Li Yuan-chia

Monochrome White Painting

1963

Artist
Li Yuan-chia 1929–1994
Medium
Polyvinyl acetate paint and cards on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 599 x 800 x 20 mm
frame: 820 x 1025 x 60 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2004
Reference
T11871

Not on display

Summary

Monochrome White Painting is a white canvas with subtle relief elements set within a narrow white frame. Four small cardboard circles are mounted upon the painted canvas, slightly below and left of centre. The two larger circles sit to the left, while two smaller circles are placed closer to the middle. The circles are coated in the same white paint (possibly a house paint) as the surface on which they are fixed. Li described these collaged circles as ‘Cosmic Points’, a motif he developed in the early 1960s and which remained central to his subsequent practice. The asymmetrical placement of the Cosmic Points in Monochrome White Painting gives a casual impression which is belied by the austerity and simplicity of the canvas as a whole.

Li was born in the Guangxi region of southern China and trained as an artist in Taipei, where he made some of the earliest abstract paintings in Taiwan. He moved to Italy in late 1962 or early 1963 and became associated with Il Punto (The Point), an international group of abstract artists that included Hsiao Chin and Antonio Calderara. An inscription on the reverse of the canvas identifies Monochrome White Painting as having been made in the San Lazzaro di Savena area in Bologna, where Li lived and worked for several years in a furniture factory. It also bears an earlier title, ‘2=2–2’.

For Li, the Cosmic Point became a way of expressing the position of the individual in the infinite space of the universe. It constituted a distinctive synthesis of his interest in the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Zen with the predominantly Western practice of abstract painting, and was a concept that lent itself to endless variation. In a poem written on one of his folding handmade scrolls in the early 1960s, he explains:

The point is the beginning of everything
and also the end.
If you can really understand it
you will feel indeed the great life of the universe
and the value of your existence.
(Quoted in Brett and Sawyer 2000, p.19.)

Li’s art centred on the four colours of black, red, white and gold, each representing a universal value. According to his system of symbolic colour, the all-white palette of Monochrome White Painting (and other related works, such as Tate’s 0+1=2 1965, Tate T13218) denoted purity. The majority of these reliefs were titled with simple, nonsensical mathematical equations that suspend conventional logic.

After moving to London in 1966 and becoming involved with David Medalla and Paul Keeler’s short-lived Signals Gallery, Li became increasingly interested in interactive works of art and began to explore photography and installations. From 1968, his ‘Cosmic Points’ were often moveable, intended to be placed and re-placed by the visitor, as with the installations in Moon Show, his 1969 exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London. In 1968, Li settled in Cumbria, where he remained for the rest of his life and where he founded the LYC Museum and Art Gallery (1972–82).

Although Li’s work had been critically acclaimed in the late 1960s, it appeared only once in London between 1969 and his death in 1994, in the Hayward Gallery’s landmark 1989 group exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain. However, following a major retrospective at Camden Arts Centre in 2001 organised by long-time admirer Guy Brett, Li’s contribution to post-war British art has attracted renewed attention.

Further reading
Guy Brett, ‘1+1=0: The Painting of Li Yuan-chia’, Studio International, vol.174, no.891, July 1967, pp.44–5.
Li Yuan-chia, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1967.
Guy Brett and Nick Sawyer, Li Yuan-chia: Tell me what is not yet said, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 2000.

Hilary Floe
May 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

Li Yuan-Chia arrived in London in the early 1960s. Considered one of the founding fathers of abstract art in Taiwan, his work combined aspects of Western and Eastern thought. He used the bare language and spatial freedom of abstraction to convey existential conditions, focusing on the situation of the individual in the universe. The surface of Monochrome White Painting includes Li Yuan-Chia’s most personal visual mark: the dot or circular form, which for him symbolised the beginning and end of all things.

Gallery label, October 2016

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