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BEIJING — There is a long story to be written about the self-taught abstract artist, Zhang Wei (b. 1952), and the founding of the No Name (Wuming) Painting Association, which had its first official exhibition in Beijing in 1979, after years of existing underground.
As Gao Minglu has carefully documented in the important study, The No Name: A History of a Self-Exiled Avant-Garde, (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2006), the rise of modern art in China cannot be understood without discussing the key role that members of the No Name group played at crucial moments, as witnesses, participants, and advocates of art-for-art’s sake.
This backstory is what compelled me to contact Wei by text message shortly before I got to Beijing. It was only after I met him did I learn that his large, two-panel painting “AC10” (1984, oil on linen, two panels, approximately 70 7/8 by 122 7/8 inches) is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the museum’s catalogue of the collection, Wei states:
The big blue painting that I painted in 1984—the one I love so much! … I borrowed that [concept of power] from the Chinese traditional mentality. There is this Chinese saying, ‘power is formless.’ That’s my language too
One morning, a few days later, I met Wei at the Timezone 8 Bar and Restaurant, directly across from the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, in the heart of the 798 arts district. He introduced me to three women who belonged to the Wuming group: Zhang Wei, Zheng Ziyan, and Li Shan. I learned that they and other artists in the group were scheduled to be included in an exhibition at the Boers-Li Gallery in New York in the spring of 2020, which I told them I would be sure to see.
A few days later Wei drove me to his studio, which is in the Northwest part of Beijing, down a tree-lined road past a large, rectangular fishpond, where people paid to fish. It was late morning, and people with their fishing poles were surrounding the banks of the pond.
As we approached the road where he had his studio, I could see mountains in the distance. According to Wei, if we kept driving for another 15 to 20 minutes, we would reach the base of the mountains, which lay outside the city limits.
Like many Chinese artists, Wei came to New York in the 1980s. From 1986 to 2005, he lived in every New York City borough. His jobs included construction worker, taxi driver, and host at a Midtown Benihana; he delivered jewelry to people living on the Upper East Side for a high-end Taiwanese jeweler and sold printed versions of his art on the street. He also had exhibitions in New York at the Sabrina Fung Gallery, Carolyn Hill Gallery, Z Gallery, and the Parish Hadley Gallery.
As soon as I got into the studio, I saw a large, monochromatic, gestural work in blue paint on rice paper, and knew that I would be writing about the visit. I quickly deduced that it could have only been painted on the floor, and wondered how. The work hung from an overhead wire, attached by the kind of metal clips used in offices to clasp documents together. It is the largest work on paper that I have ever seen, but that’s not why I wanted to write about it.
What struck me was the confidence at making a work so large that it was unlikely to ever sell. Yes, there is a folly to what Wei has done, but his defiance of the commercial aspect of the art world immediately appealed to me.
When I asked Wei where he got the paper, he told me that it came from the Three Stars Rice Paper factory, which is the only factory, to his knowledge, that makes a single sheet of rice paper this size. In order to obtain it, he drives a truck from Beijing to Jing County in the Anhui province, which is more than 750 miles away and takes around 12 hours to drive.
The work measures a little more than 13 feet tall and slightly less than 20 feet wide (400 cm x 600 cm). Wei painted it with homemade brushes while the sheet of paper was spread out on the stone floor of his studio. Wei told me that he once drew on a sheet of paper that size by coating the wheels of his motorcycle in paint. He showed me a photo on his iPhone to prove it.
As I looked around his large, sunlit studio, I saw other similarly sized sheets hanging from wires. When I asked him about making such large works on paper, and whether he would ever be able to sell it, he told me that he felt free and joyous when he was working on them, and this mattered more than anything else.
The works are bold and commanding, but their paper surfaces also make them flexible and delicate, vulnerable and resilient. They are susceptible to the elements, especially wind and sunlight, which can shine through its semi-opaque surface.
The longer I looked at the large, gestural, blue abstraction, whose sheet of paper was moving gently in the breeze, the more I was convinced that it could be read as a metaphor of Wei’s life and art, and that for him there was no separation between the two. He might not make a living from these impossible to sell works, but he does make them to live.