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Charles Baudelaire said in his 1863 essay that the “painter of modern life” is the “passionate observer” who can be “away from home and yet […] feel at home anywhere.”
Among contemporary artists, the Chinese observational painter Liu Xiaodong is the closest embodiment of Baudelaire’s ideal that I know. For years, he has been, in the words of Baudelaire, an “independent, intense, and impartial spirit” who observes the “ebb and flow” of the world around him. This has led him to set up a temporary studio near an orphanage in Greenland and one among Uyghur jade miners in China’s harsh northwest.
Liu recently told me by email that he was in Eagle Pass, Texas — the first United States settlement on the Rio Grande — from January 28 to February 17, 2020, working on a series of large plein-air portraits for his exhibition Liu Xiaodong: Borders at the Dallas Contemporary. The show, which was scheduled to open this spring, has since been indefinitely delayed.
After Liu finished, he came to New York, where he met up with his wife, the painter Yu Hong, and their daughter, Liu Wa, also an artist, who were visiting for other reasons. Because of COVID-19, their flight to Beijing was cancelled, and they have been stranded in New York for months. In the masked, socially distanced conversation I had with him and Yu in the West Village, late in the afternoon on June 26, Liu told me that he had been studying to improve his English and working on watercolors every day (images of which he had been sending me).
Liu’s ability to productively adapt to his circumstances further confirmed what I already knew about this remarkable artist and his work ethic. As I had visited him in Beijing last August to begin writing a monograph on his work, I was not surprised that he was working in watercolor every day. Employing different mediums (graphite, oil painting, photography, and analog and digital film), he has been chronicling his immediate surroundings since he was a teenager.
In 1978, when Liu was 15, his family sent him to live with his uncle, who had studied Western painting at the Jilin Academy of Fine Arts and had gone on to become the art editor of a magazine. His uncle taught him watercolor, and showed him the books he had about English watercolors, European oil painting, and the Peredvizhniki, a group of late 19th-century Russian realists who believed that Russia and its people possessed an inner beauty.
The date of 1978 is significant: it is two years after the death of Mao Zedong, the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the Tangshan earthquake, which devastated the region where he and his family lived. Born in 1963, Liu belongs to a generation that has both witnessed and been directly affected by the convulsive social, political, and economic changes that China has undergone during Mao’s lifetime, and since his death.
Liu’s openness to his immediate situation sets him apart from other contemporary artists (Gerhardt Richter, Henry Taylor, Marlene Dumas, and Luc Tuymans, to name a few) who also focus on our indifferent, paroxysmal world. His instinct to respond to what is directly in front of him with whatever medium he has on hand endows his views with an unrivaled propinquity. He is, to cite Baudelaire, at the very center of the world he is depicting, and unseen by it.
In his current online exhibition, Liu Xiaodong: Spring in New York at Lisson Gallery (through July 12) — which includes watercolors, photographs he has taken and painted over, and a diary — we are given a visual and written record of a specific area of Manhattan, determined by what he can walk to. Liu made his watercolors during an extreme period in New York’s history, starting with the empty streets during the first months of the COVID-19 quarantine, and including the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations in response to the video-recorded murder of George Floyd. It is an ongoing project — each work is dated — determined by the length of time he and his family are stranded in New York.
Liu’s eye for an understated but dramatic view is further enhanced by his masterful sense of spacing and keen sensitivity to color. He might be painting while sitting on the balcony of the apartment where he and his family are staying, or while outside, but it never seems that the world is too much with him; he is both responding to the immediate circumstance and in control. There is nothing hurried about the looking or the doing, which adds to the meaning of these works. Even in this acute moment in our history, he is able to slow down his looking to find and celebrate the beauty of human determination, as well as recognize feelings of wariness and displacement.
In the watercolor “Coming across a scene like this one cannot but think of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2020), which is dated June 12, 2020, the artist depicts a large group of bare-chested men in shorts lounging on an urban plot of grass. The date tells us that it was made shortly after New York began to open back up, and people started to gather in outdoor public spaces. The three men seated in the foreground echo the woman and two men in Edouard Manet’s groundbreaking painting, but this is neither pastiche nor parody. Rather, the correspondence the artist noticed and calls attention to, as he does in other works in the exhibition, suggests the immensity of his visual memory.
At the same time, what transports Liu’s watercolor into a singular place is his attention to color and light. The central figure in the group of three men is Black; all those around him are white. The people on the left are tinted yellow, as the sun is shining on them, while the ones on the right are pink. Many different tones and hints of light are integrated to compose the central figure’s dark brown skin. Careful and affectionate attention is paid to each figure’s skin tones, posture, and facial expressions, all achieved in the medium of watercolor, where nothing can be erased. Every mark and color is devoted to the artist’s perception — there are no embellishments or elaborations.
The watercolor “Kitchen Paper cannot be flushed down the Toilet, right, 2020.4.4,” is a wonderful tonal view of a roll of paper towels resting on a toilet tank, a quick yet careful placing of pale yellows, blues, off whites, and grays. There is a close-up profile of a fat sparrow standing on the sidewalk in “The Sparrow who does not fly,” dated April 23, 2020.
The range of subjects and views underscores a person who is remarkably open to the world, from a blooming tree, to children’s toys left at a park, to an evening view of the top of the Empire State Building, seen between two buildings, to a homeless man’s legs sticking out of a doorway. The fact that we do not see the entire figure in the latter seems deliberate, at once tactful and direct. Liu paints daytime, evening, and nighttime views. You never get the feeling that he is looking for something; there is no hierarchy to what he chooses.
In the photographs that he has painted over, I felt that he was painting something he had remembered or, perhaps, had seen in another photograph of the same scene. For “Beatles plus One,” dated June 4, 2020, Liu begins with a C-print of an empty street, and paints five policeman in various postures, masked and unmasked, crossing the intersection from right to left. The work’s title refers to the famous photograph of the Beatles striding in a line across Abbey Road, from left to right. If Liu is being critical of their slovenly attitude, it is with a light hand. If anything, the policemen look rather ill-prepared and a tad pathetic, perhaps even apprehensive of what awaits them.
As Manhattan transitioned from the largely empty streets of the quarantine to demonstrations and large groups of police, Liu kept looking, kept going out, and kept making watercolors and taking photographs, to work on later. His attention to detail, to the color and light, is masterful and precise.
Following his encounter with Asian art, Vincent van Gogh dislodged the mark and line from description, helping set art on a journey toward abstraction. The root of Liu’s mark-making is calligraphy, which he moves toward realism. From the daubs of color evoking light passing through blossoming trees to the indication of wood grain on a boarded-up window to a sidewalk’s changing complexion, the range and fluidity of his marks are always in response to the particularities of the actual world. The merging of mark and color, and his sensitivity to light and dark, feel effortless, though we know they are not. This is Liu’s genius; there are no signs of hesitation in his work.
In Liu’s watercolors and painted-over photographs, the viewer encounters scenes in which hand, eye, and intelligence work in astonishing tandem. The transitory and ephemeral world, at once hauntingly beautiful and coolly indifferent, has left its imprint on the artist’s senses. Along with the wide range of marks and densities and nuances of color, we get deep pools and unexpected eddies of feeling. We are the lucky beneficiaries of a vision at once candid and sophisticated, open and sincere, witty and compassionate — an unlikely combination in this dark, nerve-fraying, and isolating period in history.
Liu Xiaodong: Spring in New York at Lisson Gallery is viewable online through July 12.