Zhang Yu thinks that, in the art of ink and wash, the most important thing is not ink and wash itself, but the thing behind it, culture. In other words, how should we look upon the culture of ink and wash? How should we understand it in a new way in the time and space of the contemporary age? What should we absorb from it? What is the most important thing in it? In the last analysis, the spirit of ink and wash! Only Chinese have this spirit. Contemporary works with such ink and wash spirit are what we should pursue. Therefore, ink and wash does not mean materials, techniques, forms and so-called brush and ink.
In 1999, cooperating with Hubei Art Publishing House, I planned the series of books History of Black and White: Contemporary Chinese Experimental Ink and Wash 1992-1999. With Professor Pi Daojian as the editor in chief, this series include fairly detailed documents about eight artists, namely, Zhang Yu, Liu Zijian, Shi Guo, Yan Binghui, Zhang Jin, Yang Jinsong, Yang Zhilin and Wei Qingji. In Cultural Significance of Experimental Ink and Wash and Its Collection, the preface to this series, I argue that after nearly ten years of difficult evolution, a group of excellent artists have already emerged in the Experimental Ink and Wash Movement in China. It will be of art-historical significance to study their road of creation and analyze the cultural significance of experimental ink and wash, and it will of help to us in achieving a comprehensive understanding of the course of modern Chinese art, in observing the modern transformation of traditional Chinese painting, and in establishing a basis of the collection of contemporary ink and wash.
For an artist who has chosen ink and wash as his career, it requires courage to create such works. When he regards the spirit of ink and wash rather than its materials and forms as his life, he will find the possibilities of the new art of ink and wash in his wider field of vision. Zhang Yus is not transient courage. Behind his persistent exploration of the new possibilities of the expression of the ink and wash spirit is his profound reflections on experimental ink and wash. About this the reader may read his own account. Perhaps we will not agree to Zhang Yus understanding and judgment, but from his persevering thinking about and pursuit of art we see the creative spirit of an ambitious and honest artist.
Although contemporary Chinese art since the 1980s has been discussed and written about uninterruptedly, it is only in recent years that writing about the history of contemporary art has truly become a common practice. Several books on the history of contemporary Chinese art available to me still take oil painting basically as the main narrative line. Comparatively comprehensive sorting out and account of the history of contemporary Chinese ink and wash has not yet been found so far. In such a situation, it is a very important task to gather material, and clarify the process, of the development of the art of Chinese ink and wash since the 1990s.
However, Zhang Yu began his new course of artistic creation three or four years ago, and in 2006, especially, he got out of his previous way of work entirely. If we try to make an objective assessment and summary of Zhang Yus recent work, I think that two points are the most important. First, he has begun to reflect on the significance of his artistic experiment to art history, to society, and to his own work. Second, he values the exploration of artistic methodology more than concrete successes of works of art. Considering the perfectness of the results to the challenging character of the process, we may say that Zhang Yu has returned to the 1980s, years full of passion of the youth. At that time, the young artists reflection on and challenge to the artistic institution, and their doubt about and pondering on traditional methods of artistic creation, became the main current. There may be no concrete fruits of an effective new art within a short period, but doubts about the old art and updating of ideas are the necessary prerequisite of future development. Therefore, the methodological significance and the conceptual process of the performance are all the more noteworthy, and accordingly they have acquired the same aesthetic value as that of the finished work. We may regard the video of the process of Zhang Yus creation as part of his work. Of course, if we have the luck to experience the actual process on the spot, it will be an unprecedented aesthetic experience. It may be appropriate to say that when the efforts to create new forms seem to wane after more than ten years of development of experimental ink and wash, Zhang Yu begins his new journey of creation in two aspects, that is, mode of doing art and the spirit of ink and wash, by examining the possibilities of modern ink and wash from the angle of method and conception. Method is the most important thing Zhang Yu pursues. As the most persevering and thoughtful of the experimental ink and wash artists, Zhang Yu always tries to understand things thoroughly. If experimental ink and wash needs a new motive force for its development in the new century, Zhang Yu is the man who is trudging across mountains and rivers to look for new sources of energy. As a line of artistic development, his artistic practice will possibly push us forward. For an artist, the most important thing is that he can provide the era with something new, in other words, he can provide the people with new thoughts, new programs, and basis for creative thinking. This, I think, is the mark of a good artist. It is the logic (methodology), not only the work, has the significance of spreading and disseminating in art history. This is also the seed-like thing able to grow in art discussed repeatedly in my dialogue with Xu Bing. I call it the growth of conception.
The examination of the development of Zhang Yus art and his mental process shows that indomitable willpower and perseverance exist behind his modesty and amiableness. As early as 1985, when he worked as an editor of the magazine World of Traditional Chinese Painting in Tianjin, he cherished an ideal, that is, to promote actively the transformation of traditional Chinese painting in the present era. In June 1992, during his visit and solo exhibition in Moscow at the invitation of the Oriental Art Museum of the former Soviet Union, Zhang Yu planned the series The Trend of Modern Chinese Ink and Wash at the End of the 20th Century. After he returned home at the end of 1992, he spent one year in editing and publishing the first volume of the series. From 1993 to 2000, four volumes in total were published by Tianjing Yangliuqing Fine Arts Press and Heilongjiang Fine Art Publishing House. This series has played an important role in the development of experimental ink and wash. Zhang Yu has done a great deal of work for this series.
Zhang Yus artistic creation has been studied and analyzed penetratingly by such important critics as Gao Minglu. Their work is very fruitful. I have also written some comments on his art, however, more articles I have written are about my reflections on experimental ink and wash and the modern character of contemporary Chinese ink and wash. In my opinion, if the background of the development of experimental ink and wash is not looked upon from a macroscopic viewpoint, we may easily be embroiled in the dispute about brush and ink and forms when we begin to discuss this movement of ink and wash experiment, and we may even discuss the problem of whether experimental ink and wash may be counted as traditional Chinese painting, a problem about art registration dealt with time and again by our predecessors. This has something to do with the bus-taking mentality of some people. They are reluctant to accept a new passenger pressing among them on the seat of the bus they have occupied. In fact, if they regard the bus they have taken as not traditional Chinese painting but art, it will not be necessary, I think, for them to feel nervous of the experimental ink and wash artists. They are small in number. They do not want to subvert traditional Chinese painting. All they want to do is to blaze a new trail outside the tradition.
For Zhang Yu, the new understanding of the native culture has brought contemporary artists the realization that it is important to establish their own modes of expression. Differences lie in things shared. It is only in differences that ones own cultural trait may be truly shown and established. What forms these differences is the mode of language expression and cultural identity. Only if these are found, it will be possible to find ones own way of expression and cultural orientation. It is also the problem that exists in experimental ink and wash.
Zhang Yus trail, long and tortuous, has now brought him to an unprecedented realm. Looking back, we find that his footprints are still clear though the trail is long. Among his recent works, I think, the Fingerprints series is the most remarkable. If the application of brush and ink is maintained in his Divine Light series, in his Fingerprints series, he has truly turned to modern ink and wash, that is, in my understanding, modern artistic creation with the media of ink and wash. We can regard Zhang Yus art as belonging to both maximalism and minimalism. His works contain the transformation between maximum and minimum and we can read them in terms of abstract visual experience, symbolic images, and even conceptual behavior.
In fact, Zhang Yu began his fingerprints as early as 1991. He intended to express in a more succinct way something neglected. These works show Zhang Yus understanding of the dots. In the history of traditional Chinese painting, the Jiangnan style landscape initiated by Dong Yuan with the dotting method as its main factor was developed by Mi Fu in the highly abstract direction. If the details of the works of Dong Yuan and Mi Fu are amplified, we can see astonishing abstract scenes with modern character. All this may have been done unintentionally by the two ancient masters, but here Zhang Yu has made an intentional use of it in his exploration. Here the important thing is that Zhang Yu has abandoned the brush and uses his finger. Although we know that the finger painting is also part of the tradition of Chinese painting, for Gao Qipei, painting without brush surpasses painting with brush in finger painting, for what he seeks is still the effect of brush and the charm of ink and wash. Just as is shown by some traditional Chinese painters who produce their with the aid of rags, cotton or even a seedpod of the lotus, whatever tool they use, the basic idea of traditional ink and wash is not changed. The problem Zhang Yu is concerned with is the structural relation after brush is abandoned. At that time his paintings were not yet all-over, and what he thought about was the problem of what the relation between fingerprints and abstraction is. As far as this is concerned, Zhang Yus exploration at that time was still about the formal structure of abstract ink and wash, and that belongs to, in fact, the mode of development of modern Western art of the 20th century. Therefore, in the Divine Light series, he continued the structural language characterized by the maximalist details and the minimalist whole. The difference between his Divine Light series and his fingerprints is that in his Divine Light series, he has come back to the traditional form of using brush, he pays attention to the gradations of ink, the lines and the quality, and in this way he tries to retain some blood relationship with traditional Chinese ink and wash.
Yin Shuangxi: doctor, art critic, and curator
In the era of digits, images and reproduction, spiritual ink and wash and the spirit of ink and wash should be all the more the object of our pursuit. Spirit alone is the most important thing in ink and wash. There are various ways to manifest ink and wash spirit, and we still have to refer to knowledge and experience of other disciplines, and try to make breakthroughs at the new and constantly changing growing points of culture. Experimental ink and wash is the last scene of the transformation to modernity of Chinese art of ink and wash in the 20th century. It is indispensable in the development of art and has become part of history. It is for this reason that experimental ink and wash is of great significance. It has widened our field of view.
Now Zhang Yu intends to summarize his works and thought of so many years of pursuing art for the sake of exchanges with colleagues in the art circle. Having examined his works and texts carefully, I have formed an initial judgment, that is, Zhang Yu is not only an excellent creator and organizer of experimental ink and wash, but also a thinker. It is the latter point that has drawn my attention, for his thoughts not only are reflections on and summary of the creations of the past more than ten years, but also foreshow his future development, and the line of the development of his thoughts may help us gain new macroscopic understanding, and assessment, of the trend of development of experimental ink and wash. Instead of feeling complacent about the achievements scored in experimental ink and wash in the past more than ten years, Zhang Yu yearns to get out of experimental ink and wash, and even ink and wash.
I quite approve Zhang Yus core understanding of the development of the art of contemporary ink and wash, but I think the connotation of the notion of the spirit of ink and wash is an important issue that still needs penetrating argumentation and definition. Please allow me to conclude this article with a quotation from Zhang Yu:
April 8, 2007
18新利， As a researcher on modern and contemporary Chinese art, I must respect history. Precisely speaking, in the planning of the History of Black and White, another person must not be neglected, that is, Zhang Yu, who did a lot in the organization and planning of this series. In the research on the course of contemporary Chinese experimental ink and wash, no discussion seems possible without the important work Zhang Yu has done. It may be said in a sense that Zhang Yu is the most important core figure in the group of Chinese experimental ink and wash artists since the 1990s. His tireless silhouette can be seen in all important experimental ink and wash activities (exhibitions, symposiums, the process of publishing, etc.), but what he has done usually belongs to backstage work. For example, during the continuous publication of the series The Trend of Modern Chinese Ink and Wash at the End of the 20th Century, Zhang Yu has done a great deal of painstaking work in seeking funds, choosing subjects, organizing contributions, planning the layout, printing and publication. His significant contribution to the development of Chinese experimental ink and wash has often been neglected only because he is so shy and modest.