew Gardens, was conceived after the architect’s three voyages to China.

Each of the artists in this show is routed and rooted. As it happens, the two Chinese artists, Zhu Jinshi and Su Xiaobai, spent some formative part of their lives in Germany, as did Christine Ay Tjoe, the artist from Indonesia. The American artist Pat Steir was shaped partly by her engagement with John Cage (who himself internalised ideas derived from Zen philosophy) and partly by her engagement with a tradition of Chinese painting and Chinese philosophy. Peter Peri, the British artist in the exhibition, is himself routed, partly for biographical reasons, and partly in terms of artistic loyalty, to the traditions of Central and Eastern Europe (which is where Kandinsky spent much of his life). Peri’s work makes it clear that even within the category ‘Western art’, there are many routes to art-making, not all of which run between London and New York.

But this rootedness and routedness is not only a matter of biography. To read Pat Steir’s thoughtful comments on p X of the catalogue is to recognise an artist who has engaged with the ‘end of painting’ argument, but whose engagement with the tradition of Chinese shan-shui painting and the work of the Abstract American artist Barnett Newman enables her to continue to make paintings, although they cannot be safely corralled as either ‘Western’ or ‘Asian’ painting. Zhu Jinshi is another example of an artist who has ‘two homes’ (his phrase)—both Chinese and European. To stand before one of his canvases is both to see a conversation with the tradition of Central European expressionism and with the history of Chinese paintings. Zhu Jinshi once said to me that inside the colour black in Chinese painting are all five colours and what he has done is articulate them vertically rather than horizontally.[5]

It would be possible to conjugate each artist in the exhibition in not dissimilar terms. In this sense, the title of the exhibition is, as I have said, ironic. The fine work on display here in this exhibition gives a complex and dissenting answer to the question. It does not begin here or there. But here and there. If art history should take its prompt from the work of artists—and as Jorge Luis Borges says, everything in the present changes everything in the past—then art history should begin to explore the multiple homes of the best contemporary art. Not either/or but not only/also. But that will entail all of us knowing much more about the various histories of art than most of us do, especially in the West. It is never too late.

[1] For the influence of Chinese philosophy upon Schopenhauer see Arthur Schopenhauer,  The World as Will and Representation, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1883-1886); the book will become source of inspiration for later thinkers, Kandinsky amongst them. Kandinsky,  own Blaue Reiter Almanac quoted Schopenhauer’s treatise.For the number of translations available after Mao’s death, see Fei Dawei, ‘The 85 New Wave: a fleeting derailment’, in ’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art (Beijing, UCCA, 2008).

[2] Gagosian Gallery, The Show is Over, (London: Pure Print Group, 2013)

[3] Jonathan Jones, ‘Made in China’: How landscape painting was invented in the East, The Guardian, 22 October 2013, p 18.

[4] The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989, (New York: The Guggenheim Museum, 2009)

[5] Zhu Jinshi, (Hong Kong, Pearl Lam Galleries, 2013), p 99




Philip Dodd

Philip Dodd is the former Director of London’s ICA, a curator, writer and award-winning BBC broadcaster. He co-curated the seminal Spellbound: Art and Film at London’s Hayward Gallery, and has curated exhibitions with artists and architects from Yoko Ono to Rem Koolhaas, from Moscow to New York. His writings on art range from essays for Tate to the best selling book Relative Values: Art and Value. The Guardian newspaper said he was ‘one of the two best analysts of the cultural changes of his generation’.

Dodd is credited with being one of the first persons in Britain to understand the importance of contemporary Chinese culture to the world. He took an exhibition to China of Young British Artists in 1998 and, the following year, hosted a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art and culture at the ICA in London. He is chairman of Made in China (http://www.madeinchinauk.com/), chairman of the Advisory Board, Art 14 London, and founder of the much acclaimed Private Museum Forum at Art HK (where he was on the advisory board) and at Art 13 London.