Tan Ping: Art On The Edge Rothko Museum Latvia – Philip Dodd

Tan Ping

Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, on the main St Petersburg to Warsaw railway line, when the city was part of the Russian Empire and a centre of Jewish culture and learning.

We are in the same city, renamed Daugavpils in 1920, the second city of Latvia, to open an exhibition of Tan Ping, an important Chinese abstract artist, at the Rothko Museum. It was founded in 2013, with the loan of six paintings by Rothko’s children, which rotate on a five-yearly basis.

The Nazis and bloody twentieth century history had their way with the Jewish population, Latvia was absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Second World War Two until 1990, and felt, at least to western Europeans, to be on the periphery of Europe. One of the terrible ironies of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Latvia feels more central to Europe now. On our way from Riga to the Rothko Museum, we stop over to visit the duo of Skuja Braden who are in the new ‘Queer Art’ book and represented Latvia at the 2022 Venice Biennale. As we sit outside, conversation is momentarily drowned by the sound of military aircraft overhead.

It is in this world that we staged ‘Back and Forth: The Art of Tan Ping,’ the major show at the Rothko Museum, among six that opened on 31 May. One of the other shows was a solo exhibition by the Brazilian, UK-based artist Karin Lambrecht.

“Back and Forth”, the title of this exhibition, is an attempt to capture the restless inventiveness of Tan Ping’s life as an artist. In terms of biography, he was born in 1960 and entered the most important Chinese arts school, CAFA, in Beijing in 1980, a member of one of the first generations whose education was not interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. It was a time when western books and exhibitions flooded into China. In 1989, Tan Ping won a DAAD scholarship to Berlin, saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and was taught at the Hochschule der Künste by Baselitz, among others. As he himself has said, in Germany at the time, 80% of galleries exhibited abstract art. He returned to China in 1994.

Tan Ping

Untitled (2013), acrylic on canvas

In terms of art, he has moved from woodcut to acrylic and back again, from figuration to abstraction, from diminutive to large-scale, from minimalist to maximalist, from painting to performance. It is hard not to see across all of his work an attempt to hold contraries together, to explore art and life beyond boundaries and borders: psychological, social and aesthetic. ‘Back and Forth’ is an abbreviated retrospective.

The opening galleries showcase figurative work from his early years in China – followed by figurative and early abstract work made in Berlin. In his abstract work, the action is pushed to the painting’s periphery (he refers to the example of the Chinese artist Pan Tianshou and says of him that ‘the periphery is the centre’). This very interesting work is a reminder of the wisdom of Frank Auerbach when he said, ‘Painting is not a natural activity; it is not like spitting’. Neither is looking at painting – and Western eyes need to learn to look at paintings from other cultures.

Tan Ping

Balance (1993), oil on canvas.

One gallery is filled with paintings where circles (prompted by the cancerous cells of his ill father) mutate and change shape in dialogue with one another; another gallery has work where strong and dramatic calligraphic lines are laid over blocks of colour (the tension between the individual and society, says the artist) – such galleries lead to the last ones showcasing his present work which is as maximalist as the early work minimalist. His fellow abstract artist Ding Yi (newly represented by Lisson) has said that Tan Ping’s German experience seemed to have lain fallow but has emerged recently in what Ding Yi calls, admiringly, Tan Ping’s Chinese neo-expressionism. It is not an inaccurate phrase to describe the work. Tan Ping’s own account stresses that the world’s increasing complexity means that his abstract language needs to respond in kind with complexity.

Tan Ping


Disturbed Scenery (2022), acrylic on canvas

When we are constantly told that intercourse with other cultures can contaminate ours, it is salutary to see in such a ‘border’ as Daugavpils – where the primary language is Russian – a hybrid artist  holding together European abstract idioms with the Chinese aesthetic of ‘less is more; an artist whose each and every painting sets up dialogues – psychological and social.

Tan Ping’s next European exhibition will be in December at the Ludwig Museum in Germany, where his work entered the collection sometime ago. Compared with other Chinese artists of his generation, he is well-represented in museums in Europe and the US.

Once upon a time – say 15 years ago – Europe was hungry for Chinese art. Sadly, not at present. An ex-Pompidou friend told me that he could currently interest no French institution in mainland Chinese art. The explanation: geopolitics. The same French friend told me he thought Europe was moving east – and Berlin and Warsaw would be its heart – Paris on the edge. It may be that an exhibition by a Chinese artist on the border of Latvia and Russia has more of the future in its bones than more noisy and art market-friendly shows in many Western European art palaces.

Top Photo: Rothko Museum, Daugavpils, Latvia

Back and Forth: The Art of Tan Ping, Rothko Museum, Daugavpils, Latvia, 31 May to 25 August 2024.

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