Yang Yanping is one of the most distinguished contemporary ink painters from China. Originally trained as an architect, Yang worked in oils before working with traditional Chinese painting of ink on paper. Her unique style – while rooted in traditional Chinese ink painting – has re-animated Chinese painting to convey a contemporary reality that borders on abstraction.
Born in Nanjing, her family fled Shanghai during World War II. Yang studied architecture at Beijing’s Tsingtua University and married her painting teacher Zeng Shanqing before graduating in 1958. In 1968, she decided to study art at the Oil Painting Section of the Beijing Art Academy. At the same time she also studied traditional Chinese painting on her own.
During China’s Cultural Revolution, her husband was sent to a forced labor camp in the country-side from 1968 to 1971 because he refused to denounce a fellow artist and because he made pictures that were politically incorrect. This was his fourth and longest sentence. Yang Yanping endured this horror by having to paint large oil portraits of Chairman Mao, but her personal and private art consisted of stark, dark calligraphic images.
In 1975, Yang worked at the Fine Arts Department of the Museum of Chinese History, where she learned historical painting methods. From 1978 she began to be widely exhibited in China and was one of the first artists to be permitted to exhibit abroad. In 1980, Yang was acknowledged as one of the foremost oil painters in China. She was still experimenting with traditional materials of brush, ink, and paper.
After being appointed as an artist at the Beijing Art Institute, she realized that she loved to paint landscapes and flowers. Her favorite subject matter was the lotus flower, a symbol of purity in Buddhism, and in 1981 she began painting them. She chose to paint them in autumn and winter when they are passed their prime. In traditional Chinese painting, the lotus would have been rendered in classical outlines in ink. However, Yang reinterpreted this method by rendering the lotus against a mottled background using a brushless technique.
In 1986, both she and her husband were awarded cultural and educational fellowships at the State University of New York at Stony Brook where both artists have lived ever since. They both have gone back to traditional Chinese pigment and ink with the tone of her paintings becoming brighter and richer. The lotus is now painted in the added seasons of spring and summer.
Yang works in the traditional mode of the free sketch. Her signature style features a wiry ink line speckled with tiny dots, executed with pen rather than brush. She has developed creative techniques, including the crumpling of paper and pressing inked paper onto a previously painted paper surface. Her contrasting incandescent washes bleed into each other sometimes dissolving her subjects into abstract nebulas of color bordering on abstraction.
Since living in America, Yang has been drawn to the rocky landscapes of the American west and has painted a series of monumental Rocky Mountain paintings in a strong abstract style. She uses Chinese mineral pigments, diluted acrylic paint, and watered down Chinese ink to produce textured shapes similar to abstract expressionism and color-field painting.
Yang’s work and that of her husband were featured in “Expressive Ink: Paintings by Yang Yanping and Zeng Shanqing” at the Art Institute of Chicago, which ran through November 10, 2019. Her work has been shown in group and solo shows in galleries in New York, London, Vienna, Austria, France, and Switzerland.
Her work is in the permanent collections of Oxford’s The Ashmolean Museum, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Beijing’s National Historical Museum and Beijing Artists Association, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, London’s The British Museum, and the Krannert Art Museum in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, among others.