Yang Yanping and her husband Zeng Shanqing belong to a generation of Chinese artists whose early careers were stifled by the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong. From 1949 through the late 1970s, the People’s Republic of China regulated the lives and work of its artists, limiting their expression and shutting out international influences. As these policies were loosened, Yang and Zeng were able to practice their art freely in China, winning acclaim before moving to the United States in 1986.
Yang developed a unique style in the early 1980s, rooted in traditional Chinese painting but indisputably modern. Originally trained as an architect, she worked in oils before adopting a more traditional Chinese media—ink on paper. Her signature style features a wiry ink line speckled with tiny dots, executed with pen rather than brush, depicting her favorite themes: lotuses and landscapes. Yang’s contrasting washes, often incandescent in hue, bleed into each other, dissolving these subjects into abstract nebulas of color.
Zeng’s work has largely focused on figure and horse painting, more acceptable subjects in early revolutionary China. Nevertheless, the former professor at the Central Academy of Art suffered political criticism during the Cultural Revolution and endured several years of physical labor. Painted with a large, rapidly wielded brush, Zeng’s boldly polychromatic figures are expressions of dynamic and pent-up energy. Their contorted forms, sometimes in the fetal position, hint at the trauma of his earlier years.
Although celebrated in China in the early 1980s, the couple’s art has been largely neglected in the three decades since they emigrated to New York. This exhibition marks the first presentation of their work in a major United States art museum.