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Gerhard Richter - Chinese Contemporary Art


Hi Art, June 2008


A section from Guo Degang’s stand-up comedy routine talks about a ravenous man and how his thoughts are consumed with eating anything in sight. Someone might actually desire “wrap steamed buns in pancakes with rice” when famished or perhaps have this type of illusion before dying of starvation.  Extreme situations call for extreme measures and everyday objects may begin to look like pancakes, rice and/or steamed buns.  Anything but food seems like a bunch of baloney when one is starved.  If you try to expound on perseverance and ideals you might just get bitten presuming one has any energy left in them. 

Like craving nourishment, Chinese artists were desperate for a release when Gerhard Richter’s paintings came to China.

Fifty-six of Gerhard Richter’s original works dating from 1963 are on exhibit at the National Art Museum of China from May 15 though July 2. The text accompanying the exhibition invitation reads, “Gerhard Richter is one of the most acclaimed, influential and successful contemporary artists in the world.  His work investigates abstract and figurative painting, while exploring a skeptical view on art historical issues. His paintings present the reality of contradiction. He manipulates the photographic image through the use of oil painting to create manipulated photographs, which appear out of focus.  His work has had a profound impact on Chinese artists and the development of Chinese contemporary art”.

This is quite a loaded statement. Thousands of artists in China study and imitate Richter’s painting style and techniques.  Some of these artists have succeeded in appropriating his style as their own.  Richter is responsible for nearly half of Chinese contemporary inspiration. A couple of days ago, I found a book in a pile at Robert Bernell’s bookstore Timezone 8. The oil painting on the cover looked like a black and white blurred photograph. From a distance, I thought it was a survey on German Art History, but upon closer inspection I realized it was a book on Chinese Art History of the Twentieth Century.  It highlighted the degree of influence Richter’s work has had on the history of Chinese oil painting.

Most Chinese artists probably place Richter above Shi Tao, Bada Shanren, Fu Baoshi and Li Keran.  The unprecedented imitation of Richter’s work and artistic language by the Chinese artists makes the work recognizable to the western eye thus making it easier for the Chinese artists to enter the international stage.

You should know what type of pot you’re cooking in and how the food was prepared before eating it or you’ll end up with an unexpected flavor.  After World War II, we were confronted with the question of how to use ink painting in our shattered homeland while the west was occupied with other things. Surrealist painters like Andre Lubu Lev and Salvatore Dali along with cubist and abstract painters Mondrian, Chagall and Lipchitz headed to America and replaced Paris as the center of the art world.   European artists wandered the New York City streets except for Kandinsky due to his age. American contemporary artists like Alexander Calder and Willem De Kooning emerged, followed by the existentialists including Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. During the 1950s, there was a revival of formalism and figurative painting among contemporary circles which were cultivated by the Greenberg School.  By the end of the 1950s, Joseph Beuys’ creativity and The New Realism movement came to the forefront.  American Pop was born in the 1960s, with the emergence of international masters like Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein. Andy Warhol has had a tremendous influence on the development of Chinese art. Performance art emerged in the 1970s as well as Nam June Paik’s video art and Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation art. Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter were among the leaders of the Post Modern movement, which also flourished in the 1970s.  Among them, Richter has had the most significant impact on Chinese art.  New Expressionism emerged in the United States during the 1980s with artists such as Keith Haring, installation artist Ann Hamilton, and Cindy Sherman whose work is somewhat derived from New Expressionism.  A new type of conceptual art emerged during the 1990s with a return to Body Art and a focus on cultural awareness with artists like Mori Mariko and Vanessa Beecroft.  It was a time of artistic innovation and the start of the digital video ‘shift’ technique.

Contemporary art today is trying to enter popular culture.  However, we cannot impose our standards let alone apply our viewpoints to contemporary art. Richter’s artistic style is unique; his thought process is sharp!  His paintings are one of a kind. He did not want to be labeled by others. We can emulate his life: shift from one place to another, get married three times and have a son at the age of 74 but we will never be able to think like him or predict his next move.  Perhaps this will be the downfall for the “Richter copycats” of today.

Chinese contemporary art consists of various components, which are weaved together and the nuts and bolts combine influences from the West with Eastern counterparts. Western contemporary art in the 21st century is also moving at a rapid rate and it is impossible to imagine what the next art trend and movement will be. Perhaps this is the burden of Chinese contemporary art.

Zhu Wei

Thursday, May 15, 2008