One of the most striking works on display is No Title (Abstract Work in Monochrome) (1998), a monochromatic painting done with ink on paper. Strokes of black ink rise, fall, and swoop across the surface. Sometimes the lines veer back on themselves to form boxy loops; other times they make sharp acute angles. A few are dense and rich with ink, while others reveal instances when Wang’s brush was drier, yielding fainter, staccato-textured marks.
Although entirely abstract, the work resembles a landscape. Wang’s variation of lines and overlapping of forms render a sense of depth and distance, with a foreground seemingly receding into a background. Washes of gray ink appear luminous in certain areas and smoky in others, alternately evoking the contours of earthen mounds or the effervescence of the atmosphere. Throughout, the quavering lines evoke the swift, rhythmic flow of movement initiated by Wang’s wrist and arm. Wang made this work when he was in his nineties, and it’s emblematic of the artist’s lifelines: not a single, straight line moving in one direction, but many lines traveling different paths and coalescing into a unified whole.
Wang was born in 1907 in Suzhou, China, to a literati family. Then in their twilight years, the literati comprised an elite social class of scholars and officials who had formed the heart of China’s state bureaucracy since the tenth century. This privileged group emphasized self-cultivation and the pursuit of knowledge. It also developed its own educational program, which Wang and his generation were among the last to receive.
As students, young literati were expected to learn not only classical Chinese texts and essay composition, but also to master calligraphy and landscape painting. Their training with brush and ink was in fact a full-body exercise: dots, lines, washes, and stains were rendered with subtle variations on the position and pressure of the brush in one’s hand, guided by the choreography of arm and body moving across paper.
To build tactile and experiential fluency, literati artists ideally maintained a lifelong practice of copying the works of earlier masters. This not only increased their own repertoire of skills and improved their technique, but also facilitated a kind of spiritual communion and embodied dialogue with centuries of preceding artists.
Adherence to the practice of copying did not imply a lack of originality or individual expression. Literati pedagogy aimed to prepare individual artists to discover their own paths through expertise in ancient methods. Over the centuries, there evolved a rich lexicon of techniques named for the individual literati artist who had originated or exemplified them: the “raindrop” method of Fan Kuan (ca. 990–1030), the sustained “single stroke” of Shitao (1642–1707), or Guo Xi’s (1020–1090) practice of meditating on his walls to find inspirational patterns. Each artist made their own original contribution—their “mark,” so to speak—to the lineage.
Repetitive emulation of past masters also trained literati artists to become connoisseurs. When examining a particular brushstroke or detail in a painting, they could use their intimate, physical knowledge of an array of techniques to determine exactly who had painted it. Such connoisseurship predisposed literati to be natural collectors. Before the advent of photographic reproductions and public museums, the only way of studying original Chinese artworks was to own them yourself, or to know someone else—usually a literati artist—who did. Appreciating, authenticating, buying, selling, and displaying literati art were all part and parcel of the artist’s vocation.