Zhang Hongtu is an artist who has lived and worked in the United States since 1982. He was born into a Muslim family in Gansu, China in 1943 and graduated from the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing in 1969. From the middle of the 1980s to the 1990's, Zhang created paintings, sculptures and mixed media installations utilizing Mao's image to express his ideas about Communist China and the Cultural Revolution.
In the last decade, Zhang's works have to come to question complex relationships between the traditions of old China and the customs of the modern West. His most recent works focus on the relationship between nature and the human condition. Zhang has exhibited extensively, including shows and the Havana Biennial, the PS1 Museum, The New Museum, the Guangzhou Triennial, the Princeton University Art Museum, the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts and the Museu Picasso.
The Year of the Goat. I was born into a traditional Muslim family in Pingliang, Gansu Province. The family ancestral home was Luoning, Henan Province.
I left Pingliang with parents for Shanghai via Xi'an. Later I lived in Nanjing, Suzhou, and Zhengzhou before finally ending up in Beijing in 1950.
After settling in Beijing, my family moved frequently within the city and changed addresses no less than ten times. My six years of elementary education were completed in five different schools.
My father was branded a Rightist. For the first time, I realized that other than schoolwork, drawing/painting pictures and playing soccer, there was also this thing called politics in life; moreover, this thing was like your shadow, following you everywhere you go.
Entered Beijing 8th Middle School.
Entered the High School attached to the Central Academy of Fine Arts. During my four years there, I learned some basic painting techniques including western watercolors and drawing, Chinese calligraphy, and Shan-shui. But the basic teaching philosophy of the school was "Socialist Realism" imported from the Soviet Union. The purpose of studying arts was so you could become a screw or gear inside the great revolutionary machine (Even today I still have not figured out why a living person wanted to become a screw or gear). Art history taught at the school ended right before the French Impressionists. Impressionism and all western art phenomena afterwards were condemned as "reactionary, decadent and declining bourgeois arts". The four years of learning at the school were essentially a process of artistic foot-binding so that your natural creative instincts become deformed.
It was probably 1963 when students at the high school were organized to see an internal exhibit of the so-called "negative examples of art" at the National Gallery of Art. On exhibit were print materials brought back to China by artists who studied in the west during the 1930s and 1940s. The exhibit was intended to teach the students what was bad art and what should not be emulated. It, however, afforded me the opportunity to see the paintings of Georges Rouault (1871-1958), which I have loved ever since.
After graduation from high school, I did not want to go to any college because the Central Academy of Fine Art was not admitting new students. Instead, I dreamed about adventures in life and creating my own "masterpieces". As a result, the principal called me in and asked me to apply to the Central Arts and Crafts Academy. He also added, "Whether you apply to the Central Arts and Crafts Academy concerns whether you are a revolutionary or not!" So off to the Academy I went. I chose the ceramics department, because Picasso also did ceramics.
I did not actually learn much about ceramics because two years later the Cultural Revolution broke out. Luckily, I met my future wife Huang Miaoling, who was a year ahead of me in the Academy.
Another event worth mentioning was my stay, from fall of 1965 to spring of 1966, at Kunshan (outside of Suzhou), as a member of the Central Arts and Crafts Academy's teacher and student team to conduct the so-called socialism education political campaign. During the first three months there, I could hardly communicate with the locals, and by the time I was able to understand half of their dialect, it was time to go back to Beijing. Although the eight months in Kunshan were pretty much wasted, afterwards whenever I saw the paintings of Mi Fu and his son or Huang Gongwang, depicting "the pastoral scenes south of the Yangtze" with their "plain ingenuous naturalness", I would always experience a feeling of closeness that's not entirely evoked by the color of ink and brush strokes…
Mao launched the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. The idealism reflected in Mao's books on a communist Utopia was the major motivating force for my eager participation in the campaign in 1966. Believing that "Children of the Rightists and the Five Black Types also have the rights to revolution", I was very active during the first three months, until one day, in a hu-tong, I saw a group of kids with the red armbands beating a middle-aged man to death with a leather belt that had a big copper buckle. These kids said: "this is a capitalist…"
The most relaxing and happy period of time during the Cultural Revolution was during Da-Chuan-Lian. In the fall of 1966, I traveled by train to Urumqi, then went south to Guangzhou. After Da-Chuan-Lian was ended, several schoolmates of mine and I went on a "Long March": we walked three months from Guangzhou to Jinggang Mountain, then to Shaoshan, afterwards took the train back to Beijing. By then it was already spring 1967.
The entire Central Arts and Crafts Academy was sent down to Huolu near the city of Shijiazhuang, so the "May 16 counter-revolutionaries hidden among the faculty and students" could be discovered and caught under the watchful eyes of the military. We also worked in farm fields and learnt how to plant rice.
If you sifted out the prisoner-like control of us by the PLA during the three years in the countryside, many wonderful memories would remain: the beautiful blue sky, the big white clouds, the horizon that was never obstructed by tall buildings, and the pleasant scents, at dusk, of horse and ox droppings and the farm fields permeating the air…
In 1972, our last year in Huolu, we were permitted to paint after farm work was done. I painted quite a few portraits of the old men and small kids there, as well as some country scenes.
Assigned to Beijing Jewelry Import-Export Co. In an era when wearing jewelry was condemned as "bourgeois lifestyle", I was sent to help factory designers design jewelry. What absurdity! In the nine years I worked for the company, there wasn't a single day when I didn't think about escaping it.
Birth of my son Zhang Dasheng, who spent the very beginning of his life in an earthquake shockproof shed.
Formed the Contemporaries art group with friends from the High School attached to the Central Academy of Fine Art, and held a joint exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Eternal Life, one of my exhibited works, was collected by the gallery.
Spent one month at Dunhuang studying the murals. For the first time I was awed by paintings outside of the orthodox (Court and scholar paintings). The fusion, in early Dunhuang murals, of traditional Chinese techniques and images with those from India and Central Asia influenced my later works. Equally unforgettable to me were the sand dunes around Dunhuang, the transparent nightly blue sky, and the moon and stars which you could almost touch with your hands.
14th July 1982 I flew from Beijing to New York via San Francisco. For four years beginning in the fall of that year, I took classes in the Art Students League in New York while working different jobs. One of my favorite teachers there was Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992). Although he would never tell you in class that you "should do this" or "should do that", he would neither tell you "Don't do this" or "Don't do that!"
"National art is bad, good art is national." This saying, which I saw in the fall of 1982 in a Guggenheim Museum exhibition catalog, has had an everlasting influence on me. During these years, other than working, I experimented with this and that in order to shake off, as best as I could, the hold of the academic school and the so-called socialist realism on me. I finished a group of semi-abstract works on rice paper, a series of works painted on the New York Times newspapers, a series of acrylic works influenced by the Neo-expressionism in vogue in New York, as well as a Back of Head series, an Impression-Sunrise series.
In the Spirit of Dunhuang was my first solo exhibition in New York City, held in the Asian Arts Institute. It later moved to the Adams House, Harvard University. In the same year, another solo exhibition of mine, Zhang Hongtu – Recent New York Works, was presented at Hammerquist Gallery, NY.
During this period I also took part in group exhibitions in places such as the Alternative Museum, Henry Street Settlement, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and Yokohama, Japan.
In the fall of 1984, my wife and son came to America. The whole family was together again.
In 1986, I started working on Quaker Oats Mao and in 1987 made the initial ten pieces, in 1988, Quaker Oats Mao was for the first time shown to the public at the Palladium Nightclub in New York.
May through June, 1989, the Chinese student democracy movement broke out in Tiananmen Square but was eventually crushed by the Chinese government's tanks and soldiers. The events prompted me to create, starting from August 1989, a group of works based on my own life experiences in China. These include Last Banquet, Bilingual Chart of Acupuncture Points and Meridians, and the Chairmen Mao, Ping-Pong Mao, and the Material Mao series.
In 1991, Last Banquet was banned from an exhibition held in Washington DC. This unfortunate event, however, helped me. The media's extensive coverage of the ban allowed more people to see the painting.
In the same year, I received the Pollock–Krasner Foundation grant for painting, and afterwards moved into a studio located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sharing the space with two other painters.
Cut Out series was also completed during this period of time. At the beginning, I used burlap, from which I cut out images of different cultural or religious icons. Starting from probably 1992, I concentrated on cutting out Mao images, but the materials used went beyond burlap to include dirt, water, sand, rocks, rice, corn, etc.
In 1992, Webster Hall in New York presented a solo show of my work titled The Angel's Ghost.
In 1994, Fashion Mao series was completed in collaboration with fashion designer Vivienne Tam. These works gave me the feeling that they had entered an ever-moving museum without walls.
In 1995, I received The National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship.
Important group exhibitions I participated in during this period of time included China June 4th 1989 at P.S.1 Museum, NY; The Decade Show at the New Museum, NY; Selection at Artists Space, NY and The Fifth Biennial of Havana in Havana, Cuba.
From the fall of 1995 to the spring 1996, a solo exhibition Zhang Hongtu: Material Mao was held at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY. This exhibition included all my Mao works since Quaker Oats Mao of 1987.
While attending the High School attached to the Central Academy of Fine Art in China, I ridiculed the colors in those European academic style paintings as "soy sauce toned". However, in 1993, when I really applied soy sauce (mushroom soy sauce, to be exact) for the first time to rice paper, I was surprised by the beauty that could not be produced with oil and water color. Excited by the discovery, I did a series of Mao portraits using soy sauce. In 1995, after I decided to stop the Mao theme, I did several pieces of soy sauce calligraphy.
Flying Blues, a feather, sand and mixed media installation, was shown at the Anthony Giordano Gallery in 1996.
Also in 1996, a year before Hong Kong's return to China, I was invited by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to be an artist-in-residence. A solo exhibition Soy Sauce, Lipstick, Charcoalwas held there.
In 1997, I started a computer generated work Christie's Catalog. In the same year, I briefly revisited the Mao theme, completing Unity and Discord (9 works). Using 8 different styles from modern western art history and my own soy sauce and cut-out style, these works reproduced the photo of Mao waving to the Red Guards from Tiananmen in 1966. This series was the bridge connecting the Mao series and the "On-going" Repainting Shan-shui series.
The currently still ongoing Repainting Shan-shui series started with Fan Kuan–van Gogh as the first painting. In the same year, a solo exhibition at the Cheryl McGinnis Gallery first showed some of my early works in the Repainting Shan-shui series to the public.
A solo exhibition of Repainting Chinese Shan Shui Paintings was held at Yale-China Association, Yale University. During the same year, I participated in the group exhibition of TRANSIENCE: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago.
A second solo exhibition was held at Cheryl McGinnis Gallery.
Took part in the Word and Meaning exhibition at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
At the end of the year I was invited to Johannesburg, South Africa, and lived among local artists for a month. Every day I came into contact with many brilliant young Africans, and their natural talents in painting, music and dance often made me feel inadequate. The experience also made me treasure my working and living conditions in New York more. Completed the A Picture a Day series.
Although my works were shown in many exhibitions this year, two things worth writing here were not directly related to painting: First, In July, I visited the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, capital of Mexico; the eulogy of the museum's collections made me extremely disgusted with "nationalism". Second, in September, the New York World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists, 2973 innocent people died. I am against terrorism, I am also against war, any war! No one has any excuse to start a war. If people in the 21 century still believe "My God is better than yours," the world will never be peaceful.
Last Banquet was shown at the Paris – Peking exhibition in Paris.
Three Repainting Shan-shui works were shown at the Queens International exhibition at Queens Museum of Art, Queens, New York.
Big Red Door was included in Guangzhou Triennial held in Guangzhou, China.
In the summer, I traveled to Provence, France, and experienced the mountains, the waters, the wind and the lights that van Gogh and Cézanne experienced more than one hundred years ago.
Transformed these originally computer-generated virtual works into real sculptural objects: (1) bronzed McDonalds packaging, (2) blue-and-white ceramics Coca-cola bottle, and (3) the 12 Tang style tri-color glazed Chinese zodiac ceramic animals.
Repainting Shan-shui continued to be shown in many places, including the solo exhibition Icon & Innovations: The Cross-Cultural Art of Zhang Hongtu at State University of New York at Potsdam, and the group exhibition in Newark Museum, New Jersey.
In the spring, five of my oil Shan-shui works were included in the four artist exhibition Shuffling the Deck: The Collection Reconsidered at Princeton University Art Museum. All five of these oil paintings are re-created ancient Shan-shui works found in the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum, and were shown alongside the original Shan-shui works by Ni Zan and Shitao, as well as the original oils of Monet and others.
Dialogue with the Taipei Palace Museum, Zhang Hongtu Solo Exhibition was held at Lin & Keng Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan.
Zhang Hongtu: Selected Works was shown at Marlboro College, Vermont.
Took part in a group exhibitions held at University of Gettysburg and University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
In the same year, I found a studio in the Woodside neighborhood of New York City, and moved in the next year. Finally, at the age of 61, I had realized my dream of having my own studio, a dream which I had harbored since I was 16.
In July, my father passed away.
My solo exhibition was held at Goedhuis Contemporary, New York.
Took part in the group exhibition Trading Place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, Taiwan.
Participated in the group exhibition On the Edge at Stanford University, California.
Painted Cézanne, Study of Axe Cut Ts'un, the first painting in the currently ongoing Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting series.
The exhibition On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West traveled to the Davis Museum in Wellesley, MA, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana.
At the beginning of the year, I participated in the Dragon Veins exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum, University of South Florida, FL.
In the spring, a solo painting installation Four Seasons: Earth Above and Heaven Below was shown at Lehigh University, PA. The installation featured four of my re-created Shan-shui oils in the style of van Gogh – Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, which hung, in the traditional Chinese hanging scroll style, from the highest point in the center of the university's Packer Memorial Chapel, amidst the stained glass. The effect was that the paintings and the stained glass, with all their contradictions, merged into and become part of each other.
A documentary film Yellow Ox Mountain directed by Miao Wang featuring my artistic pursuits and those of Zhang Jianjun premiered in New York City.
A second solo exhibition was held at the Lin & Keng Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan.
Participated in the grand opening exhibition at the Beijing Lin & Keng Galley. Also was in a group show Made in China, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Shitao (Ten Thousand Ugly Inkblots Variation) -van Gogh was shown at The Third Chengdu Biennale, Chengdu, China.
Lin & Keng Gallery, Inc. published Zhang Hongtu: The Art of Straddling Boundaries.
Started a new series Shan Shui Today. Completed Re-Make of Ma Yuan's Water Album, 780 years later. It is the first group painting in this series.
Bird's Nest in the Style of Cubism was seized by the Chinese authorities at customs. Artist's Pointed Critique Is Barred From Beijing is an article about this incident by David D'Arcy published in the Wall Street Journal.
Took part in a group show at Asia Society Museum (亞洲協會美術館), NY.
Participated in a group show Reason's Clue at Lin & Keng Gallery in Beijing and at the Queens Museum of Art in New York.
Worked on the Shan Shui Today series.
Participated in the grand opening exhibition at Tina Keng Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan. Also took part in group shows at National Art Club in New York, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Princeton University Art Museum, and 7th Floor Gallery, New York University, etc.
In October, my mother passed away.
The influence of Cubism and the experience of studying the murals in Dunhuang 29 years earlier can be perceived in the Shan Shui Today series. Although this series was inspired by my response to reality, I enjoyed the fun of dialoguing with ancient people in the process of making it.
Participated in group shows at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY; Museum of Chinese in America, NY; and several universities.
Christina Larson wrote an article on my art at the Foreign Policy website, introducing the Mao series and some recent works from the Shan Shui Today series.
Zhang Hongtu: Shan Shui Today was held at Tina Keng Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan. Worked on the Bodhidharma-van Gogh series, which had started in 2007.
Completed 39 re-made van Gogh's self-portraits in the style of Bodhidharma.
A solo show of my work, On the Road, Zhang Hongtu's Artistic Journey, is held at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Participated in the Inspiration from Dunhuang: Re-creations by Chinese Contemporary Artists (敦煌靈感：中國當代藝術家的再創造), at China Institute Museum (紐約華美協會美術館), NY.
Invited to give a lecture to students at the Yale University Pierson College. Numerous lectures and discussions in these years made me constantly organize my thoughts; I enjoyed exchanging opinions with the audience.
70th birthday. Confucius said, "At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right". I hope, from today, I can "follow what my heart desires", but keep my curiosity alive and "transgress what is right" sometimes.
Participated in Post-Picasso: Contemporary Reactions, at Museu Picasso, Barcelona and Oil and Water: Reinterpreting Ink, at Museum of Chinese in America, New York City.
Invited to participate in DEICHTORHALLEN's Picasso in Contemporary Art, also in Whyte Museum's exhibition Water, and Israel Museum's exhibition A Brief History of Humankind. Also participated in a group show entitled Wild Noise: Artwork from the Bronx Museum, at El Museo Nacional de Arts in Havana, Cuba
Solo show "The Journey Begins" at Tina Keng Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan.
In fall, had a retrospective exhibition at Queens Museum in New York. The exhibition was accompanied by a book entitled Zhang Hongtu: Expanding Visions of a Shrinking World co-published by the Queens Museum and Duke University Press.