Three years before Andy Warhol silk-screened Mao Zedong, an equally iconoclastic Chinese artist was Pop-ifying an American icon. In 1969, Liu Kuo-Sung drew on astronaut Neil Armstrong’s photo of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon during the Apollo 11 space mission for his own canvas, the lunar landscape evolving from the photographic to rocky black-ink brushstrokes, Earth a flat purple circle in the background. It was an unusual fusion for Chinese art.

Liu, now 90 and about to open a retrospective at the National Gallery Singapore covering his 70-year career, made “east meets west” his artistic philosophy and rallying cry, no uncontroversial thing back then. Speaking from Taipei (with his daughter Lin translating), Liu says he was “completely westernised” when he left art school in Taiwan in the 1950s, but encounters with the abstract expressionists made him realise that they had already absorbed Chinese calligraphy techniques. He recalls thinking he could reinterpret this from his own angle: “If I continued my art practice, I should really start thinking from a more Chinese point of view and maybe . . . use the ink medium rather than the oil medium.”

A collaged painting of a moonscape with a photograph of the moon landing incorporated into it. The sky is blue, with a violet orb on the horizon
‘Moon Walk’ (1969) by Liu Kuo-Sung © Courtesy the Liu Kuo-Sung Foundation

What his principle meant in practice was that abstraction became core to his work. He took his Spaces series much further — marbled green planets, hot-pink discs, calligraphy contained in circles — and drew on a visit to Mount Everest for the Tibet series, the images of mountains as cracked and jagged as those of moons. He even once said, “Abstraction has become the only game in town,” although this is a view he has rowed back on, now acknowledging that the great landscapes of the Chinese tradition can be just as powerful: “Whatever form that art can move people in is the right form for that artist.”

He was born in mainland China but, alongside many Chinese Nationalists, moved to Taiwan in 1949 as the communists completed their victory in the civil war. To then be denounced as a communist in 1960s Taiwan, because he vocally rejected traditional artistic camps, was “quite difficult”, he says with some understatement.

Liu Kuo-Sung kneels in his studio, applying black ink to a textured sheet of paper that he is holding up with one hand
Liu Kuo-Sung uses fibrous paper to create texture in his paintings © Courtesy the Liu Kuo-Sung Foundation

His career has often intersected with politics since, sometimes to his advantage, sometimes to his detriment. In the 1970s, he moved to teach at a university in Hong Kong, still a British colony then, and in 1983 he had a show in Beijing which travelled to 18 more mainland cities (he says people nicknamed it “the Liu Kuo-Sung tornado”), the first painter from Taiwan to show there in such a major way. “I was a little bit lucky because I caught the beginning of the opening up of China, so people were more receptive to changes at the time,” he says.

But this tour meant he became persona non grata back in Taiwan, which rejects China’s territorial claims on it. He was chosen for the planning committee of a new museum in Taipei, but “when they invited me to come back and attend the opening ceremony . . . [the government] denied my visa”. The same thing happened a few years later, prompting a journalist to write about the blacklisting and causing the government to reverse its position. Since then, though, he has been much honoured by both mainland and Taiwanese institutions, and has even been shown in the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

A painting of a large white orb behind black ink strokes that resemble a mountain range
‘Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking?’ (1970) by Liu Kuo-Sung © The Liu Kuo-Sung Foundation. Photo: The British Museum/Trustees of the British Museum

A work of Liu’s acquired by the British Museum, “Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking?” (1970), is a good example of his innovations. While clearly in the ink-painting landscape tradition, here the mountains, floating across the paper, unanchored, sit atop a disproportionately large white disc. Moreover, he developed a technique where he pulls off fibres from the paper to leave unpainted streaks, which serve to make the whole feel more dynamic. (His wife, Li Mo-Hua, has often helped with this: “I’ve pulled off so many that my knuckles have become deformed,” she once said.)

‘Snowscapes Reaching Beyond the Clouds’ (2020) by Liu Kuo-Sung © Courtesy the Liu Kuo-Sung Foundation

For someone who spent his career advocating a melding of east and west, Liu has made some curious statements describing art as a nationalist, competitive practice. In an exhibition catalogue he wrote: “Chinese painting once led western painting by a millennium, so there is no reason why the eastern school cannot regain the lead once again . . . One day, the best Chinese painters will also prove to be the best painters in the world.”

Asked about this, he says he believed things like that when he was young, when he was more influenced by Taiwan’s nationalist beliefs, although the essay is from 2008, when he was 76. In late December 2022, when we speak, he says he has changed his mind: “I feel like art or culture should be borderless, that going forward it should all be global, not nationalist.” That sounds more like the view from the moon.

To November 26,

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