Chinese-born Walasse Ting was a genre-breaking artist who worked in Paris, New York and Amsterdam. His geographical mobility and artistic agility foreshadowed the international development of contemporary Chinese art in the 1990s. Walasse Ting formed an essential link between the Cobra movement, Abstract Expressionism and Pop art.
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Walasse Ting was born in Wuxi, China, in 1928 and grew up in Shanghai. Not much is known about Walasse Ting’s artist training. He is said to have studied for a short time at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, before leaving China for Hong Kong in 1946. Walasse Ting arrived in Paris in 1953 and stayed there until 1958.
Walasse Ting mixed with artistic circles in Paris as soon as he arrived in the city, but he did not join a particular artistic movement and refused to associate himself with any particular school or group. Walasse Ting became very close to the artist Pierre Alechinsky in particular, as well as other members of the Cobra movement. Alechinsky reported that when Walasse Ting arrived in France, he came with a “cylindrical package of grey and black paintings…” Alechinsky continued, “The brushstrokes tell of a small cart ridden by a traveller with ﬂowing sleeves, marked by large blotches where our eyes try to guess (it’s a horse).” Although Walasse Ting used materials associated with traditional Chinese painting, the artist defined his works very early on as “modern” and representing an “Eastern and Western style”.
In the article “À l’école de Paris”, published in the Cimaise magazine in 1956, Herta Wescher explained: “The artists who come from all different countries to Paris today rarely have a school or academy in mind where they seek to receive precise training. Nor do they envision, in most cases, working under one of the great masters and becoming their student or disciple. On the contrary, they are attracted by the thousand and one possible artistic adventures that await them here.” This applied perfectly to Walasse Ting, who considered himself a modern Chinese painter in Paris. Walasse Ting’s encounters with Western artists were not enacted through the perspective of a master-student relationship, but rather as equals, which was illustrated by the many collaborative projects that Walasse Ting worked on in duos in all the different countries he lived in. It is also known that Walasse Ting introduced Alechinsky to the practice of calligraphy. For his part, the painter Walasse Ting tried his hand at oil painting as soon as he arrived in Paris. His artistic works presented traditional subjects in ink on paper as well as sombre, abstract paintings in oil on canvas.
Walasse Ting’s artworks were presented in Paris at the Studio Facchetti in 1954 in the artist’s first exhibition. In the exhibition catalogue, Julien Alvard wrote: “The influence of Chinese philosophy on Western painting, especially American painting, is well known. What we are faced with today is the opposite question, and a much more inscrutable one: ‘How can one be a Chinese painter?’ after experiencing the shock of Western painting. Walasse Ting’s painting is one facet of the new battle that is beginning.”
Walasse Ting’s work was then presented at an exhibition in Brussels at the Galerie Taptoe in 1956.
Walasse Ting moved to New York in 1957. It was there that he discovered the Abstract Expressionists, in particular those with ties to France such as Sam Francis , Joan Mitchell and Paul Jenkins . These encounters sparked the artist’s passion for colour. This network of friendships and exchange between Europe and the United States was solidified by Walasse Ting’s work One Cent Life—a collection of artists’ lithographs. Edited by Sam Francis and published by E. W. Kornfeld in 1964, the work brought together a collection of 62 lithographs and serigraphs by 28 different artists: Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel, Enrico Baj, Alan Davie, Jim Dine, Öyvind Fahlström, Sam Francis, Robert Indiana, Alfred Jensen, Asger Jorn, Allan Kaprow, Alfred Leslie, Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Mitchell, Kiki O.K., Claes Oldenburg, Mel Ramos, Robert Rauschenberg, Reinhoud, Jean-Paul Riopelle, James Rosenquist, Antonio Saura, Kimber Smith, K.R.H. Sonderborg, Walasse Ting, Bram van Velde, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann.
It represented a synthesis of Abstract Expressionism, pop art and the Cobra movement, as well as a bridge between Paris and New York. Pierre Alechinsky summed up the spirit of the work: “It is clear that cultures today are marrying up; they are no longer like terracotta dogs looking at each other without making contact; they are secretly beginning to focus on a common denominator, a new image of the world. This interpenetration belongs to our era.”
Two Walasse Ting exhibitions were organised at the Lefebre Gallery in New York—in 1963 and 1965 respectively. The director Hidai Nankoku filmed the painter Walasse Ting at work in 1965. The film shows the artist painting on sheets of paper on the floor, using a gestural form of expression, just like Jackson Pollock. Discussing his approach, Julien Alvard explained that the artist “wanted to be able to paint with a fish whose convulsive movements would leave living traces of raw nature on the canvas.” Ting was particularly fond of experimenting with techniques: “It’s not the painting itself that matters, nor the image afterwards; it’s what happens during the course of it, it’s the act of painting.”
Walasse Ting won the Guggenheim Fellowship Award for drawing in 1970. In the same year, he donated forty of his works to the Cernuschi Museum in Paris. Walasse Ting then took part in the Fresh Air School exhibition alongside Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1972. In the exhibition catalogue, Ting defined himself as: “Self-taught. Individual. Not part of any group.”
The artist won recognition in the United States through the distribution of a series of works in fluorescent colours in the form of posters, calendars and postcards. Walasse Ting became an American citizen in the 1970s.
Walasse Ting moved to Amsterdam in the 1990s, continuing to travel to New York on a regular basis.
Walasse Ting’s work was characterised by the recurrent use of certain themes: women, flowers and horses. Walasse Ting was also a poet and publishes numerous books. He gave himself the pseudonym “the flower thief”—the invisible author of his paintings. Describing his own duality, Walasse Ting wrote: “I borrow money; he spends it like a madman. I feel as solid as a tiger; he is as light as a butterfly. I walk on the pavement; he flies in the wind. I am the root; he is the pollen. I am the burning water; he is the steam. I am the mountain; he is the cloud. I am the rain; he is the rainbow…”
Walasse Ting died in 2010. A posthumous retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work was presented at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum the following year. In 2016, Françoise Marquet-Zao, the widow of the painter Zao Wou Ki, donated two paintings by Walasse Ting—one on paper, the other on canvas—to the Cernuschi Museum in Paris. The exhibition Walasse Ting, le voleur de fleurs [Walasse Ting, the flower thief] was presented at the same museum from 2016 to 2017.
© Diane de Polignac Gallery
Translation: Lucy Johnston
New York, NY, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Chicago, IL, Chicago Art Institute
London, Tate Modern
Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou
Paris, Cernuschi Museum
Hong Kong, Hong Kong Museum of Art
Studio Paul Facchetti, Paris, 1954
Galerie Taptoe, Brussels, 1956
Lefebre Gallery, New York, 1963, 1965
Fresh Air School, group exhibition, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 1972
Walasse Ting Retrospective, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, 2011
Walasse Ting, le voleur de fleurs, Walasse Ting retrospective, Cernuschi Museum, Paris, 2016–2017
Walasse Ting, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Studio Facchetti, 1954
Pierre Alechinsky, “Calligraphie Japonaise” in Quadrum, international modern art magazine, 1956
Herta Wescher, “À l’école de Paris” in Cimaise, 3rd series, No. 3, January–February 1956
Walasse Ting, exhibition catalogue, New York, Galerie Chalette, 1957
Michel Ragon, “Le Japon et nous” in Cimaise, 5th series, No. 5, May–June 1958
Walasse Ting. Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, New York, Lefebre Gallery, 1969
Artistic Drawings of the Sixties. A Selection, exhibition catalogue, New York, New School Art Center, 1969
Pierre Alechinsky, Roue libre, Geneva, Albert Skira, “Les Sentiers de la création”, 1971
Mia Ting, Walasse Ting, Jolies dames, Paris, Yves Rivière, 1988
Pierre Alechinsky, “Troisième pinceau” in Baluchon et ricochets, Paris, Gallimard, 1994
Helen Frances Westgeest, Zen in the Fifties. Interaction in Art between East and West, Zwolle, Waanders Publishers, 1996
Fong Shen Xi, Walasse Ting. A Very Hot Day, exhibition catalogue, Shanghai, Shanghai Art Museum, 1997
Claire Stoulling, “Pierre Alechinsky. Migrations du poète au peintre, du peintre au poète”, in Alechinsky au pays de l’encre, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1998
Irene Poon, Leading the Way. Asian American Artists of the Older Generation, Wenham, Gordon College, 2001
Pierre Alechinsky, Des deux mains, Paris, Mercure de France, 2004
Kara Kelley Hallmark, Encyclopedia of Asian American Artists. Artists of the American Mosaic, Westport, Greenwood Press, 2007
Margo Machida, Unsettled Visions. Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imagery, Durham, Duke University Press, 2008
From Heroic Expression to Resplendent Color. Walasse Ting, Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Taipei, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2010
Stuart Hall, Identités et cultures 2. Politiques des différences, Paris, Éditions Amsterdam, 2013
Walasse Ting, le voleur de fleurs, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Cernuschi Museum, 2016