NEW YORK Chances are youve seen one of Liu Yes paintings reproduced somewhere on a Web site like this one, perhaps, or in an auction catalogue.
Lius works translate well to print the compositions, often wide expanses of color framing lone, female figures, are pleasingly spare, the colors look bright and pure, and the figures, with their wide-spaced eyes, are easy to read.
Consider only those reproductions, though, and youll miss most of what the China-based artist has to offer. In person, they are moving, hypnotic, and inexplicably serene, and those expanses of color the bright ceruleans or Chinese reds which may sometimes appear as color blocks in fact are not. Rather, the fields bear thin, subtle, unexpected layers of color that place the works more in the tradition of European masters than their postwar counterparts.
Liu, who not only studied in Beijing but also spent time at the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin and, as an artist-in-residence, at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, speaks often of his two favorite artists Mondrian and Vermeer, who, incidentally, he finds remarkably similar and his aesthetic is heavily influenced by both. From Mondrian, theres a rigorous adherence to geometry, rationality, and order; from Vermeer, gentle, sumptuous color and brushwork, perfectly balanced compositions, and the ability to tell a compelling story with one lone figure.
I sat down with Liu in the quiet library at Sperone Westwater, where he was preparing to install his second solo show with the gallery, Leave Me in the Dark, on view through December 19, to learn more about him and his work. The show includes a dozen or so of his recent, most sophisticated paintings, all dating from 2007 or later. Laid out on the table during our discussion were three of the newest, small-scaled portraits of Mozart, Chet Baker, and the late Chinese pop star Teresa Teng that depart both from his more recent work, driven by his characteristic lone female figures, and the earlier, more romantic works.
Liu was generous enough to conduct the interview in English, with occasional help from a translator, though it was clear that at times he wasnt able to express himself as articulately as he would have liked. His answers, which were very understandable in person, have been edited here for readability.
Lets talk about your new work. How is it different from what youve done before?
I only continue to make paintings, and I dont want to stay the same as before. On the other hand, I dont want to change the meaning. If anythings changing, its happening naturally. You cant stay the same. Life changes.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Ideas can come from anything. Ive already been painting for 30 years I started in kindergarten and slowly, slowly Ive built a system. Like in English, you have 26 letters; you can compose with different characters, and always have something new. I build slowly, so maybe now I have 18 letters. Maybe today because Im in New York Ill choose B to O, but in Beijing Id choose A to B. You never know. But Im slowly building more and more characters.
Do you paint every day?
Yes. For me, making paintings is like eating. The past three or four days I havent worked, and I feel a little worried already. Its only very terrible things that stop me from working.
And how long would a painting like Mozart here take?
Two weeks. Not so long. But some paintings for example, Chet Baker take more than a month, because I begin a painting that Im not satisfied with and then make a new one.
If you make one and you dont like it, do you throw it away?
Often. Before I came to New York I made a three-meter painting, but its broken. It got smaller and smaller and smaller, and now its nothing.
Have you seen any art while youve been in New York?
I saw a Twombly sculpture show at Gagosian. And I saw the Vermeer show at the Metropolitan. I love Vermeer very much. Hes my favorite painter.
I think his work is absolutely beautiful. Many artists are good at different things. Picasso is very strong; for the modern time, Mondrian abstraction is a cultural revolution. If you look at Rembrandt, you see strong humans. But Vermeer is not only good at humans, or painting reality. Everything in his work is beautiful. I dont really understand why.
Do you also collect art?
Yes, I have a small collection: some young Chinese artists works, some from Japan and Germany, and some prints from America theyre not so expensive. Its not a great collection, but slowly, slowly I build it.
What would be your dream work to have?
A couple of years ago, I would buy things that were not too expensive and that I liked. Now I want to plan what I would buy for example a Morandi painting if I got really rich. I love his work. Of course you never have a chance to get a Vermeer! But a Morandi, maybe.
Which contemporary artists are you really interested in?
Its difficult to say, but I very much like minimalist artists. For American artists, Edward Hopper is my favorite, and Tom Sachs I like very much too.
I can see that. Hoppers works are kind of like yours in that theyre so quiet.
I never plan, before I make a painting, to make a quiet painting. I really dont know how they become that. For example, this Mozart. Hes a genius hes not quiet. But this painting is quiet too. Maybe later Ill know why.
Are you a quiet person?
Yes. I like to stay at home. In fact, if possible, Id live my life in my studio. I hope in the future I can really only stay in my studio, with some books, making paintings. But this is not possible. People must go out sometime.
What I think is interesting about your work is that its so geometric, but somehow so soft.
My paintings are structured. I come from Mondrian, his paintings. The basic structure of my paintings is perpendicular. Of course, Im not an abstract painter, but we can talk again about Vermeer: If you look at Vermeers paintings, hes quiet too. The structure of his paintings are the same as Mondrians, or Mondrians paintings are similar to his. If you dont look at the figures, or the story only the composition and the abstract elements its the same.
My paintings are basically like this. Sometimes I have to do something slanted, but Im very careful.
Its like football they must play in this square, and there are rules. If not for the square, it wouldnt be interesting. For me, painting is something like that. You must have rules, but you must build these rules yourself. Slowly, slowly. Then, you play. Nobody tells you what the rules are; its not like playing football. Every single artist has his language, his own rules. For example, Donald Judd: You can tell what he wants to do; you see his rules.
How have yours changed?
The rules you find slowly, you build yourself. If I can work 30 more years I can make more and more paintings, with different stories and figures landscapes, still life, portraits. You can make anything, but the rules will become more and more clear.
Twenty years ago it wasnt so clear for me. It was sometimes like this, sometimes like that. But slowly, slowly you decide some things you cannot do, some things you cannot touch.
You studied in Germany from 1990 to 1994. Had you seen much Western art before then?
Before I went to Germany, I studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and before that I studied industrial design. Whats interesting is that the study of design is basically the teachings of the Bauhaus. The teacher taught us design lessons, but in fact it was modern art. Bauhaus belongs to modern art: Kandinsky and Klimt and Klee. So I touched Western art very early. I was 15.
And its been a big influence, obviously. Do you relate differently to Asian and Western art?
Theres no difference. Western art is my art too. For example, Mondrian is Dutch, but its not important. I think he belongs to human culture. Many people think if you are a Chinese artist, you must first learn Chinese art. I dont agree. Maybe Vermeer or Mondrian is more important for me than a Chinese master.
Is there some art you just dont like?
I think 99 percent of art I dont like! I think art taste is not democracy. I get more and more narrow taste. Some art I really cannot understand.
You said that you build a world for yourself in your paintings. What is that world?
There are many things I want to paint but I work too slowly! Which I do first is just feeling. For example, for 10 years I wanted to make a portrait of Mozart, but I didnt know how to begin. Then suddenly one day I said today I can try. Theres always enough to do.
Like I heard Tim Burton is working on a new film, Alice in Wonderland. I said oh, thats my subject! When I was very young I read the story, but I didnt understand it. As I grew up I read it again and again, and I got more new feelings about this story. I want to make a series about Alice in Wonderland, but Ive never been prepared to do it. Maybe one day Ill be ready to begin.
I understand that when you were a boy your father had banned foreign books, and lots of fairy tales. What was that like?
We had nothing but a lot of books at home. It was the Cultural Revolution in China, and [most people] werent allowed to read anything. But my father was a writer of childrens books, and he had a collection of books and literature from Europe and China. I looked through them, and there were many beautiful illustrations.
For example, I remember very beautiful books from Tolstoy: War and Peace and Anna Karenina. They were big, thick books, but I was too young I couldnt read. But the illustrations were beautiful, so I tore them out and made a catalogue of them. Then I said, This book is very easy to read! My father was very angry! These books were really old.
There were also very beautiful pictures in Pushkins "Eugene Onegin." In Russia at this time, if two men loved one woman, theyd go outside with guns, by the snow. It was a very beautiful landscape, but theyd shoot each other. Pushkin died in this way too. Ive already done snow paintings, but slowly I want to get to this painting, a Pushkin portrait, in the snow, with a gun and blood. I think it could be beautiful. But how to make it beautiful, and not violent, or scary?
Your father wrote childrens books, but they didnt have illustrations. Did you ever think about doing illustrations for them yourself?
Ive done some, but not many. I was too young. My father said I could do them, but the publisher said they werent good enough! They printed some in the book, only not with my name. I was very young, maybe 13 years old.
Do people still read your fathers books?
Not many. Not anymore. Hes too old fashioned, I think. Now there are too many books in China. You dont even have time to finish the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Anderson. But he was not a great writer. Good, but not great, like Pushkin.
Is he still alive?
No, hes been dead 20 years.
Its a shame you didnt get to do a book together.
I know. Im sometimes sad about this. If he were alive now, I could do very beautiful illustrations, and everyone would buy them, and Id be happy.
Is the fact that you paint a lot of children related to the fact that your father wrote childrens books?
I dont think so, because I think children all read fairy tales. But sometimes Im really afraid of growing up. For me the most beautiful time was before, with my family, my father and mother and sister; it was really warm. Im a little bit afraid to become an adult, join the adult world.
Maybe you should paint Peter Pan. He doesnt want to grow up either.
I know Michael Jackson liked Peter Pan! But I think lifes much easier for me than for him.
These new works seem very different Mozart, Chet Baker, and who is this woman?
Thats Teresa Teng, who was the most famous pop singer in China, like Michael Jackson in America. I grew up listening to her, so I always wanted to make a portrait of her. These three paintings are for an exhibition of art about music. I always wanted to make a portrait of Mozart. And Chet Baker I love very much too. Bach is my favorite musician, but its too difficult to make a painting of him.
Harder than Mozart?
Much harder! I made one, but its broken. Hes an old man, hes not as romantic as Mozart. I dont know how to make a good painting of him.
Why did you become an artist?
In fact I didnt want to be an artist, I wanted to be a painter; in kindergarten I liked to draw and paint. Of course later I learned that contemporary art is different. If you dont make paintings, you can still be an artist. But Im only interested in being a painter.
Were you surprised when your paintings started selling for a lot of money?
Very surprised. Of course its not only me, its many people, but I dont know why theyre suddenly so expensive. For me its not really so important. Of course, expensives not bad, but Id keep painting even if they were a lot cheaper.
Some of the other Chinese artists who are doing very well, their art is very political. Yours doesnt seem political. Or is there something there that I dont see?
Politics is very important for my generation. Many artists works have Mao or Coca Cola or something like this. If the artist really wants to talk about this, ok. But its not very important for me. Im interested more in the language of painting. And art. A thousand years ago, there was a terrible political system, but there was still good art. Of course I have my political ideas, but thats my politics; my art is my art. Art is not a weapon.
What will you do next?
I want to continue to make paintings. I dont know which is next; I have too many choices. But I always want to make paintings that anybody can understand. That arent about a short time, or are American, European, Chinese. Like a flower every time, you must love a flower.
- Kris Wilton