At 85, Hsiao Chin Continues to Challenge the Eurocentric Legacy of Abstract Art

Harley Wong
Aug 14, 2020 6:45PM

Portrait of Hsiao Chin. Courtesy of 3812 Gallery.

In the midst of the Cold War, Shanghai-born artist Hsiao Chin (萧勤) moved from Taipei to Madrid, spending his twenties exhibiting across Europe and expanding Western conceptions of Chinese art. Hsiao pushed the tradition of abstraction to reflect upon key historical and personal moments throughout his lifetime, founding art collectives and movements while continuing to evolve his practice. With an oeuvre spanning over half a century, simply describing Hsiao’s work as abstract paintings that bridged the gap between Eastern and Western cultures feels reductive. Coinciding with his 85th birthday, earlier this year, the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Latvia mounted a major retrospective, “In My Beginning Is My End: The Art of Hsiao Chin,” tracing the artist’s works from 1959 to the present.

Born in 1935, Hsiao began his formal artistic training in 1951 under Chinese-Fench artist Chu Teh-Chun (朱德群) at Taiwan Provincial Normal School (now National Taipei University of Education) and later under the mentorship of Taiwanese painter Li Chun-shan (李仲生) in 1952. One of Hsiao’s earliest works, a self-portrait from 1953, demonstrates a keen understanding of light and shadow as well as an emphasized interest in color. Even though his face and clothes materialize almost exclusively from shades of yellow, Hsiao’s painted presence in this work still maintains hints of realism. By 1955, his figurative work became far more stylized with elongated faces and oversized hands, eventually evolving into simplified depictions of Chinese opera actors, wherein Hsiao’s Fauvist color palette is given as much presence as the characters themselves.

Hsiao Chin 蕭勤
Chinese Opera Characters, 1956
Double Square Gallery

Along with the seven other artists under Li’s tutelage, Hsiao co-founded Ton-Fan Art Group (东方画会) on December 31, 1955, forming the first Chinese artist collective dedicated to abstract art. Ton-Fan, which translates to “East” or “Eastern,” arose from discussions about how to use artistic methods and knowledge from Western countries without depending on Western culture. Given that Li taught his students that modernism was progressing past Western tradition and approaching the advanced artistry found in traditional Chinese art, it’s unsurprising that Ton-Fan sought to upend beliefs of Western art’s superiority. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and rising anti-communist sentiments in the West, the group’s prioritization of Chinese visual culture on a global scale was a radical act. While other influential modern art collectives in Taiwan—like artist Liu Kuo-sung’s (刘国松) Fifth Moon Art Group (五月画会)—translated their name to English, Ton-Fan’s transliteration declared and embraced difference and held strong to its Eastern roots.

Just months after forming Ton-Fan, Hsiao was awarded a scholarship to study at Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Spain. In the summer of 1956, at 21 years old, he moved to Madrid where he quickly grew disillusioned by the academy’s conservatism, eventually forfeiting his scholarship and moving to Barcelona and Paris before finally settling in Milan in 1959. “After experiencing and researching contemporary Western ideas first hand [in Spain and Italy],” said Hsiao in a recent interview with English curator Phillip Dodd. “I felt a cultural shock and became more aware of the richness and profundity of my country’s artistic culture and philosophical thinking.”

Raised in a Christian household, Hsiao strove to expand his knowledge of Eastern religions and philosophies, with particular interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Daoism. “I sought to explore the concept of ‘infinity’ and ‘eternity,’” explained Hsaio. “I realised that external objects had become a restriction.” By 1958, the once figurative painter had become fully immersed in abstraction.

From Europe, Hsiao maintained an active role in Ton-Fan, organizing 13 exhibitions throughout Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium before the collective’s dissolution in 1971. The group’s first exhibition, however, took place in Taipei in 1957. Given that the majority of Ton-Fan’s artists were born in mainland China, Hsiao was sensitive to how this first exhibition could potentially be seen as being tied to communism or the then-recently established Communist Party of China. In order to placate those fears and receive permission from the Taiwanese government to exhibit, Ton-Fan also included a few artists from Spain whom Hsiao had befriended during his travels.

Hsiao Chin 蕭勤
The Birth of a New Universe, 2002
Liang Gallery

While in Milan, Hsiao also co-founded Movimento Punto with Italian painter Antonio Calderara and Japanese sculptor Kenjirō Azuma in 1961. Critical of Art Informel—the European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism—which they believed had lost its original vibrancy in the wake of widespread consumerism, Movimento Punto prioritized a more meditative approach to abstract art. From 1962 to 1966, they organized 13 exhibitions from Zurich to Taipei, bringing together dozens of artists from across Europe, Asia, and South America.

In that time, Hsiao also curated the 1963 exhibition “Modern Chinese Artists (Chinesische Künstler der Gegenwart),” uniting members of Ton-Fan with other prominent artists from the Chinese diaspora—including architect I.M. Pei (贝聿铭) and painter Zao Wou-Ki (赵无极)—at Städtisches Museum Leverkusen in Germany. “Westerners were incredibly surprised that abstract art could also be created by Eastern artists,” Hsiao recalled. “Meanwhile, the exhibitions introduced Eastern aesthetics to the Western art world, which gave Westerners the opportunity to truly understand the so-called ‘East.’”

During this period, Hsiao’s canvases were covered with bold bursts of color that, in instances such as Expansion of thoughts (思之擴張) (1966) and Oh! How vertiginous (哦!多麽令人眩惑) (1965), appear almost psychedelic. “At that time, I painted with vibrant colours to bless the greatness of ‘life,’” Hsiao explained. Upon relocating to the United States between 1967 and 1972, his canvases took on influences from Minimalism, becoming starker and more austere in composition and form. The dramatic changes in Hsiao’s style stemmed from feelings of spiritual stagnation due to what he described as a lack of cultural and historical depth in American society. “The American dream is utopia,” Hsiao once told writer Maurizio Vanni. “My American experience was extremely hard, but important and complementary to my subsequent growth. It isn’t easy to live in a country where everyone has to pretend to be happy, young, and beautiful.”

His practice dramatically changed again in 1990 upon the sudden death of his daughter, Samantha. “When your beloved family and friends have gone forever, where do you imagine they will be going?” Hsiao asked. “With a riot of colours, I built a series of eternal gardens for my beloved daughter to wander and rest. It is a prayer and a blessing I wish to send.” One of the first gardens Hsiao painted for his daughter was in 1969, two years after her birth. The garden of Samantha (莎蔓薩之花園), created during Hsiao’s time in New York, feels understated with its solid geometric forms pushed to the bottom of the canvas. In contrast, To the eternal garden (走向永久的花園) (1992) surges with unrestrained brushstrokes and rushes of colors that Hsiao painted in mourning. “These contemplations over life after death allowed me to understand that the end is the beginning, and the energy of life does not end with death,” Hsiao said. “I have eventually come to realise every tragedy and loss will lead to the beginning of a new life.”

Hsiao has since expanded his practice to different media, including sculptures, ceramics, and glass mosaics. Starting with a 1988 exhibition at Studio Marconi in Milan, Hsiao has received retrospectives around the world, including his current show at the Mark Rothko Art Centre. After meeting in New York in 1968, Hsiao and Rothko reunited for “In My Beginning Is My End: The Art of Hsiao Chin” over half a century later. Running concurrently with, and sharing the same title as the museum retrospective, is a presentation at London’s 3812 Gallery, marking the artist’s first solo exhibition in the city since 1966.

“When I was exhibiting around the world,” Hsiao said, “I noticed not only the lack of concern for Eastern artists in Western countries, but also the lack of knowledge and understanding.” Hsiao’s decades-long career has paved the way for contemporary Chinese artists in the Western art world, disrupting the limiting ideas of what Chinese art can reflect upon and look like.

Harley Wong
Harley Wong is Artsy’s Contemporary Art Editor.
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