A pioneering figure in modern Chinese ink practices around the world; an artist who went beyond conventional painting techniques to push boundaries in textures and materials. Liu Kuo-sung is a world-renowned modern ink master who reconstructed traditions with modernity to create unique ink paintings and transformed the art practice.
Liu Kuo-sung: Experimentation as Method is Singapore’s largest exhibition in a public museum dedicated to the artist. The show, which opens on 13 January, is a retrospective spanning seven decades of Liu’s artistic career, spotlighting his trailblazing experimentation and sophisticated integration of traditional Chinese and Western art philosophies, which resulted in significant contributions to modern Chinese ink.
On cover: The Composition of Distance no. 15. 1971. Ink and colour on paper, 111.5 × 57.5 cm.
Gift of The Liu Kuo-sung Foundation. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.
Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932) is lauded for his contributions to the global development of modern and contemporary ink art. Through his career, the 91-year-old artist has devoted his energies to exploring and advocating for the modernisation of Chinese painting. He was a key founding member of the Fifth Moon Group – a group of artists which initiated a modern art movement in Taiwan between the 1950s and 1970s – and exemplified his modern approaches through his own ink practice and art writings by boldly abandoning Chinese painting conventions.
His spirit of experimentation extends beyond just brush painting techniques – he explored the use of materials to create textural effects in his paintings for enhanced visual impact. This led to the development of a new material – Liu Kuo-sung Paper. His leading role in the modernisation of the art form elevated Liu onto the global stage, where he extensively exhibited across the world in Asia, Europe and America.
Liu Kuo-sung: Experimentation as Method presents over 60 breathtaking ink works and 150 archival materials from Liu’s personal collection, which trace his breakthrough artistic practice across seven decades. This exhibition features works generously donated to the Gallery from Liu, with future additional donations being explored.
Liu’s donation expands and elevates the Gallery’s collection of ink paintings, which includes works by Singaporean ink artists, as well as Chinese ink master Wu Guanzhong. Through this collection, the Gallery has continuously made efforts to deepen the art historical understanding of ink art, as the perspectives of Singapore and Southeast Asia provide a uniquely rich vantage point to examine the regional and global transformation of the ink practice. The Gallery’s spotlight and research on Liu Kuo-sung’s innovations in ink will further the mission to examine the lesser known narratives from the global history of modern ink, advancing the museum’s position as a leading institution for modern ink art in the region.
Liu Kuo-sung at Liu Kuo-sung: Experimentation as Method, National Gallery Singapore 2022. Image credit: Joseph Nair, Memphis West Pictures
Dr Eugene Tan, Director, National Gallery Singapore, says, “Liu’s groundbreaking approaches through his painting techniques and use of materials advance new perspectives on the traditional medium. His works showcase the exceptional results of his innovative artistic spirit. National Gallery Singapore is honoured to receive the generous donation of artworks from Liu Kuo-sung and recognition for the Gallery’s efforts in growing awareness and appreciation of Chinese ink. We believe that the depth and breadth of our collections of Chinese ink will appeal to a global audience and support our intention to create dialogue between the art of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world.”
Lin-Hwei Lee from The Liu Kuo-sung Foundation says, “Over the years, we have seen National Gallery Singapore’s reputable efforts to raise awareness and foster deeper appreciation for Chinese ink. We hope that this donation enables the Gallery to further expand its exhibitions and programmes on Chinese ink to showcase the diversity and beauty of Chinese ink practice for its visitors.”
Experimentation as a method to traditional Chinese ink practice: Exhibition highlights
The exhibition traces notable and distinct periods in his career with a selection of artworks and archival materials, providing visitors with an extended reading of his art that places his works in broader historical contexts and highlight the relevance and significance of his innovations.
In the early phases of his artistic career in the 1960s, Liu already began making innovations in ink. Focusing on the use of materials, he invented his own paper, aptly named Liu Kuo-sung Paper, a coarse textured thick cotton paper with fibres “glued” to the surface of the paper. After applying ink, the fibres are removed to create a special effect of white lines and textures in the painting. Visitors will have the opportunity to see the texture of this paper and the applications of it in the first exhibition section, Dance of Ink.
Sunrise Against the Morning Fog. 1970. Ink and colour on paper, 186 × 94 cm.
Collection of The Liu Kuo-sung Foundation.
Liu also often contemplated marrying brushwork with other art concepts inspired by Western practices. For example, he reinvented the concept of abstraction in the practice of Chinese ink. His propensity to push the frontiers of Chinese ink created a new visual language which reflected nature’s spirit and vitality while echoing the aesthetic forms of classical Chinese landscape paintings.
During the 1960s, Liu had the opportunity to travel to the United States. The 60s also coincided with the buzz of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. This significant global event was captured in one of Liu’s important collage pieces, titled Moon Walk (1969) which he created by attaching an image torn out from LIFE magazine and blended it into his unique ink painting style.
He also encountered practices such as pop art and hard-edge painting, an approach to abstract painting characterised by areas of flat colour with sharp or hard edges. This influenced him to use bright and bold colours in his works. He created an intriguing visual contrast and resonance, contrasting expressive strokes with varied and rich textures of ink and paper in the composition. In the section titled Which is Earth?, view how Liu extended the natural imagery of Chinese landscape painting to the eternal and infinite cosmic landscape of the universe.
In the 2000s, Liu revisited the cosmic views that were first captured in his works from the 1960s, which were inspired by iconic Earth photographs captured by the Apollo 8 space mission, and anchored by celestial bodies hung above landscapes of the Earth. Coming (2014), which measures over three metres long, captures the movement of celestial objects across time and space.
Trees Against the Misty Sunset. 1996. Ink and colour on paper, 181.5 × 90 cm.
Collection of The Liu Kuo-sung Foundation.
In 1972, Liu became the Chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, thus shifting his energies and efforts to art education. At the University, he established a modern ink curriculum which expounded his belief in the application of experimentations, challenging the conventional teaching methods of learning by copying from old masters.
Throughout his career, Liu never ceased to apply this same philosophy to his own practice, refining and redefining Chinese ink through his innovative use of materials and polishing of his techniques, such as water rubbing, paper rubbing, paper tearing and steeped-ink painting – present in the artworks displayed in Searching for Paradise. Despite this desire to expand the practice of the medium, his inspiration from nature remained consistent.
From the 1980s onwards, Liu travelled extensively through China. The works in the last exhibition section Lying Down on Water, Mountains Rising and Falling takes inspiration from the lakes of Jiuzhaigou and the snow-capped mountains of Tibet. He created several series of large, captivating landscape paintings throughout the 2000s.
In these large-scale series, Liu continued to experiment with the use of materials, such as architecture paper, as seen in the artwork In the Midst of a Beautiful Spring (2008). The less absorbent material enabled Liu to push the boundaries of his steeped-ink technique. The culmination of the novel art-making techniques that Liu developed and refined over time, coupled with his return to a semi-abstract approach to Chinese ink are fervently showcased through these evocative masterpieces created in the later part of his career.
Exhibition tours, activities and dining
Visitors can look forward to docent-led tours, activities for the family and children to learn more about ink paintings, a multi-programme response to the exhibition by Siong Leng Musical Association as well as a special dish at The Great Mischief inspired by one of Liu Kuo-sung’s artworks. Talks and panel discussions will also engage audiences in the artistic practices of the master artist.
Liu Kuo-sung: Experimentation as Method will run from 13 January to 26 November 2023 at National Gallery Singapore, Level 4 Gallery and Wu Guanzhong Gallery.
About National Gallery Singapore
National Gallery Singapore is a leading visual arts institution which oversees the world’s largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian modern art. Situated at the birthplace of modern Singapore, in the heart of the Civic District, the Gallery is housed in two national monuments – City Hall and former Supreme Court – that have been beautifully restored and transformed into this exciting 64,000 square metre venue. Reflecting Singapore’s unique heritage and geographical location, the Gallery aims to be a progressive museum that creates dialogues between the art of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world to foster and inspire a creative and inclusive society. This is reflected in our collaborative research, education, long-term and special exhibitions, and innovative programming. The Gallery also works with international museums such as Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay, Tate Britain, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT) and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), to jointly present Southeast Asian art in the global context, positioning Singapore as a key node in the global visual arts scene.
In 2020, the Gallery was the only museum in Southeast Asia that received a ranking in The Art Newspaper’s annual global survey of attendance at art museums, taking 20th place. It was the first museum in Asia to receive the Children in Museums Award by the European Museum Academy and Hands On! International Association of Children in Museums in 2018. The Gallery also won the awards for “Best Theme Attraction” at TTG Travel Awards 2017, “Best Attraction Experience”, “Breakthrough Contribution to Tourism” and “Best Customer Service (Attractions)” at the prestigious Singapore Tourism Awards in 2016 for its role in adding to the vibrancy of Singapore’s tourism landscape.