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CLP 123: 1996 “A Late Period for C. C. Wang.” Brief tribute published in C. C. Wang(S.F., Asian Art Museum, 1996) 93-94.

A "Late Period" for C. C. Wang


Wang Chi-ch'ien is about to reach ninety--he will attain that age, by Chinese count, next year (1996)--and apparently has decided it is time for him to have a "late period," as the best artists seem always to do, provided they live long enough. I have known him for nearly half those years, having met him and begun to learn from him in the early 1950s. I was too late to observe first-hand his early period, which was characterized by rather orthodox (but always interesting) landscapes and bamboo paintings; but I was able to watch a transition, in the 1950s and 60s, into an exciting new style that depended on the interaction of aleatory or semi-random techniques for the large, seemingly amorphous patterns of ink and color with applications of fine, disciplined brushwork that served to bring these into focus and make the pictures readable as landscapes. In the decades since then his style has evolved through several new phases, tending to return to a more openly representational mode without reverting to anything that could be called orthodoxy or losing the air of improvisation. Some of the works of the 70s-80s that evoke the monumental landscapes of the Sung period are especially impressive.

Now he enters his late period, apparently with no falling off in quality or originality or creative energy. He still paints landscapes, but they are smaller, less panoramic, more concentrated. Flower paintings, which were seen among his works of the 50s and 60s and which already then reflected his absorption of Western styles (a process strengthened by a period of study at the Art Students League in New York) have reappeared--the pursuit of this theme was not, after all, abandoned, but only postponed--and again they explore in fascinating and attractive ways certain relationships between European and Chinese, especially Shanghai School, styles (Chao Chih-ch'ien and Wu Ch'ang-shih meet Matisse and Emil Nolde). And then there are the abstractions.

Again, these are not without precedent in his works of the period of the 1950s-60s--Wang did a few then in a "calligraphic" manner that were neither readable calligaphy nor recognizable imagery. But the new ones are quite different, and seem more of a departure from anything that went before. For an artist who has remained firmly within the representational camp over these decades, even while experimenting with non-representational modes, to slip into abstraction so late may disturb his admirers--much as Igor Stravinsky's move, near the end of his life, into a twelve-tone system of composition upset many of us who had seen him as the principal bulwark against the incursions of duodecaphony. If C. C. Wang goes abstract, where can the future of Chinese painting be?

Safe and sound, he would hasten to reassure us, probably pointing out (if I can read his intentions, after all these years) that his abstractions are based on his practice of calligraphy, and adding the familiar Chinese assertion that calligraphy and painting are, after all, a single art--so where is the problem? For my part, I have never for a moment believed that they are a single art--their histories, aesthetic underpinnings, social functions, and formal agendas are quite distinct. To say, in arguing for their identity, that both are done with a brush on paper or silk is about as convincing as saying that poetry and drama, because they are both composed of words, are a single literary form. But I do believe that the two arts can exhibit contiguities and affect each other in interesting ways--we can identify calligraphic painting and painterly calligraphy just as we can identify poetic drama and dramatic poetry. The distinction can at times narrow to a thin line; the recent non-figurative works by Wang Chi-ch'ien erase even that line by offering nothing that is readable either as writing or as picturing. To complicate the matter, however, Wang himself offers his new abstractions as "musical" paintings, and more specifically as rhythmic improvisations like those of jazz. Perhaps he is thinking of, among other things, Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-woogie," to which a few of them do bear some slight resemblance.

I would rather see them, however, as the outcome of a Chinese painter engaging himself, late in his life, with a movement that was just getting underway when he came to this country, and that originated, in fact, when certain American artists began to draw on Wang's own tradition. I mean, of course, when Mark Tobey and others discovered Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and used it, without being able to write Chinese characters (or wanting to), for visually absorbing calligraphic abstractions that filled and energized the spaces they covered. The controlled, "musical" linear rhythms of these set them apart from the other branch of Abstract Expressionism practiced in the 50s and later, the drippy, gestural, heavy-color compositions in thick oil pigments that came (by exerting sheer weight, one feels) to occupy the forefront of the movement. The quieter, linear kind has persisted, however--when C. C. Wang first showed me his new abstractions, I went to the bookcase and took out a reproduction book of Brice Marden's recent "Cold Mountain" paintings, to which some of Wang's are strikingly similar, as he himself agreed. Both artists, in some of their works, adopt the basic compositional plan of formal calligraphy, with brushwork configurations aligned vertically and those alignments extending laterally like lines of writing. Neither artist, presumably, knows what the other is doing; here is another mysterious coming-together, this time of a somewhat easternized westerner (Marden has studied Chinese calligraphy and acknowledges freely his derivations from it for these works) and an Asian master who has been sensitive and responsive to the art world of his adopted home. The brushwork of Wang's abstractions exhibits, not unexpectedly, more of the traditional Chinese strengths; he is also, of course, better able to play on ambiguities between pure form and readable graphs. Others will no doubt have their reasons for preferring Marden; making relative evaluations is less to the point than observing that both artists, coming as they do from quite different stylistic directions, arrive at solutions that offer (at least to this viewer) quite similar visual delights. Another line, the one that divides the Asian from the western p

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