New York, Oct. 2011 - In 1974 Zhang Wei invited members of the loosely organized Wuming group (“No Name” in English) to bring paintings to the apartment he shared with his mother for an informal showing. They used a secret knock at the door. No one outside the group could know what they were doing. Had the authorities found out Wei, his mother, and the eldest member of the group would have been jailed. By numerous accounts this was the first underground art exhibition in China.
Zhang survived the Cultural Revolution and moved to New York in 1986 where he lived for nearly twenty years. During that time Zhang participated in the lawsuit A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics) brought against the city of New York for violating street artists’ First Amendment right to free speech. Thanks to their efforts artists can sell their work in public spaces without being hassled by the police. In 2004 Zhang moved back to Beijing. He had not returned to New York until this fall when his paintings were featured in the exhibition, “Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art, 1974 – 1985” at the China Institute. Artslant contributor Charlie Schultz met up with Zhang to discuss his early years as an underground artist in Beijing, his New York experience, and his recent paintings.
Zhang Wei, Yuyuantan, acrylic on canvas, 1974; Courtesy of the artist
Charlie Schultz: How did you decide to become an artist? What was your first contact with art?
Zhang Wei: I was in hospital with nothing to do, nowhere to go, so I just got a pencil and paper and start drawing. That was 1971.
CS: Why were you in the hospital? How old were you then?
ZW: Nineteen years old. I was working in a field in Shaanxi Province. I was sent there during the Cultural Revolution. Three years as a farmer. I hurt my toe and the local doctors wanted to remove it. Luckily they sent me back to Beijing.
CS: Did you have a teacher? Did you ever go to art school?
ZW: Never went to art school, but I did have a teacher for maybe half a year. He was a friend of my mother. He would come to my apartment and teach me things about painting, about drawing. That’s all. After my foot is better I began going to parks to paint. I met so many young artists; they all go to countryside or the park to paint. Most of them from a family like mine, considered by the Chinese government to be not good people.
CS: Is that how Wuming started?
ZW: Yea, none of us had training from the Central Academy. We were all rejected! But I think it was better that way because we all developed our own technique, so our work showed something different. The government trains the artists to be like a tool. Everything has to be in a realistic style. I didn’t want my work to look like that. I refuse to be anyone’s tool and I don’t want my art to be a tool for anything either.
CS: How did you choose the name “No Name?”
ZW: That was 1979, when we had our first official exhibition in Baihai Park. We never had a name, never wanted one, too dangerous, so someone just said “No Name,” and we all thought it was okay. It also has connection to the Chinese philosophy of Lao Tze, “do nothing, be nothing” attitude to life.
CS: How did it go?
ZW: Not so good for me. I wanted to put in a painting of me as a Loader, a very tough job I had during the Cultural Revolution, but it didn’t glorify the job and Zhao Wenliang—our group’s leader (he was leader by default because he was oldest)—he thought it could make the whole exhibition be closed down. He told me to think of the group, instead of myself, and to change for a new painting, but I say either keep this one or I take all my paintings back home. In the end it was no problem, but afterwards I felt a break in our relationship, so I left the group.
Zhang Wei, Loader, acrylic on canvas, 1976; Courtesy of the artist
CS: Can you tell me about this painting? What is a loader?
ZW: A loader is just a worker. Main job is loading and off loading things onto the truck. Four or five of us, every day on a big truck, we don’t have any place to sit except on the top of the truck, behind the cab. Very cold in winter. You feel numb. This is the back of the truck and the shovel we always use. That’s me standing there looking nowhere. I’m not knowing anything about my future, not knowing where I’m going, a terrible feeling. That was 1976, when Chairman Mao was still alive.
CS: After you broke from the Wuming group did you continue to make paintings like this?
ZW: No. I started to make abstract paintings. There is a long tradition of this type of painting in China, so much older than American abstract. The idea is to just capture the sprit, the essence. The details are not important. I paint them very quickly, more like a sketch, just trying to catch the feeling. If it takes too long, then you lost the feeling.
CS: So you stayed in Beijing during the eighties. I know Rauschenberg had a show in Beijing then. Did you see it?
ZW: Yes and I actually got to meet him. We had an argument, almost a fight.
CS: Really? I never thought of Rauschenberg as the fighting type. What was your feeling when you saw the show and what did you fight about?
ZW: His show was open for maybe half a month and I went every day. I like his paintings very much, so strong. And I told that to my American friend Marlow Hood, a journalist. Marlow arranged the meeting. At first I thought Rauschenberg was really cool because he canceled a lecture at the Central Academy to come meet me and my friends, a bunch of underground artists. But when he showed up, it was like he was a celebrity not an artist. So many people around him, camera men with lights. His translator walked in first holding up an American magazine with Deng Xiaoping on the cover over her head. She said that Rauschenberg was very proud to do a portrait of Deng Xiaoping for Time Magazine as “man of the year.” That was ’85. After ’83 Deng wasn’t that great for us. He jailed Wei Jing Sheng, the greatest and oldest dissident in China. When Deng Xiaopeng announced the four things china needs to be modern--modernize security, industry, economy, and architecture; all Wei Jing Sheng’s idea—Sheng said “Wait, you forgot one: intellectual modernization.” Deng Xiaoping throw him in jail. So we didn’t like Deng Xiaopeng, he was a symbol of oppression. So for me, seeing Rauschenberg do this, I thought he is a tool of the Chinese government. Maybe worse, maybe he doesn’t even realize.
CS: Is that how you got into an argument?
ZW: No, but that put me in a bad mood to start. Marlow introduced me first. Rauschenberg asked how I liked his work. I said “great.” He said, “Ok, I’ll take you back to America with me. You can tell the American people that underground Chinese artists like my work.” That made me pissed off more; I felt he treated me like a little puppy. I told him it is my dream to go to America, but not to be a PR person for you. Then I ask him what he thinks of our work, because we hung our paintings all over the walls. He looked around and said nothing. Then I tell him that I think his work, after all, is not so interesting. The translator wouldn’t translate, but I push her to do it, and then Rauschenberg got mad. I think the problem was we both had big egos. It could have been a great meeting, but we didn’t hit it off at all.
CS: That’s too bad. How did you eventually come to New York?
ZW: Because of that show “Avant Garde Chinese Art,” organized by Michael Murray. All the artists were invited to come to America.
CS: And you just stayed?
ZW: Yes. First as a tourist, then I enrolled at Hunter [College] and got a student visa. Then after Tiananmen Square incident all Chinese people were given amnesty.
CS: I know you showed your paintings in a number of SOHO galleries, but you also painted and sold your own work on the streets. Is that how you got involved with A.R.T.I.S.T.?
ZW: Yea. The police would just take everything. Maybe destroy your paintings right there. They were not kind to artists, especially to Chinese artists they were quite rough. Eventually I met Robert Lederman and I supported him and helped him with the lawsuit. It took seven years, 1997 – 2003, all the way to the NY Supreme Court. We set a precedent.
CS: And shortly after you returned to China. Why?
ZW: It’s my home. My family is there, my mother was getting quite old. And in America during Bush’s war with terrorists, it was not so easy to be a foreigner. It was harder to get jobs, harder to get money. So I moved back to Beijing.
Zhang Wei, AD3, acrylic on canvas, 1985; Courtesy of the artist
CS: How does it feel to be back in New York now, and to see your work on the walls of the China Institute with the other Wuming artists?
ZW: It makes me feel so good. It’s the right way to return. It was a bit of a reunion to see the others. We all kind of went our own way in life. We don’t talk to each other much in Beijing.
CS: What kind of paintings are you making now?
ZW: I bought some old Chinese newspapers from the ‘70s, enlarged them, and printed them on canvas. Then I repaint some of my paintings from that same time on top. It’s hard for foreigners to appreciate because they can’t read the newspapers, but for Chinese, and especially younger Chinese artists, it’s very powerful. The contrast between the government language and the landscape painting is very strong. And for me it has a powerful emotional connection. It brings my past up into my present in a very direct way.
ArtSlant would like to thank Zhang Wei for his assistance in making this interview possible, Elaine Woo for her translation, and ELK STUDIOS for Zhang Wei's portrait.