In 1994 Mark Tansey hosted the exhibition Transformations in his home. The exhibition featured four Chinese artists living in New York at the time: Chen Danqing, Ni Jun, Yu Hong, and Liu Xiaodong. Long before any awareness from critics, the artists recognized the potency of realism—marginalized by conceptualism then as well as now—in each other’s drastically different practices, informed by radically different cultural, pedagogical, and temporal parameters. Tansey was connected to these artists by Vitaly Komar, part of the Soviet artist duo Komar and Melamid, not least due to the legacy of the Soviet brand of Socialist Realism that continued to loom large in art academies in China.
Transformations was a singular event that speaks volumes to the constellation of contemporaneous experiments as well as anachronistic connections in the increasingly globalized art world of 1990s New York. Tansey wrote about his response to seeing this work for the first time—and his deep interest in it—in his introductory text for the exhibition brochure. Here this text is paired with a 1998 essay by Chen recounting the friendship that developed between them.
Mark Tansey, from the Transformations brochure (1994):
When I first saw one of Chen Danqing’s large triptychs several years ago in his studio on 42nd street I was deeply struck and puzzled. The Socialist Realist grammar taken to the hilt was combined with recent familiar vanguard conventions of appropriation and juxtaposition normally associated with the 1980s postures of neutralized meaning. My immediate reflex was toward quick judgment. However, it didn’t take me long to take my temporal blinders off and realize that I wasn’t looking at these paintings—they were looking at me. Two thousand years of ink painting, about forty years of Socialist Realism, and three years of cultural surge since Tiananmen Square were grinning at my temporal chauvinism. The triptych panel on the far right, based on Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, showed me that Chen’s hand was closer to Caravaggio than any I’d ever seen. In the panel on the left, a wounded girl being lifted from Tiananmen Square shows his Socialist Realism at its source. And in the center panel one sees any of us at a New York club in our glorious precision obsolescence. What holds the pictures together is the similarity of gesture, the figural dynamics, and the Socialist Realist voice. But the edge between each panel is a cultural temporal maelstrom.
THIS TRANSFORMATIONAL EDGE IN HIS WORK LED ME TO APPRECIATE THE IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING THEIR WORK IN TERMS OF EXTENDING TEMPORAL TRANSFORMATIONS OF THEIR CULTURE RATHER THAN THE NARROW TEMPORAL POSTURES OF MINE.Mark Tansey
Chen’s work served as an introduction to me to the works of Liu Xiaodong, Yu Hong, and Ni Jun. And this transformational edge in his work led me to appreciate the importance of understanding their work in terms of extending temporal transformations of their culture rather than the narrow temporal postures of mine.
In Liu Xiaodong’s art, painted just after Tiananmen Square, one can follow a transition of increasingly robust individuation away from the restrictions and uniformity of Socialist Realism. The work of Yu Hong, “who expands Eastern attitudes of women’s liberation” by painting women, including herself, makes readily apparent a transition from her Socialist Realism to an exuberant celebration of the human body. Ni Jun goes directly to gesture grammars of power and political transactions, which may be the most fundamental site of cultural transformation.
It’s my hope that this private showing will add to a progressive international discourse based on the renewed vitality and complexity of the pictorial language we have in common.
Chen Danqing, from “An Artist’s Portrait—Tansey” (1998):
Sitting at a bar on the Lower West Side one night in the early 1990s, Mark Tansey took a look at photos of my paintings that had been given to him by a mutual friend and simply said, “When you have time, we need to have a longer conversation.”
On a brutally cold day a week later, Mark traveled to my place by subway. When he arrived, he sat down and was quiet for a while, but we eventually ended up talking until midnight.
To use an old Chinese term, Mark is a shu-sheng (scholar). He contemplates while discussing, sometimes smiles, but just for a second, and soon returns to pondering. He seldom talks about himself, never interrupts, but is both forthright and cautious. If he speaks for longer than he deems appropriate, he will stop himself: “Oh, I think I’ve said too much. What do you think?”
Sometimes he is just shy.
Mark’s personality seems to contrast with the irony-tinged content of his paintings: a cow is led to an oil painting; a TV host extends a microphone to a sphinx statue for an interview; a group of painters sit in front of their easels and sketch mushroom clouds; two literati scuffle on the edge of a precipice composed of words. I saw the last piece at the Whitney Biennial in 1985 but did not know that one of the two literati depicted was Jacques Derrida. What does that mean? At the time, I thought I could see through everything but I still didn’t understand. There must be some implication or intention. Clearly, the artist had taken ignorance and knowledge into consideration; in other words, our knowledge becomes useless in front of these paintings.
Our early correspondence was quite formal. Mark mailed me handwritten notes a few times to make appointments or reschedule our meetings. Living in the contemporary era and in the same city, he wrote letters instead of making phone calls—such a long-absent, old-fashioned gesture. However, talking to Mark face-to-face sometimes confused me, so much so that I often got lost in language, even in Chinese. He patiently instructed me in words such as “structure,” “deconstruction,” “metaphor,” “rhetoric,” etc., by referencing the English-Chinese dictionary I would bring with me. But I would get confused again when the words mixed together in his long sentences. Sometimes when we discussed my paintings, I would respond, “I don’t get it.” He would reply seriously, “Yes you do. You have it in your paintings already. I can see that.”
After long conversations with Mark, I would feel exhausted and intrigued. That said, I often wondered if a three-person conversation might be more interesting than just he and I trying to understand one another. He would often apologetically remark, “I wish I could speak Chinese.” As time passed, however, I realized that we did understand each other, and that Mark wanted a confidant. He needed a listener, someone with whom he could talk to about the possibilities of painting and so-called conceptual art—of not giving up on canvas while also indulging in conceptualism. He appreciated having a sounding board to explore his thoughts on the matter. He repeatedly emphasized that his success was only one of a very few exceptions among the postmodern paintings of the 80s. As to his recognition among major art museums and collections, he simply felt that he was lucky. He would speak of the word “lucky” in a self-deprecating tone, but with remarkable anger when talking about “avant-garde art.” With his eyes glaring down at a corner, as if avant-garde art was lying there, Mark would say, “I hate it. I hate their attitude of, ‘You’re all wrong and we’re correct.’” He would also make a kick in his leather shoes, reminiscent of the domineering gestures made by avant-garde artists.
To this day, he often speaks contemptuously of the “mainstream.” I would comment, “You’re on that mainstream list yourself,” to which he would reply, “No, no, I’d rather not be.”
Mark always stands in a nonmainstream position and views the mainstream as a foe that he knows well. He respects non-Western mainstream art, however. He once asked me timidly about the issue of space in landscape paintings of the Song dynasty. He assumed that I knew much more than he, but I could only tell him that the concept of “space” did not exist yet in Song-dynasty China. Another time he took me to a party during which he listened intently, like a college student, to artists from the former Soviet Union. Mark also visited one Whitney Biennial that had received a bad review from the New York Times. After seeing the installations by young artists, he commented, “Well, yes, it was strident, but the New York Times writers just want to remain in the glory days of Abstract Expressionism to ensure the steady victory of holding the authority in their hands. The young ones should have fun playing their own games. Vitality, that’s the most important thing!”
In early 1994, I brought a few young peers from Beijing to pay Mark a visit. He had decided to hang our paintings in his home (for which he had cleared out a large room). He prepared good wine and food and gathered dozens of people, including his gallerist and the professor and art critic Arthur Danto. It was a snowy day, and Mark seemed more excited about this event than about preparing his own show. He even asked me twice, “Would your friends feel uncomfortable about having their paintings hung in my place?” His worry reminded me that Westerners are often extremely serious, even with casual events.
Mark wanted to make the event special. A few days later I went to pick up the paintings. We sat in his kitchen smoking. He had a cigar and, with a hint of sentimentality, he said, “The paintings had to outshow ‘the mainstream!’” He then said, “Mainstream means that some things get to be exhibited, but others don’t.” I laughed. “Is that funny? No, that’s their political game and it’s not interesting to me at all.”
MY EXPERIENCES TELL ME THAT ARTISTS HERE ARE OPEN-MINDED AND THEY COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER NO MATTER WHAT RACE OR NATIONALITY.Chen Danqing
Mark wanted to reach out to galleries for me, but made the suggestion in a roundabout manner. Out of stubbornness or laziness, or maybe both, I had not tried to reach out to galleries for about eight years. I worked on my own. Mark could see through this and tactfully suggested, “I totally understand you. But things just need to be shown. Let them have a look and decide.” Of course, Mark knew more about galleries’ strategies than I did. But he was a friend with whom I wanted only simple discussions, with no worldly business involved. I promised I would comply with his suggestion but never called him back.
Almost half a year passed. Eventually, Mark called me, and with his clumsy self-deprecating tone said, “I’m sorry, okay? I don’t contact people that often. I know it’s bad.”
The thing is—it was my bad. I should have apologized but I didn’t. I invited him to my place and he came without bringing the note with my new address and phone number on it. He wandered around the building, finally went home to call me, and apologized several times. The next day he came back with a pack of beers. I feel Westerners drink beer like water.
Over time, I have heard voices questioning the cultural centralism and hegemony of the West. I’ve also seen earnest efforts in the United States to advocate for and support non-Western and nonwhite art. The “loudness” of these efforts makes me uncomfortable, however. Perhaps we are just fine without them, but these activities make us see the “center” and smell the “hegemony.” This is probably what Mark was referring to when he talked about the “political game.” Nonetheless, my experiences tell me that artists here are open-minded and they communicate with each other no matter what race or nationality. Jean Renoir, the French film director and son of the Impressionist painter, called himself “a citizen of the world of films” in the last chapter, “An End to Nationalism,” of his memoir My Life and My Films. He wrote, “If a French farmer should find himself dining at the same table as a French financier, those two Frenchmen would have nothing to say to each other. . . . But if a French farmer meets a Chinese farmer they will find any amount to talk about.”1 Is this postulate true? Very possibly. Renoir’s comment was based on his experiences after he had moved to Hollywood and developed close relationships with American directors. Notably, his observation mirrors the situation between Mark and me. With regards to language, we may only understand partially, but we indeed fully comprehend each other.
Translated from the Chinese by Qianfan Gu
1Jean Renoir, “An End to Nationalism,” in My Life and My Films (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2000), pp. 279–80.