Chao Chung-hsiang

02.06.2004 – 31.07.2004

Born in Henan in 1910, Chao studied at the Hangzhou Academy under Lin Fengmian, with classmates such as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong. The Hangzhou Academy was the most liberal art school in 1930s China. There, Chao was exposed to Western techniques and, more importantly, he was encouraged to create his own style rather than simply strive for technical perfection. After graduating, he continued to paint, exhibit and lecture both in China and, after 1949, in Taiwan where he taught at the Normal University. In 1956, he won a fellowship to study in Spain. Settling in New York City in 1958, Chao entered a cauldron of ideas and influences that led him to forge a new visual language. He was attracted to Abstract Expressionism and he moved in its circle. He exhibited his work in such avant-garde centres as the Guild Hall and Parrish Museum in the Hamptons and in museums in Brooklyn and Queens. He died in December 1991 in Taiwan, where he had returned just the year before, after almost four decades of living and painting in New York City.

Throughout his life, Chao remained an introverted Chinese scholar-painter, never quite adjusting to the ways of the West, although he greatly admired its art. He became a bit of an exile, not from the aesthetics of East or West, both of which he had certainly mastered, but from their audiences. He cared deeply about museums: the curators of the cities’ museums were among the rare guests at his house. But he did not care much for galleries – he was suspicious of them.

Only a small circle of expatriate Chinese artists in the United States and a few artists and art historians in Taiwan knew his work, and some of them were hard-pressed to embrace it. What Chao achieved in his splendid isolation was remarkable. At its best, his work strikes a balanced harmony that bridges two disparate cultures. He combines all the graphic and calligraphic possibilities of Chinese ink and the traditional themes of flowers and birds, and marries them to the energy and dynamism of Western geometrical form and acrylic colour.

While hardly peaceful, his art points to a “love of the cosmos”, a phrase Chao often used to title his works, its simple rhythms of birth and death, and all its forms – birds, lotuses, diamonds and drips. Each work is a testament to a remarkable talent who struggled to find a visual language that was neither Chinese nor Western, and was not bound by nationality or tradition.

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