Wed, Dec 08, 2010 - Page 14 News List

A neon legacy

A half year after the death of Walasse Ting, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum presents the first ever retrospective on the painter

By David Frazier  /  Contributing Reporter

Walasse Ting was born in 1929 and took some early formal training at the Shanghai Art Academy, but all his life he prided himself as a naif and an autodidact — virtues that are closely associated with modern art. He claimed his first sale of paintings came in the late 1940s in Hong Kong, where he persuaded a bookshop owner on Hollywood Road to display some watercolors, which then caught the eye of John Keswick, a taipan who exercised considerable control in south China as head of the Jardine Matheson business empire.

The Taipei exhibition begins a few years later with monochrome paintings from the mid-1950s, in which Walasse Ting attacked bare canvases with black oil paints. Despite their tremendous energy, these works seem to be caught, somewhat awkwardly, between action painting and a Chinese brush painting gone over to total abstraction. By the mid-1960s, he had moved on to painting nude female models in full color and flat, expressionistic brushstrokes, though stylistically he was still trying to find his own. (It is hard to look at the amusingly titled 1964 painting Somebody’s Wife without thinking of Willem de Kooning.) The purely abstract canvases that followed — fields of splatters and streaks — were also searching, but these had now settled on a brilliancy of palette that none of his contemporaries were able to match. Truth be told, in terms of sheer brightness, his range of bright neons is one few artists have ever been able to handle.

Walasse Ting was also writing poetry at this time, both in Chinese and in an ungrammatical English that, combined with the modern-day Zen-like riddles they presented, had the ring of pop art. A 1964 untitled poem reads:

Stomach sunk in whiskey

Pee inside pants

I saw a little star

Where is my baby tonight

It is not such a stretch to the deadpan speech bubbles of Roy Lichtenstein, who drew inspiration from comic strips and was for a time one of Walasse Ting’s neighbors.

In 1964, Walasse Ting’s poetry served as the basis of a folio of over 60 prints by 28 artists that took a title typical of pop’s notions of cheapness, One Cent Life. It included work by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Alechinsky, Jim Dine, Sam Francis, Asger Jorn, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Walasse Ting and several others. It was a veritable who’s who of the New York scene, and it sat at a crossroads between the pop artists and the abstractionists, the Americans and the Europeans.

Sadly, these prints are not in any of the current exhibitions, and Walasse Ting’s poetry is also little represented. Future retrospectives will find ample material to work with.

Walasse Ting sat at another crossroads as well, that between the expatriate Chinese artists of that era and the Western mainstream. The photorealist Hilo Chen (陳昭宏) and the painter Dennis Huang (黃志超) were also close friends in New York, and Mia and Jesse Ting remember many others dropping by both home and studio. In Taiwan, Walasse Ting was a member of the collective that published the Epoch Poetry Quarterly, and Kuan Kuan was only one member of an expansive circle of friends.

“As my father wrote in one of his books, ‘I don’t belong to any group,’” said Mia Ting. “But I think that also hurt him, not being identified with one in particular.”

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