Li Yuan-chia, Untitled, 1993, black-and-white print, handcolored with various inks, 24.5 × 20 cm. Courtesy Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei. 

View-Point: A Retrospective of Li Yuan-Chia

Li Yuan-chia

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The retrospective of Li Yuan-chia (1929–94) at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), which featured over 190 pieces and documents from the artist’s four major creative periods, was inspiring for visitors who, like myself, have previously had scarce chance to see his artworks in person. Carefully researched and presented, the exhibition embodied the curatorial team’s ambition to prompt an overall reappraisal of Li’s career.

Born into a farming family in Guangxi, southern China, Li was adopted by an uncle at an early age. After this uncle’s death in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), Li left for Taiwan, arriving with the Kuomintang as part of a group of orphan refugees in 1949. There, Li studied art and—along with fellow students of his mentor Li Chun-shan (1912–84), the father of abstract art in Taiwan—helped form the Ton Fan Group (also known as the Eastern Art Group) in 1956. He moved to Italy in the early 1960s, and never subsequently returned to Taiwan. 

The first half of the show featured works from Li’s Taipei (1949–62) and Bologna (1962–66) periods. His calligraphic explorations in Taipei combined Chinese tradition with Western abstract art. In his work from the late 1950s, Li set about applying “points”—which he described as being “where all things start and end”—that would become a symbolic form that centered his practice. In a 1967 article in Studio International, British critic Guy Brett notes that “the point represents [Li], his journey in space, often solitary.” In Bologna, under the patronage of modernist furniture manufacturer Dino Gavina, Li developed monochromatic paintings that had these points, varying from tiny, graphic marks to larger circular forms, randomly positioned on their surfaces, while limiting his pallette to only four colors. He also helped form another artist group, Il Punto (“The Point”), incorporating European art trends into its practice. His works gradually reached an ultimate state of simplicity with a series of white, monochromatic paintings, which are now part of the Tate’s collection in London, and were also included in the TFAM retrospective.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition flowed well and was punctuated at its midpoint with both wall texts that expanded on Li’s biography and video interviews with his artist-friends and scholars. Equipped with this understanding of Li’s life story, visitors were well-prepared to enter the latter part of the display, which explored his London (1966–68) and Cumbria (1968–94) periods. 

In London, Li showed first with Signals Gallery and then with Lisson Gallery, exhibiting challenging new art that included kinetic and participative aspects. While in his prime as an artist, Li moved to Cumbria in northwest England, where he devoted himself to remodeling a farmhouse into the LYC Museum and Art Gallery. Over the next ten years, the museum hosted numerous exhibitions and events. A selection of related documents and publications displayed at TFAM demonstrated Li’s close involvement with the museum’s operation. However, Li’s own artistic production declined during this period; as Li wrote in a letter from that time, “I don’t paint anymore, as everything I see in the world is art.” This strong identification between art and life was palpable in the TFAM exhibition. Writing in the show’s catalog, Taiwanese art critic Wei Yu observes Li as having had a precocious self-awareness of this alternative way of being an artist. In the past, the Chinese-British sociologist Diana Yeh has compellingly interpreted Li’s tireless labor at his Cumbria museum as a stark but creative way of reconnecting with the wild landscapes and exacting lifestyles of his hometown in China.

Li’s final photographic works—handcolored, monochromatic self-portraits from the 1980s and ’90s—give a lonely, depressive impression, perhaps reinforced by a series of unfortunate episodes that occurred around this time, such as his failure to reunite with his birth mother, who died before he could meet her. In his video interview for the exhibition, the critic Brett again uses the term “solitary” in discussing this photographic series. Walking through the show, one saw an intermittent but mounting strain of solitude in Li’s artistic journey—not only his solitude as a human, but also as an artist who increasingly found himself cut off from many of the creative tendencies of his own time.