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Eastern Aesthetics in Dazzling Colors: Walasse TING, A Universal Artist

 

 

One day, one of my friends asked me whether there was any Chinese artist deserving the moniker “universal.” A universal artist is best defined as someone who transcends the limitations of different domains, epochs, and cultures, and can appeal to highbrow and lowbrow audiences alike. In the Western tradition, names that come to mind include Monet, van Gogh, and Any Warhol, all of whom have an instantly recognizable and genuinely impressive style. Now there are quite a few outstanding artists with a Chinese background, but being a truly “universal” artist also requires international flair and what you might term “brand recognition.” In spite of their great reputation, artists such as Zhang Daqian or Zao Wou-ki probably don’t exactly fit the bill, but off the top of my head I can think of one name that might: Chinese-born American visual artist and poet Walasse Ting, whose work found global recognition decades ago.

 

Ting has lived and worked in numerous countries, and been part of many modern art movements. Add to this his broad firsthand experience and international outlook, and the fact that his work is cherished by collectors around the world, and you may begin to see why I bring up his name. Back in 1977, Ting was awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and today his work is found in the collections of many first-rate museums and galleries, including the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, London’s Tate Gallery, the Guimet Museum of Eastern Art in Paris, the Municipal Museum Amsterdam, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Shanghai Art Museum.

 

Walasse Ting had a rich and colorful life, and his high international standing is beyond any doubt. Calling himself “Butterfly Gangster” and “Mr. Gallant,” he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, many of them female. He was always extremely fond of painting women, pouring all his passion and focus into romance and art. Yet fate played a cruel trick on him when a stroke in 2002 left him bedridden for 8 long years, rendering him unable to continue painting. So ended the life of an artist who had given (and continues to give) others so much joy on a sad and melancholy note.


 


Autodidact and Butterfly Gangster

Born in China in 1929 (some say 1928) in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, Walasse Ting grew up in Shanghai. He began painting in the streets of the city from early childhood, and at one point entered the Shanghai College of Fine Arts for a brief period of study; however, his freedom-loving and spontaneous character made him averse to the strictures of an academy education. Ting always prided himself in being self- taught, and believed in following his impulses and inspirations as the best way of creative self-actualization. He moved to Hong Kong in 1946, where he had a single-artist exhibition at the Hotel Cecil in 1952. After that, he went to Paris for six years, beginning his “international journey of “artistic adventure.”

 

Ting soon became good friends with several members of the art group CoBrA, which flourished in Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s, finding the group’s style and outlook congenial to his own nature. During this period, he held simultaneous exhibitions in Paris and Brussels, before moving on to New York in 1958. There he found himself on the cusp of the abstract-expressionist movement, and later became one of the first people to recognize the unique talents of Andy Warhol—Ting himself was also closely associated with the pop art movement. His unconventional character, both debonair and emotional, made the CoBrA group with its focus on free self- expression his natural playground, while abstract expressionism allowed him to give free rein to his penchant for sublimating his moods via the distinctive dots, lines, planes, colors, shapes and compositions that make up the basic vocabulary of his art. Finally, the everyday, contemporary- reality allure of pop art chimed well with Ting’s affinity for striking images with mass appeal.

 

Beginning in the 1960s, New York’s fast pace and futuristic feel inspired Ting’s acrylic paint phase. From that point on, the artist’s palette shifted towards bright and brilliant hues, with drip and splash painting becoming one of his preferred modes of color application. His style now combined a straightforward variety of abstract expressionism with the mottled tones and decorative patterns of Fauvism in the vein of Matisse, whose work was a dominant influence on Ting’s artistic development.


 


 

That development, in terms of format and technique, started with black-and- white oil paintings in the abstract style, and led all the way to extremely colorful figurative art. However, Ting’s favorite subject, whatever the style or genre, was always the female body, often nude. At the end of the 1950s, he began to explore strongly erotic themes. His deep fascination with sexuality and the female form probably make his work of that time the most authentic expression of his inner world and emotions. During his New York period, he conveyed his moods with arresting shapes and colors, executed in powerful brushstrokes to generate a series of exciting works in the abstract- expressionist style. It was only in the 1970s that his approach shifted again, this time towards more figurate forms of painting. In 1975, he created a series of works titled “Love Me, Love Me,” embarking on the large-scale production of pictures of beautiful women. It was also the year in which he painted “Miss World,” a super-sized work that became a milestone of his career, earning recognition from experts and critics around the world.

 

For a while, Ting’s nudes echoed classical themes, imbuing them with new meaning, a trend that is apparent in works like the 1977 painting “Goya’s Lover,” a reverential nod to the Spanish old master, or the 1987 “The Venus of Amsterdam,” a collaborative effort with his good friend and fellow CoBrA artist Corneille. In the spring of 1987, Ting spent two months in Amsterdam, during which time he made sketches and took pictures of 66 attractive young models. Upon his return to New York, he began to paint dozens of paintings based on his memory, and aided by the sketches and photographs. Titled “Jolies Dames,” this collection of works merges an exotic flavor with a highly individualistic aesthetic style. Many of these paintings are among the artist’s most representative female nudes.

 

In the 1980s, Ting began to experiment with rice paper, mixing the use of acrylic paint and colored ink to create mature compositions with striking lines and contours reminiscent of Eastern art and calligraphy. During the 1990s, he increasingly explored the possibilities offered by traditional Chinese landscape painting, finishing a series of Guilin landscapes. Around the middle of that decade, Ting traveled to Japan, a trip that provided the stimulus for a considerable number of geisha-themed paintings with a Far-Eastern flair. For many years, the artist divided his time between Amsterdam and New York, and late in life he devoted his creative efforts to delightful subjects such as flowers, parrots, horses, and cats, further increasing his oeuvre’s appeal to a general audience.


 


Painter and Poet: A Modern Master

Walasse Ting was a poet as well as a painter. His fellow poet and good friend Guan Guan once remarked, “His poetry puts glory in plain sight, and is astonishing in its boldness and daring.”

 

“The moon is round and hearts are soft. Full of wistful longing, I scratch my belly but feel no appetite. Tears are welling up in my eyes.”

“Everyday I eat oranges, exposed to the wind all the time. Every minute I spend looking at women, every second in the sun.”

“Beautiful women are everywhere in Paris. Still the spring breeze is wafting over blossoming beauties. Gusts of wind presage rain from the mountains, flowers fall on the water like poems.”

 

All of the above are short poems from 1974, jotted down carelessly by Ting on postcards with a fountain pen. The terse lines are brimming with free-flowing associations and romantic nostalgia, and were his way of sharing his feelings with old friends in faraway places. Ting was a man who drank up life with all his senses, a playful painter who enjoyed doodling and graffiti, and excelled at impromptu poems of a haiku-like quality: they might make you blush and your heart beat faster occasionally, and like his paintings, they are full of dazzling beauty and daring passion. His words, like his visual art, serve to praise beauty and zest for life. Ting once said, “Every time I see a beautiful woman she’ll make me think of a fragrant flower, and the sheer beauty of that flower makes me fall in love, makes me feel fresh and young. Whatever I paint—women, cats, flowers, birds—is meant to capture that freshness, because in freshness there is great beauty.”


 


 

Starting in the 1960s, Ting began to publish collections of poems and paintings. Among his better known anthologies are “My Shit and My Love” (1961), “One Cent Life” (1964), “Chinese Moonlight” (1967), “Hot and Sour Soup” (1969), “Red Mouth” (1977), “Walasse Ting—Rice Paper Painting” (1984), and “Dream” (1995). Anybody wanting to gain a more complete understanding of this versatile artist and his work will find that reading his poetry is a good way of appreciating his development as a painter.

 

The most important among his anthologies of poems and paintings is the 1964 “One Cent Life”, which was edited by his friend and fellow artist Sam Francis, and featured as illustrations a large number of lithographs by various artists. It took many years to complete this book, but the finished work garnered praise from art historian and curator Riva Castleman (1930-2014), who especially admired the compilation’s range and depth, “The gamut ranged from Sam Francis, a California-based abstract expressionist, to Antonia Saura, his Spanish counterpart, to expressionist painters Pierre Alechinsky and Karel Appel, and to nearly all the pop artists, from Dine to Andy Warhol. Altogether, twenty-eight artists made sixty- two lithographs, making for a brilliant art book.”

 

The anthology’s publisher, E. W. Kornfeld, commented that Ting’s background as a Chinese-born artist was an important factor in making possible the satisfactory completion of this anthology. “Ting wanted to publish the most international illustrated book, intended to illustrate his text, and uniting tachism, neo-dadaism, pop art, and all other artistic movements. The idea was born from global experience, close contact with culture, pseudo-culture, primitive existential worries, urban eroticism, and Eastern wisdom. It was a Herculean task, for which only a Chinese would have been able to muster the perseverance.”


 


As His Works Rise in Value, Even Forgers Discover Ting’s Art

As early as the 1960s and 70s, Walasse Ting made an international name for himself, a well respected artist with exhibitions in New York, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Since Ting is one of the best known Chinese-born artists, with a long-standing reputation in the global auction market, his paintings regularly appear at mainstream auctions around the world, with a total annual turnover of several hundred works. In recent years, robust economic growth in much of Asia has further brightened prospects in the art market, with collectors everywhere scrambling for a chance to procure one of Ting’s top-notch works. Competition is particularly fierce for the artist’s comparatively rare works on canvas. And while in the past most aficionados of Ting’s paintings were found in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Singapore, his works now enjoy increasing popularity in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou as well.

 

In December 2014, Ting’s 1979 oil painting of two nudes “It’s Cool Here” changed hands for RMB 3.105 million (approx. NT$15.53 million, or US$46,5750), breaking the global price record for a painting by the artist sold at auction, previously held by “Goya’s Lover,” which sold at a 2006 auction by Ravenel Taipei for NT$11.41 million.


 


 

As recent as three years, ago, “It’s Cool Here” had been sold in Brussels, commissioned for auction by a senior collector from Taiwan, for NT$6.81 million (EUR 15,500). Since the going rate for paintings by Ting was much lower in Europe than in Asia in those days, for a while a considerable number of art dealers would buy works by Ting at relatively cheap prices at European auctions, and then resell them on the Asian market for a handsome profit. However, with the Internet rapidly leveling out regional differences by offering 24/7 real time information, it is quickly becoming very difficult to earn the price difference on such resale schemes.

 

Another thing to be wary of are fakes. The rising prices paid for Ting’s work have attracted forgers, and occasionally forged paintings will even show up at auctions, regardless of the size or reputation of the auction house. This has thrown a bit of a wrench into the bullish prospects of the Walasse Ting market. The best collectors can do to avoid being conned is to carefully select their galleries or auctioneers, and in addition to get expert advice in making sure that there are no problems with a lot’s provenance.

 

On a more positive note, it is commendable that many collectors do not focus entirely on Ting’s highly popular works on canvas. Three of his works on rice paper that sold in Hong Kong and Hangzhou, titled “Blue Horse Among the Petals,” “Two Ladies and Two Horses,” and “Flourishing Flowers,” made it into the top 20 of most expensive works by Ting sold at auction. Evidently, a growing number of collectors are able to appreciate the subtler, more Eastern aesthetics often hidden under all the garish colors. This is particularly true for bidders from China, who are set to add extra momentum to the upward trend of the market.


 


Miss World”: A Definite Highlight of Ravenel Spring Auction 2015

The going rate for an artist’s work is largely determined by a lot’s year of completion, its size, and the overall variety of themes and styles offered by his entire oeuvre. If you look at the paintings that usually rank at the top of individual artists’ “hit lists,” you will find that most of them are representative works from important creative periods, or otherwise rare works that almost never surface on the market. One of these exceptional specimens will reportedly appear at the Taipei Spring Auction this year, as Ravenel has been able to commission for auction from one of the artist’s old friends the 1975 super-size oil painting “Miss World,” measuring 222 x 396 cm and depicting 18 attractive young beauties against a green background. A small reproduction of the work previously appeared in the 1977 anthology Red Mouth. As one of the artist’s major works, “Miss World” is set to attract many bidders, and expected to sell for a higher price than “It’s Cool Here,” thus setting a new record for a painting by Ting.

 

Walasse Ting was a widely traveled man, and today connoisseurs and collectors of his art are found all over the world. As the Asian art market continues to grow, works currently found in North American and European collections can be expected to flow back east at an accelerating rate. At the same time, the few main Ting collectors in Asia might also decide to put back on the market some of the more important works in their collections, offering an opportunity for newcomers to try their hand at building a portfolio. Overall, prospects are bright for the Ting market.

 

After several spurts of substantial growth in the 20th century Chinese masters market, we have now entered a quieter period of observation, and another phase of quick growth is not to be expected in the near future. However, as collectors on the increasingly interconnected global markets are getting savvier and more versatile, comparing the prices for artists such as George Chann, Liu Kuo-sung, Xiao Qin, Walasse Ting, or T’ang Haywen, there is still a lot of room for speculation, and opportunities abound for the keen collector. Turnover should remain stable at a high level.


 

 

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