Betting on Abstract Art

Chen Cheng-hsiung’s Journey of Self-Discovery
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2018 / May

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Chen Cheng-hsiung /tr. by Robert Green


Chen Cheng-hsiung is the only Asian artist to have been conferred both a Lifetime Achievement in Art Award and a Lorenzo il Magnifico Award in two different years at the Florence Biennale. In 1999 he received both awards for his “Window” series, and in 2001 he was honored again for his “Digital Space” series. Dr. John T. Spike, chairman of the jurors’ committee for the 2001 Florence Biennale, said that no other abstract artist had shown so perfect an artistic conception of today’s digital space through their work. He cited this as the reason that Chen won the awards for a second time.

Chen has been working as an abstract artist for over 60 years, since first discovering the art form in his youth. He is now an internationally acclaimed master, and yet not only is abstract painting still his greatest passion, he still strives tirelessly to come up with innovative techniques for his artistic creations.


Press the start button on a computer and a floating window icon pops up on the screen. This is the start screen of the Microsoft Windows operating system. Although the graphic is familiar the world over, only in Chen’s eyes did it become a source of inspiration. He further incorporated impressions of the shapes of Russian icon paintings and made use of the calligraphic brush style known as “wild cursive” script. This was the origin of his “Window” series. At the time Chen was already 57.   

Having observed that human life had entered a virtual space constructed from the most basic numerical elements—zeros and ones—Chen was inspired to create his “Digital Space” series. He divided his canvases into three blocks, two at the top and one across the bottom. The top two blocks were colored in blue and yellow. The panel stretching across the bottom featured Chinese calligraphy in the wild cursive style. In introducing Chen’s work his biographer, the French-based Chinese author Zu Wei, once explained that the blue represented the ocean and the yellow the land. Together they represent the quantum world in which humans exist. The text and images adorning the lower portion, on the other hand, represent the digital living space. Chen thus captured our digital age with the simplest of abstract elements. The series once again elevated him to the pinnacle of his art form. He was 66 that year.

Many artists entering their 60s feel that their reputations are already set, and put away their brushes. But Chen’s paintbrushes still dance on the canvas, keen to the changing times. He mingles his observations with his impressions and feelings, and creates visual representations of his invisible inner world. Now in his 80s, Chen is determined to surpass his past successes, an attitude that reminds us that it is the passion for creation that leads to an extra­ordin­ary artistic career.

Betting his future on abstract art

In looking back at his work, it becomes clear that “stasis” was never in Chen’s vocabulary. In high school, when he was studying under the celebrated painter Li Shih-­chiao, his work already showed a unique style. “I think it’s just my nature,” Chen says. “I like a freer style. When I paint a landscape, I prefer to approach it subjectively, capturing the feeling of the subject matter.”

Chen found success at an early age. In high school his artwork was selected for important art exhibits in Taiwan. In his final year in high school he was planning to study art in Paris, but his father talked him out of it. Instead he enrolled in the economics department at National ­Chung ­Hsing University. Chen, who is fluent in Japanese and English, spent much of his time reading classic academic studies of Western abstract art, including Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and Sir Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959). The works gave him a better understanding of abstract painting.

Chen longed for the liberating spirit of abstract art and decided that his artistic future would be devoted to its exploration. He was only 23 at the time.

Making a career as an artist, however, is no easy thing, so after graduation he took a job working in the USAID office in Taiwan and painted in his free time. 

In those days there was a large foreign community residing in Taiwan. He was commissioned by a major general in the US military to paint a portrait depicting the American weathering a crisis with unbending resolution. The general loved it, and Chen continued to paint in the abstract style. He later sold paintings to the US and Brazilian ambassadors. At the time the exchange rate was US$1 to NT$48. A single painting could fetch US$300 to $500, the equivalent of a year’s salary for his classmates who worked in banks.

Although his paintings fetched high prices, they were purchased mainly by foreign collectors. The domestic art market was not yet well developed. But Chen threw his concerns to the wind, quit his job, and set out to make a living as a professional painter. He was 32.

Creating a new species of art

Chen’s abstract paintings are known for their dots, lines, surfaces and bright colors. His paintings feature a riot of colors, and convey a sense of joy to viewers.

The inspiration for his color schemes comes from his collection of art and artifacts from Taiwan’s Aboriginal peoples. He began collecting at 31 and has been at it for more than a half century. His interest was sparked after accompanying a foreign friend who was purchasing Aboriginal artifacts. Chen bought a few traditional tobacco pipes, and he admired them so much that he became a collector of Aboriginal art himself. Since then he has traveled all over Taiwan visiting various indigenous communities and conducting anthropological studies. Chen was attracted to their bold use of color and unrestrained lust for life. These became elements of Chen’s own painting style.

Chen has also wandered across the globe, cultivating friendships with other artists, such as the American abstract painter Sam Francis, French contemporary artist Pierre Alechinsky, and Kumi Su­gai, a Japanese abstract painter living in France. As their friendships grew, they also explored each other’s artistic ideas.

Chen’s varied serendipitous experiences have all become elements of his art. “The artist must establish a personal store of artistic ‘genes,’ and know how to seek out and select novel components from the treasury of alien cultures,” he writes in The Sayings of Chen Cheng-­hsiung on Art. “The utmost artistic ­strategy is the utilization of these materials to create new species of art and works of boundless meaning.” The interaction of those “genes” has driven his career from peak to peak of creative genius.

Art as visual metaphor

In his introduction to Chen’s book, Zu Wei recounts a conversation with the famous Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-ki, in which he asked the painter what feelings he had wished to convey in a particular painting. “If I could tell you that,” Zao said. “I wouldn’t have painted it!”

Chen is a different case entirely. He is one of those rare artists who can both paint and express his ideas in writing.

In 1965 he wrote “On Abstract Art,” in Wen ­Hsing Magazine. It was the first real examination of abstract art published in Taiwan. Subsequently he published a series of articles in other magazines, including Oriental Magazine and Young Lion Monthly, introducing Western art to local readers. He introduced his collection of Aboriginal art through columns published in the United Daily News and the Independence Evening Post. He has also published his ideas on art in book form, in The Sayings of Chen Cheng-­hsiung on Art

“My art is evocative, not descriptive,” Chen writes in the book. “It is a visual metaphor, not a visual narrative.”

Looking at Chen’s paintings after reading his writing on art allows for a deeper comprehension of the artist’s vision. His landscapes are painted without clear borders; his world needs no horizon. Viewers can understand his sensibilities through his blocks of color and seemingly random sprays of colored dots. In Cherishing the Ambitions, the artist uses blocks of color to express the energy and excitement of new beginnings. Standing in front of the painting, the viewer can sense the power stirring within the work. “That’s right,” Chen says. “Only if it resonates is it a success.” 

In 2014, Chen received a National Award for Arts from the National Culture and Arts Foundation. This honor recognized the artist’s six decades of creation. But Chen is not done innovating. “As long as I can still paint and my mind is still active, I won’t stop creating new art,” he says.

At over 80 years of age, Chen says he hopes to make more money through his art so that he can open an art museum in a downtown location and exhibit his paintings and his collection of Aboriginal artifacts. In my notebook, I jotted down the following words, “Joy makes him indefatigable; his enthusiasm has never wavered.” This encapsulates the relentlessly pioneering career of this celebrated Taiwanese abstract painter.  

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以抽象藝術豪賭的人生

文‧鄧慧純 圖‧陳正雄

1999年、2001年,陳正雄分別以《窗》系列、《數位空間》系列獲得義大利佛羅倫斯國際當代藝術雙年展「終生藝術成就獎」及「羅倫佐金質獎章」的肯定,是唯一連續兩屆獲此殊榮的亞洲藝術家。第二度獲獎時,義大利佛羅倫斯國際當代藝術雙年展總監史派克博士表示:「以抽象畫表達今日數位空間的意境,迄今尚未發現第二人,所以『再度』頒給陳君最高榮譽的『終生成就獎』及『偉大的羅倫佐』獎項。」

從年輕時接觸抽象藝術開始,逾一甲子的時光,陳正雄已晉升國際級藝術大師,抽象畫仍是他「在天願作比翼鳥,在地願為連理枝」的摯愛,突破創新仍是他不懈的人生課題。


按下電腦的啟動鈕,螢幕出現形如飄動的窗子,這是美國微軟公司Windows作業系統的開機畫面,也是全球使用者都熟悉的圖示,但唯有陳正雄從中得到靈感,再結合他旅遊俄羅斯所見的聖像畫構圖,讓中國的狂草與繪畫元素的色彩、線條在畫布上對話。開始《窗》系列的創作,那年陳正雄57歲。

觀察人類進入到以「0」與「1」這最簡單的數字元素所建構的虛擬空間,讓畫家的靈感再次被啟動,創作《數位空間》系列,他將畫布三分為上二下一的區塊,上二的兩個空間填入藍色與黃色,下方橫貫的長方體置入中國狂草的書法;曾為陳正雄立傳的旅法華裔作家祖慰解釋,藍色象徵海洋,黃色象徵陸地,兩者是我們賴以生存的量子空間,下方涵蓋文字與圖像訊息的狂草則是數位化生存空間。以如此簡要的抽象元素呈現我們所處的數位時代,這幅畫讓他再次攀登藝術的高峰,那年陳正雄66歲。

當許多藝術家年近耳順,自覺歷史定位已定案而歇筆時,陳正雄的筆刷還是繼續在畫布上揮灑,敏銳的感受時代的變遷,將對環境的觀察融入自己的情感,把不可見的內在世界化為可見的視覺存在。「我不喜歡重複自己,這不是創作。」「50歲之後,我的巔峰期就開始了。從80年代末葉一直到現在,是我最精華的時期。」年過八旬的他,還矢志要超越那「已經成功的自己」,讓人不難聯想是他對藝術創作活跳跳的熱情,成就了畫家卓然不朽的藝術生命。

以生命為籌碼,為抽象藝術孤注一擲

回顧陳正雄的繪畫生涯,「守成」是他生命中不曾出現的字眼。高中時期,在大師李石樵門下學畫,陳正雄的畫就與大家長得不一樣。陳正雄說:「大概是天性,我喜歡自由一點,我是把對風景的感覺畫出來,也就是我以主觀的態度來描繪自然。」因此一樣畫風景,他的《池畔》、《花瓶》、《九份風光》就在具象中帶有抽象,而自成一格。

成名甚早,陳正雄在高中時期的作品即獲選國內重要美展,高中三年級,他早已準備去巴黎學畫,卻被父親勸阻。他記得父親說:「你如果能夠靠畫生活,那我不反對,但我怕你一輩子潦倒。」陳正雄因此改考入中興大學經濟系。英日文俱佳的他在這時期閱讀了大量西方抽象藝術的經典原著,如康丁斯基的《藝術的精神性》、英國藝評家伯特里德的《現代藝術簡史》等書,開啟了他對抽象藝術的認識。

抽象藝術的發展有其歷史演進過程,當時少有人像陳正雄能直接閱讀經典原著,因此社會大眾常誤以為「非具象即是抽象」。但陳正雄解釋,西方20世紀的現代主義運動,是冀望將藝術從宗教、文學、自然的附庸解放出來,其終極目標是要建立藝術的自主性,主張讓繪畫的基本元素——色彩、形象、線條——回復其原來的位置。因此當1905年野獸派的馬諦斯把色彩解放,1907年畢卡索以立體派將形象破解再重新組織,到1910年,康丁斯基的抽象畫就產生了。

陳正雄嚮往抽象畫中忠於自我內在的情感和自由精神,也讓他確認自己將以抽象藝術為終身的依歸,那年陳正雄方23歲。但想以專業畫家為職並非易事。大學畢業後,陳正雄順利在當時的美援機構謀得一職,業餘仍持續繪畫創作。

美援時期,有許多外籍人士駐留台灣,陳正雄受託為一位美軍少將畫下他在風雨中堅毅度過難關的一幕,陳正雄左右思量,決定將東方水墨畫的寫意運用到油畫中,這幅畫很受委託者喜愛,自此許多外籍人士都找上門來,連美國大使、巴西大使都登門來向他買畫。陳正雄描述,那時候許多駐台的美軍都喜歡到他的畫室買畫,當時美金與台幣的匯率約1:48,陳正雄一幅畫的行情約300500美金,賣一張畫就等於他同學在銀行工作一年的薪水。

雖然賣畫的收入不錯,但主要仍靠外籍人士的支持,國內藝術經紀市場尚未發展,以繪畫為正職仍是人生的一場豪賭,但陳正雄像敢死隊一樣,毅然決然地辭了正職的工作,要以專業畫家的身分跨步向前,那年他32歲。

從異文化擷取元素,融合創新

除了抽象的點、線、面,鮮豔的色彩是陳正雄創作的基因。他的作品總是色彩繽紛,帶給觀者歡愉之感,因此有人稱他是「色彩的魔術師」,旅法的華裔作家祖慰為他寫的傳記,書名就取做《畫布上的歡樂頌》。

色彩的源頭,來自陳正雄的台灣原住民文物收藏,從31歲開始,他收藏原住民的文物已歷半個世紀;當初陪外國友人收購原住民的文物,他自己也買了幾隻菸斗,越看越有興趣,讓他開始投入收藏原住民精品,還踏遍台灣各地,深入部落進行人類學調查研究。原住民用色大膽、狂放的生命力吸引著他。陳正雄畫中的柔美、華麗則來自他收藏二十多年的清宮廷服飾文物,昔日帝王世家衣飾講究富麗莊嚴亦轉化成為他創作的靈感。

他還走遊世界,結交各地的藝術家,如美國抽象畫大師山姆法蘭西斯、法國當代藝術大師彼爾阿雷辛斯基、旅法的日本抽象畫大師菅井汲、池田滿壽夫等,他和這些大師做朋友,同時一探大師的腦內時空。

種種機遇都化成他創作的養分,他在著作《陳正雄畫語錄》寫下:「藝術家需要建構自己的藝術基因庫,懂得從異質文化的藝術寶庫中尋找新穎的藝術基因,加以萃取後,以創造新物種的方法,創作出無疆界的藝術作品來,這才是上上之策。」融合了這些藝術基因,也為他的藝術生涯創造一次次的高峰。

藝術是召喚的,是視覺的「隱喻」

祖慰在為《陳正雄畫語錄》寫的序言中,曾提到一段他與國際著名抽象畫家趙無極的對話,他問趙無極,這幅畫傳達您什麼樣的內在體驗?趙無極反答說:「我要是說得出來就不畫了。」

藝術家以視覺符號傳達心中的旨意,本是自然。唯陳正雄不同,他一手拿畫筆,一手寫字,是國內少數能畫能寫的藝術家。

他的文字著作洋洋灑灑地長長一大落,從接觸抽象畫之初,1965年他就在《文星》雜誌發表〈談抽象藝術〉一文,那是國內第一次真正正確談論何謂抽象藝術的文章。之後陸續在《東方》、《雄獅》各期刊中引薦西方藝術介紹給國內讀者。他也將自己的原住民收藏化為文字,在《聯合報》、《自立晚報》專欄發表。他更出書立言,將一甲子的思想記錄下來,完成《陳正雄畫語錄》,一字一句寫下藝術家的所思所言,讓人理解何為藝術,何為抽象藝術。

在書中,他寫道:「我的藝術是『召喚的』,而非『描繪的』。如同音樂,旨在激發內在情感,而非記錄自然的外貌或述說故事。它是內在經驗的一種強烈表徵,是視覺的『隱喻』,而非視覺的『敘述』。」他又說:「我的作品一幅幅都用色彩表現出生命在大自然中的躍動與歡愉。」

讀了這些字句,再連結到陳正雄的作品,讓人對他畫中的世界有更深的體悟。他的風景不需要輪廓線,世界也沒有地平線,只靠著揮灑的色塊和看似隨興噴灑的彩點,觀者即能感其所感。如《春天裡的春天》系列,其一的靈感來自巴黎的春天,以高彩度的粉紅搭配鮮綠的色彩,畫者所感受到花都巴黎的奔放和自由隨即溢於言表。另一幅畫記錄了京都的春天,因此用色轉為粉嫩而迷濛,即讓人聯想到日本的含蓄內斂。作品《志在四方》,用色塊表現向前衝刺的動勢,蓄勢待發的氣魄藏在畫中蠢蠢欲動,站在畫前,即有所感。陳正雄說:「那就對了,有共鳴,就代表通了。」

抽象畫一點都不難,只是一般人多懼於抽象畫「無可名之形」,而退避三尺。懂的人少,自然收藏的也少,也因此陳正雄說他的創作是一條「孤單、艱苦的漫漫長路」。

2014年,陳正雄獲頒國家文藝獎,這份遲來的榮耀,是對藝術家一甲子堅持的肯定;但藝術家的手仍不歇止,他說,「只要我的手還能動,腦筋還靈活,我的創作是不能停的。」年逾八旬的藝術家還說要努力賺錢,想在市區蓋一棟美術館,展示自己作品和收藏;而筆者在筆記上寫下「樂此不疲,始終不渝」8個字,敬佩這位不輟自我突破的台灣抽象畫先驅──陳正雄。

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