文 / 王焜生
The Tong Fan Art Group and the Fifth Moon Group in Taiwan, the Gutai group in Japan, and the Dansaekhwa (monochrome painting) in Korea marked the dawn of post-war Asian contemporary art in the 1950s, a period characterized by post-war political tumults and economic rejuvenation. Asian countries launched policies of modernization and re-examined the colonial phenomenon, in which Westernism overtopped Eastern values. In particular, the younger generation was hunger for self-identity, which raised great waves in the art circle. Whether being self-guided or following pioneers, artists pursued the free spirit, and reflected on Eastern philosophical thinking and humanistic vocabularies in the face of Western modern art trends, re-interpreting aesthetic awareness and spiritual value through a lens informed by the zeitgeist.
After more than half a century, when we take a retrospective look at the histories created by these artists, it is quite clear that they are not only legends but also pioneers of abstract painting in the trajectories of Asian contemporary art. During the period when Western ideas dominated the art scene, they have dialectically reflected on and amalgamated these ideas to re-interpret their own cultural subjectivities, which was a result of the changes of thoughts after WWII, especially the processes of de-colonization and the reinforcement of subjective consciousness. During this moment in history, the developments of Asian art were propelled by both socio-political circumstances and the courage of artists, who dared to challenge traditional conventions, for which they made various manifestoes. In Taiwan, Li Chun-Shan played a crucially trailblazing role. Closely associated with the Tong Fan Art Group, Li emphasized on “the spiritual space,” and argued that painting after the Post-Impressionism already became global and was capable of encompassing the artistic spirit of every nation. Yoshihara Jiro, the founder of the Gutai Art Association, asserted that the human spirit and matter were interconnected yet
maintained a certain distance from one another in the art of Gutai. Matter does not compromise with sprit, and spirit does not dominate matter. Although there was no specific manifesto made for the Korean monochrome painting, artists Kim Whan-Ki and Rhee Seund-Ja were the first ones to convert American and European abstraction into geometric patterns that symbolized nature, repeated brushstrokes, and pure colors. Despite geographic differences, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea all formed respectively its own theoretical discourses about contemporary art in the late 1950s, which have had lasting impact on later generations.
HO Kan was born in 1932. Having spent more than half a century of his life in Milan, Italy, the key to his shift to pure abstraction was the experience of learning in Taiwan’s academic education and art studios. An artist must explore deeply within to find his or her own uniqueness. Ho’s experience of growing up and the vicissitudes in life have created a deep longing for freedom in his heart. From his early surrealist expression to the gradual shift towards pure geometric forms and colors during his time in Italy, he has stepped onto a path diverging from Western artists, who created similar works to his in terms of form. Ho draws inspiration from the characteristics of Eastern calligraphy writing, especially the square structure of Chinese characters, which he alters the forms endlessly. During the process of hand-painting, he creates accumulations of countless calligraphic lines in the images. Through his work, he expresses the feeling of being at ease. He never makes explanation of specific works because he leaves the interpretation of his works to the viewers after the paintings are completed.
Born in 1931, PARK Seo-Bo is one of the initiator of the Dansaekhwa (Korean monochrome painting). Influenced by the French art informel in an early stage, he views artistic creation as a form of spiritual practice, in which painting becomes a way of emptying one’s mind and an action of sublimating aesthetic consciousness through non-representation. With Eastern ink calligraphy and painting as the fundamental essence of his work, he prefers to utilize the most succinct and repetitive movement to eliminate any formal implication during the process of artistic creation. Park makes use of characteristic variations of paper to produce artistic effects that cannot be found in oil or acrylic painting on canvas. After monochromatic tones are created in repetition in the image, he then gently crafts markings by wiping or pressing. For the artist, the final result of a work does not lie in its completion but rather the sense of freedom and liberation achieved through the unconscious repetitions performed during the creative process.
MATSUTANI Takesada, born in 1937, left Japan in the 70s, and has lived in Paris ever since. At first, he studied traditional Japanese painting, which was rather figural, and later shifted to abstract art. It was in 1963 that he was accepted into the Gutai Art Association, and became its second-generation member. Through his use of graphite and paper, he has realized that black and white are the most fundamental elements. He is known for his unique technique: the artist would first splash polyvinyl acetate adhesive onto the canvas to create water balloon-like bubbles before producing inflating and bursting effects by using a blow dryer or by blowing air directly.
Such an approach enables him to break through the limitation of traditional two-dimensional painting, and engender predictable as well as unpredictable images in situations that are controllable sometimes and uncontrollable at other times. By highlighting “physical properties” and “materiality,” his work concretizes spiritual will while underpinning the dynamic existence of matter.
In 2017, these three pioneering figures in the abstract art scene appeared on the same stage for the first time in an art forum in Seoul, Korea, where they shared with the public their individual journeys in the world of art. This group exhibition at Chini Gallery in Taipei in March 2022 marks the first time they exhibit together. Although coming from different backgrounds and having stepped onto different creative paths, Ho, Park, and Matsutani have expressed their inner voices through art against the backdrop of the post-WWII Asian cultural context informed by social conflicts and tumults. Intriguingly, even though they have differed greatly in terms of artistic mediums and creative approaches, they share a common denominator in art-making—the three artists have all started with spirituality to formulate their works. Despite their opposition to the conventional form, in spirit, they have created works that embody the Eastern abstract concept of spirituality, through which they pursue the ultimate purity via non-action and by elevating matter into the spiritual dimension.
Departing from Western minimalism and minimalist aesthetics as well as Western-styled abstract painting in art history, they have devoted their art purely to formal exploration. The artistic creation of Ho, Park, and Matsutani begins with personal experiences and unfolds into a path of expressing universal feelings. Whereas self-expression is no longer the subject that the artists are eager to address in their work, their creative processes and actions resemble a form of spiritual practice, which points to a quest of self-transcendence and self-realization that takes them to a state of inner clarity. After turning eighty and having left behind the days of vigorous and impulsive youthfulness, the artists still retain a keenly observant eye to contemplate on the society with an objective presence while expressing their feelings in abstract vocabularies, just like the mediums in each of their works. Their oeuvres are not merely representations of their individual artistic journeys but also rays of radiance in post-war Asian art history that are worth revisiting again and again.