On an early winter afternoon in New York, Richard Tsao is dashing about his painting studio on the third floor of a former manufacturing building. Tsao is searching for the wall-mounted thermometer in the studio’s inner sanctum, an enclosed space measuring nine-by-twelve feet that the artist refers to as his “Flood room.” The mercury sits at 110 degrees Fahrenheit (about 43 degrees Celsius), the perfect temperature to ensure that numerous shallow pools of pigments on the thickly tarred floor remain fully liquefied. There’s a stench of active chemistry that can send a less-acclimated visitor back into the pristine anteroom to recover. Around 80 wood-panel paintings—from small easel-friendly works to those that almost need two pairs of hands to lift—are piled on top of each other all around the room, soaking continuously in the pools of color. Some portions of their flat surfaces remain fully exposed to the surrounding atmosphere, their pigments slowly calcifying into permanent, crusty fragments.
Tsao works by mixing marble dust into his concoctions of acrylic, raw pigment and water, which upon drying lends them the heft of a fresco embedded in plaster. Michelangelo, with an eye trained to the material weight of color, might have been comfortable with this form of sculptural painting, even if Tsao’s abstract language is more akin to the late 1950s New York School, with Pollock’s spattering giving way—at certain turns of mood or emotion—to sublime color fields reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler or Ellsworth Kelly.
The Flood Room’s physically and emotionally humid atmosphere derives from the congested soi, the backstreets of Bangkok that often flood during the sweltering monsoon season (roughly June through September). The Thai metropolis is Tsao’s birthplace—his parents fled Shanghai during the Communist takeover of 1949—and its multisensory collage of orchids, insects and varied animal life colliding with wood, steel, glass and concrete architecture (both modern and traditional) remains a potent, if subliminal force in Tsao’s consciousness.
New York has been the artist’s home for more than 30 years, ever since he abandoned an initial interest in architecture. After six years of intense study at the Art Students League, where Tsao gained a classicist’s training in anatomy under the reigning expert, Robert Beverly Hale (1901–1985), the artist developed his signature style at a meandering pace, studying classical Chinese painting, Renaissance panels, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko.
Tsao briskly whisks together his intensely colored soups in plastic buckets, then hauls the mixture about the Flood Room. Strapping on a respirator, he assertively flicks the concoction onto various panels with a whisk. Switching to a plastic spray bottle, he showers pigment onto paintings that have been propped against the walls like raw icons, or piled haphazardly on top of others as though they were collapsed pediments of a weathered wat (monastery-temple) in a sub-Mekong landscape. A day later he may return to douse multiple paintings with full buckets of tap water, effectively blasting open thick coagulations of pigment and leaving behind only traces of the brisk “storm system.”
Tsao’s methods—spontaneous action, momentary deliberation and prolonged incubation—mean that any given work gestates for up to three years before the artist deems it complete. There are enough finished panels now for Tsao to hold solo shows in 2010 in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Having finally achieved a certain compositional “tension”—the planes of pink, blue, white, green or orange conversing with each other in transparent layers—Tsao might finally chip off dense portions of calcified pigment with a small hammer. It seems that such works have been ultimately pried clean of some sublime tropical, or lunar, geography.