It’s a dreary, overcast afternoon when I meet the late Walasse Ting’s son and daughter, Jesse and Mia. They’re sitting inside the gallery showcasing their father’s works, surrounded by paintings of flamboyant and dazzling beauty, qualities that garnered Ting worldwide acclaim. The emotional effect these works have on me is almost instantaneous: resplendent, joyful and dripping with the wild abandon Ting embodied. Being in their presence is an enlivening experience. Ting’s now iconic, vibrant paintings of women, animals and still lifes that tap into to both Eastern and Western artistic traditions are as uplifting to look at as they are memorable, prescient and unique.
Ting’s children have arrived in Hong Kong for their father’s 10th solo exhibition at Alisan Fine Arts, which first started promoting the artist while he was living in New York in the 1960s, the heyday of Warhol’s pop art movement and Pollock’s abstract expressionism. Now a prime example of diaspora art that merges different visual languages to produce works that reflect and resonate with an increasingly transnational world, Ting embodied this trend before the “East meets West” banner started to attach itself onto the work of any Asian artist with an international outlook. For Jesse and Mia, their father’s greatest contribution to art was the way he opened up creative space to explore the artistic terrains of his native China and his adopted cities – Paris, New York, and in his final years, Amsterdam.On a personal level, he left a much deeper and more complex imprint on his children, who remember him as a passionate and philosophical, though not particularly sensible father. There is much they miss about him. Being in Hong Kong, near some of his favourite noodle shops, brings his absence to the fore. Wallasse passed away in 2010 in New York, seven years after a stroke left him incapacitated. Mia, whose level-headed demeanour offsets her brother’s exuberant and impulsive conversation style, describes the experience of being back in Hong Kong as that of a homecoming. That’s because Alisan Fine Arts, which was set up by Alice King in 1981 as one of Hong Kong’s first professional art galleries, has now been passed into the hands of King’s daughter, Daphne. In their own way and to varying degrees, each grew up witnessing Ting’s career blossom in this region as in the west, while experiencing some of the quirks and foibles of the artist whose enthusiasm for life and sensuality came hand in hand with a tenacious commitment to his own vision, values and indulgences.
“He lived by his code. He had a lust for life, and saw life like it was a juicy piece of fruit to be eaten,” says Jesse, while pointing at his favourite work in the exhibit, a grand bowl of flowers made up of audacious splashes and globs of colour that command the intense and unwavering engagement of the viewer. That bold and impulsive attitude to life was reflected in Ting’s approach to making art, as well as in the way he managed his relationships. In his studio in New York, the children would watch him working with buoyant physicality. Usually in a state of semi-undress, sometimes just in his underwear, he would paint in what Jesse describes as something like a fencing stance. Sometimes he worked with music, and he often worked while entertaining guests.
A charismatic man, Ting’s parenting style was subject to the emotional highs and lows of someone moving entirely to the beat of their own drum. For Ting, prudent behaviour, like instilling budgeting skills in his children, was of little importance. Beholden to his own myriad whimsies and indulgences, Ting was as prone to grandiose acts of generosity as a he was to peculiar social missteps. Among his quirks was his hobby of collecting crickets, as is customary among old Chinese men, but not particularly welcome in the bourgeois circles in which he came to move. His stubbornness and unwillingness to be affiliated to any particular groups earned him, to some degree, respect from his peers.
But Mia argues that in refusing to market himself and capitalise on the connections he was making as an increasingly respected artist in New York, he hurt his career prospects. She remembers how he used to visit a flea market which Warhol had taken a liking to, but rather than try to ingratiate himself with the icon, he kept his distance. Ting’s distaste for the superficial, self-promoting and self-aggrandising aspects of the art world — which Warhol proudly embodied —might resonate with today’s creatives, who inhabit a world where creative output is turned into a game of success metrics and mass approval. In many ways, Ting’s tenacity allowed him to enjoy what every artist longs to have: the freedom and faith to follow one’s own vision.
Part of that vision was about enjoying colours and experiencing their musicality. He possessed a sense for the harmonious and the pleasingly noisy that also found expression in his poems, which alongside his art have garnered acclaim for their curious and lively use of language, which reflects his own checkered national identity. The musical singularity of Ting’s pidgin poems — as free-flowing and carnal as his use of paint — explores some of his ideas around how he placed himself as being aloof to other artists and movements, walking down his own artistic path that drew as much influence from Chinese ink traditions as it did from American artists. In a poem he wrote about himself called “Walasse Ting on Walasse Ting,” the final line reads, “Sleeping all day living in a sixty feet window loft / Eat there, paint there / Self-taught / Individual, not belonging to any group.”
Ting created an aesthetic that nods to the lively, vibrant and spontaneous mark-making techniques of abstract expressionists. He worked by dripping and splashing swathes of colour in ways that was playful and intuitive, while also drawing on brushwork skills and use of line and space that recall his Chinese upbringing. Part of what was special about his legacy was how he identified aspects about new movements in Western modern art that have been integral to Chinese art traditions through time. Ting drew connections between the intuitive act of free-flow painting, which the Expressionists saw as a way to explore their inner selves, and his own culture, where ink artists explored their internal terrains through the playful movements of their ink brush. Ting’s influence extended to American artist Sam Francis, who was as passionate as Ting about mining Asian culture to explore new ways of thinking about art and psychology in a society that was becoming increasingly receptive to the existential ideologies of Asia.
Though Ting prided himself in his aloofness from other artists, it was a collaborative project that he set up and executed that garnered him great acclaim. For One Cent Life, a book of lithographs released in 1964, he brought together the works of 27 contemporary artists, among them Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis, in a work underpinned by his writing. He brought together some of the biggest egos in the art world – a feat that some say could only have been achieved by a Chinese person. While that’s a dubious assertion to make, Ting’s geographical shapeshifting might well have helped him serve as a mediating figure. “I don’t think he felt at home anywhere,” says Mia.
Ting’s mercurial national identity reflects itself as much in his life story and travels as it does in his art. Born in 1929 in Wuxi, he moved from Shanghai to France in 1952, in pursuit of freedom from China’s creative controls and having been inspired to travel after reading the Book of Changes. After his first encounter with western art, he switched to oils (though continued to use ink on occasion) and took on the name of Walasse, in part in homage to the artist Matisse. Sometimes, Ting’s name is written as “Wallace” for simplicity’s sake. In Paris, he worked manual jobs and lived on a shoestring as he started experimenting with abstract, colourful art – a break from the monochrome ink works he had previous completed in China. In 1958 he moved to New York, where he went further into exploring abstraction, though his works were never completely abstract. A bon vivant, his erotic paintings of women — many of whose compositions nod to Tang Dynasty paintings — express the freedoms he relished in a country that was in many ways the opposite of his native China, while retaining some of the elements and values of his home country.
“When something annoyed him, he used to say ‘This would never happen in China,’” Mia recalls, rolling her eyes. It’s a familiar gripe that many diaspora children have with parents, who idolise aspects of the native country they chose to leave behind. In his final years, Ting lived between New York and Amsterdam as his art circulated worldwide, joining collections at Tate Modern and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among many other museums.
He liked Holland because the canals reminded him of Hangzhou, but New York continued to call him back. That was where he married his wife and Mia and Jesse’s mother, Nathalie back in the 1960s, and where he once worked in a big studio in which paint splattered the walls and glimmered like multi-coloured rain through the window. These days his works resonate as much with Chinese viewers as they do to western audiences, which is where their magic lies. Ting’s eye for beauty and joy intuitively traversed geographies, and united seemingly disparate aesthetics – finding harmony where others might find dissonance or discord. This is a pursuit that Jesse and Mia, who identify as neither fully American nor Chinese, feel particularly in tune with and savour when looking at their father’s works.
Walasse Ting’s works are on display at Alisan Fine Arts until June 30, 2017. Click here for more information.