For a long period of time, the art of painting was almost considered synonymous to the art of imitation. It invested itself in constructing a seemingly substantial yet illusory visual terrain. However, since the twentieth century, the established notion of painting began to "mutate" — images gradually deviated from the traditional figurative representation and concrete narratives, creating room for ambiguous forms, unconventional media, and free expressions. These qualities constitute our fundamental conception of the so-called abstract art.
As the modernist fever swept across the globe, abstract paintings, in the name of "art for art’s sake," became the mainstream practice, giving rise to a multitude of avant-garde art groups. The aesthetic shift not only reflected the diverse ideas of the emerging individual artists, but also bore witness to an ideological transformation of the society in large. Points, lines and planes, the most basic forms of art-making, were orchestrated on a flat surface — they emerged as the testimony to the traces of our actions. Empty signifiers became the concrete marks of individual lives.
Following the trajectory of abstract art as the main thread, this exhibition presents a curated selection of over forty pieces from the Long Museum Collection, done by artists of China, Japan and Korea, in an attempt to trace the cultural development and exchanges between East Asian regions during the second half of the twentieth century, and to stimulate an extended discussion on the immense artistic experiments, examining specifically the explorations in techniques, subjects, and medium.
China, Japan, and Korea, all experienced significant social upheavals and reforms in the late twentieth century. Recovering from the defeat of WWII, Japan hosted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 Osaka Expo in the effort to reestablish a prosperous national image, yet was in fact threatened by radical protests against "Japan-U.S. Security Treaty". Having exhausted from the Korean War, South Korea was again involved in the Vietnam War, while the military dictatorship brought about a coup d’état, forcing the nation into a state of emergency. For China, the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution finally came to an end, and the country entered the era of Reform and Opening, during which the cultural awakening came along with a reflection on the history and confusions about the future... Concurrently, the progression of globalization has, on the one hand, generated new opportunities for East Asia; on the other hand, it led these countries into a value dilemma — the clout of Western culture and the decline of traditional credos were simultaneously galvanizing the minds of the people. Everything that used to be taken for granted was in an urgent need for revision and reevaluation.
The context of enormous turbulence thus entailed a pervasive reflection on the nature of art — "what is art, and what is art for". Through artistic experiments, artists launched themselves on a quest for the essence of art, and to a certain extent, the essence of the modern society. The practice of abstract painting that emerged at this time is precisely the epitome, achieved through the removal of the non-essential parts of external reality and the refinement of the intrinsic essence. From the early pioneers influenced by Western Expressionism to the burgeoning local avant-garde artist groups, and to the new generation that thrived under the globalized context of the late 20th century, the forms of Asian abstract art have constantly renewed and regenerated, yet its core spirit has never changed. It persistently sought to construct a localized aesthetic language, while actively engaging in a dialogue with the world.
Until today, art is still attempting to transcend itself, as a way to cope with the contemporary crisis and predicament. In the current era of rapid development, we encounter all kinds of situations caused by modernization and globalization, the solution of which perhaps requires this kind of reflection-based imagination. As the Stars Art Group (Xingxing Huahui) once advocated, "We perceive the world with our own eyes and participate in the world with our own brushes. There are all kinds of countenances in our paintings, and our countenances communicate our ambitions." It is our sincere hope that the display of diverse artistic expressions can evoke an all-accessible feeling of sympathy and empathy, and invite profound contemplations and discussions.