Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition to debut newly commissioned contemporary Chinese ink paintings responding to masterpieces from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

BOSTON, MA (October 7, 2010)—Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is a groundbreaking exhibition in which 10 leading contemporary Chinese artists will show works recently created in direct response to masterpieces in the Museum’s world-renowned collection. Opening on November 20 in the MFA’s new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, the exhibition will juxtapose these new works with the masterpieces that inspired them, creating a dynamic stage on which the classic will historicize the contemporary as the new reinterprets the old. Monumental landscapes, imaginative portraits, and dramatic installations will be showcased in a wide range of formats. Fresh Ink will celebrate the rich diversity and creativity of Chinese art today and its profound connection to the millennia-long tradition of ink painting. On view through February 13, 2011, the exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Generous corporate sponsorship is provided by United Technologies Corporation. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. Artist residencies have been supported in part by the Asian Cultural Council.

“Fresh Ink will introduce our visitors to some of the most exciting and creative minds of our times,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “This dialogue between the Museum’s treasured masterpieces and the fresh interpretations of contemporary Chinese artists presents works from the MFA’s collection in a new light.”

Fresh Ink is the culmination of a project more than five years in the making, beginning in 2005 with the exhibition’s conception and artist selection. In 2006, 10 artists from China and the Chinese diaspora were invited by the MFA to attend an artist-in-residency program at the Museum. During the next three years, each traveled to Boston and studied masterpieces from the MFA’s collection; eventually, they each selected one work to which they would directly respond with their own work. The 10 artists participating in the exhibition, ranging in age from their late 30s to early 60s, are Arnold Chang, Li Huayi, Li Jin, Liu Dan, Liu Xiaodong, Qin Feng, Qiu Ting, Xu Bing, Yu Hong, and Zeng Xiaojun. What is reflected in this group of artists, in their fascinating biographies and diverse styles, and in their individual connections to tradition, is a commitment to understanding the past while forging a vibrant future—a concept at the core not only of Fresh Ink, but of contemporary China itself.

“Artists are the most astute observers of art,” said Hao Sheng, the MFA’s Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art, who organized the show. “A highlight of planning the exhibition was the time spent looking in storage with the artists, watching them putting questions to works of art and finding unexpected answers from them. This thrilling dialogue will resume between new and old works, which will be shown together in the exhibition for the first time, one next to another.”

Fresh Ink features 10 pairings of classic and contemporary works among the approximately 40 pieces (including preparatory sketches and woodblocks by the artists) in the exhibition. The masterpieces chosen from the Museum’s collection vary in age, medium, and culture. They span 3,000 years, from an 11th-century BC bronze vessel, to paintings on silk from the Song Dynasties period (AD 960–1268), to a Jackson Pollock canvas of 1949. The new works also range widely in format, from traditional handscrolls, hanging scrolls, and carved wooden screens, to silk banners and monumental folding books.

Near the entrance of the exhibition, eight bolts of golden silk will cascade from the ceiling, measuring 17 feet tall and featuring life-size portraits by Yu Hong. Her work responds to Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (early 12th century), a treasure of the Museum’s collection attributed to the artist-emperor Huizong (1082–1135), which she first saw in her art school class when she was a teenager in Beijing. Known for her depictions of women, the artist re-envisioned the Tang dynasty (618–907) court ladies as 21st-century women in Spring Romance (Collection of the Artist, 2009), and included her self-portrait among the group of women.

Another artist whose self-portrait is incorporated in his work is Li Jin, who responded to Northern Qi scholars collating classic texts (Northern Song dynasty, 11th century). The ancient scroll depicts a scene of scholars cavorting, drinking, reading, and writing. Li created a playful response with his paintings Reminiscence to Antiquity I–VII (Promised Gift of the Artist, 2009), which include two long handscrolls and seven narrow hanging scrolls. Li stayed in Boston for six weeks during his residency, and the artist’s sensitivity to the city is evident in visual references, including a Red Sox hat-wearing Bostonian and a curious harbor seal.

Liu Xiaodong, regarded in Chinese art circles as the most talented oil painter of his generation, is known for his sensitive engagement with social issues. In response to the violence he saw in the classical work Erlang and His Soldiers Driving out Animal Spirits (Ming dynasty, 15th century), Liu reflected on the subject of violence he read about in American schools in his 5 x 25-foot work What to Drive Out? (MFA, Boston, 2008). The artist painted full-length images of nine American teenagers from Boston high schools, incorporating their thoughts about violence, which the teens wrote as colophons on the left side of the scroll. The painting was acquired by the Museum upon its completion in 2008.

A different kind of portraiture was created by Liu Dan, who painted nine oversized portraits of the renowned “scholar’s rock,” the Honorable Old Man Rock (Rosenblum Family Collection, first collected at about 1600) from nine different angles. Famous for his rock portraits, Liu assimilates the very character of the 5 ½-foot rock, which serves as the focal point of his dramatic installation, Illusions of the Old Man Rock I–X (The Xiling Collection, 2009). The nine rock paintings (each measuring 4 x 8 feet) are arranged in a circle around the rock, with a 30-foot-long handscroll of an imagined landscape wrapping the exterior of the circle.

Two artists have offered two very different responses to one of the MFA’s great treasures, Nine Dragons (1244) by Chen Rong (first half of the 13th century). Li Huayi interprets the qi (chi)—the circulating life energy that in Chinese thought is believed to enliven all things—of these fearsome, mythical creatures as craggy mountains and rocks, twisting pines, and misty clouds in his finely painted landscape Dragon Amidst Mountain Ridges (Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang, 2009). By manipulating the absorbency of his medium, xuan paper, and splash painting sections of his monumental work, Li achieves an ethereal effect. Measuring 7 feet tall and 18 feet wide—the largest work the artist has ever created—this innovative screen design features six vertical panels joined together and curved at the end, with a hanging scroll at the center a few inches in front of the panels. Zeng Xiaojun was also inspired by Nine Dragons. His response has taken a two-fold approach, illustrated by both a 32-foot-long scroll, Nine Trees (Collection of the Artist, 2009), where the writhing dragons are reimagined as aged, gnarled cypress trees, and a sumptuous 8 x 11-foot folding screen titled Dragon Screen, made out of zitan wood, featuring ink paintings of twisting cypress trees on one side, and carved and lacquered dragons on the other.

Landscapes are the eternal subject of Chinese ink paintings. Offering a fresh take on this is Arnold Chang, a Chinese-American artist living in New York who chose to respond to Jackson Pollock’s painting Number 10 (1949), which will be displayed flat on a table, as is customary with Chinese scrolls. Chang saw the opportunity to invite comparison between the fluid motion of Pollock’s “drip technique” and the Chinese landscape brush idiom. His painting Secluded Valley in the Cold Mountains (Collection of the Artist, 2008), and his earlier sketch Brushwork Study for Reorienting Pollock (Collection of the Artist, 2008), reflect his interpretation of Pollock’s gesture.

Xu Bing revisited the definitive painting instructions on Chinese landscape, the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (late 17th century), transforming simple images from this primer into a complex work of art. Instructional motifs, featuring rocks, trees, and water elements with accompanying texts, were scanned from the manual, cut, then arranged to form a new panorama. The new composition was then carved into woodblocks, from which long scrolls were printed using traditional printing techniques.

For his landscape Visit to the Eight Great Sites (Gift by Qiu Ting, 2009), Qiu Ting pays homage to Zhao Lingrang’s Whiling Away the Summer by a Lakeside Retreat (Northern Song dynasty, 1100), a scholarly work from the Museum’s collection that was investigated in depth in the artist’s doctoral dissertation on Chinese brush painting. Although, at age 39, Qiu is the youngest of the 10 artists, he is ostensibly the most traditional in his painting style. Capturing the wistful lyricism of this Northern Song masterpiece, Qiu’s use of mist as a reoccurring motif ties the two works together. Visit to the Eight Great Sites also features numerous inscriptions at the end of the painting, containing a collection of commentaries on Zhao Lingrang that range from historical texts to Qiu’s own reflections.

The final work in Fresh Ink is a dynamic installation by Qin Feng, who responds to the oldest object in the exhibition, a monumental bronze vessel from the 11th century BC. Qin, a resident of both Chelsea, MA, and Beijing, drew upon his upbringing in China’s Xinjiang Province, a multicultural crossroads where Chinese, Uighur, Arabic, and Russian were among the languages used, for his Civilization Landscape Series (Collection of Artist, 2009). Fascinated by the written word, the artist was inspired by the inscriptions on the ceremonial vessel, which are some of the earliest traces of written Chinese. Surrounding this historic work of art are 15 large-scale folding books and 12 hanging scrolls by Qin, painted in words that are both ancient and of his own invention. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to contemplate these works by walking among the standing books, some of which are 5 feet tall.

Fresh Ink offers the opportunity to “eavesdrop” on the vibrant visual dialogue between today’s artists and established masters. By bridging eras—from the 11th century BC to the 21st century AD—and bringing people together from Beijing to Boston and beyond, the exhibition will present the venerable tradition of Chinese art anew, offering to global audiences a fresh encounter that goes beyond the preconceptions of traditional and contemporary, East and West.

Accompanying the exhibition is the catalogue Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition (MFA Publications, 2010), which features an introductory essay by Hao Sheng, the MFA’s Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art, and 10 artist profiles by Sheng and curatorial research associates Yan Yang and Joseph Scheier-Dolberg. The 208-page soft-cover catalogue is available for $40 in the MFA Bookstore and Shop or at /publications.

Below is an overview of the artists and their new works, as well as the corresponding masterpieces from the MFA collection. Please see Artist Biographies in the media kit for additional information.

Arnold Chang

  • Born in 1954 in New York, where he currently resides
  • MFA masterpiece: Number 10 (1949) by Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
  • Artist’s response: a landscape handscroll, Secluded Valley in the Cold Mountains (Collection of the Artist, 2008), and a preparatory sketch, Brushwork Study for Reorienting Pollock (Collection of the Artist, 2008)

Li Huayi

  • Born in 1948 in Shanghai, lives in San Francisco
  • MFA masterpiece: Nine Dragons (1244), a handscroll by Chen Rong (first half of the 13th century)
  • Artist’s response: Dragon Amidst Mountain Ridges (Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang, 2009), a six-panel screen and a central hanging scroll

Li Jin

  • Born in 1958 in Tianjin, where he still resides
  • MFA masterpiece: Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts (11th century), traditionally attributed to Yan Liben (about 600–673)
  • Artist’s response: Handscrolls, A New Take on Scholars Collating Classic Texts (Collection of the Artist, 2009) and hanging scrolls, Reminiscence to Antiquity I–VII (Promised Gift by the Artist, 2009)

Liu Dan

  • Born in 1953 in Nanjing, now resides in Beijing
  • MFA masterpiece: Honorable Old Man Rock (Rosenblum Family Collection, 17th century)
  • Artist’s response: Nine life-sized portraits, each reflecting a different angle, titled Illusions of the Old Man Rock I–IX (The Xiling Collection, 2009), and a handscroll of imagined landscape, Ten Different Views of the Honorable Old Man, (Collection of the Artist, 2009)

Liu Xiaodong

  • Born in 1963 in Liaoning Province, now lives in Beijing
  • MFA masterpiece: Erlang and his soldiers driving out animal spirits (Ming dynasty, 15th century)
  • Artist’s response: Painting, What to Drive Out? (MFA, Boston, 2008), with commentary written as colophons by nine teenagers from the Boston area. (Liu discusses his work in a podcast available on the MFA’s website, /files/podcasts/liuxiaodong.m4v)

Qin Feng

  • Born in 1961 in Xinjiang Province, resides in Chelsea, MA, and Beijing
  • MFA masterpiece: Fangyi-shaped Ritual Vessel (Late Shang dynasty to early Western Zhou dynasty, 11th century BC)
  • Artist’s response: Installation of large folding books and hanging scrolls, Civilization Landscape (Collection of the Artist, 2009)

Qiu Ting

  • Born in 1971 in Guangdong, resides in Beijing
  • MFA masterpiece: Whiling Away the Summer by a Lakeside Retreat (1100) by Zhao Lingrang (late 11th–early 12th century)
  • Artist’s response: Handscroll, Visit to the Eight Great Sites (Gift by Qiu Ting, 2009)

Xu Bing

  • Born 1955 in Chongqing, lives in Beijing
  • MFA masterpiece: the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1923 edition based on its first edition published in late 17th century)
  • Artist’s response: Printed scroll, Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll (Promised Gift by the Artist, 2009)

Yu Hong

  • Born in 1966 in Xian, lives in Beijing
  • MFA masterpiece: Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (early 12th century), attributed to Emperor Huizong (1082–1135)
  • Artist’s response: Painting, Spring Romance (Collection of the Artist, 2009)

Zeng Xiaojun

  • Born in 1954 in Beijing, where he lives
  • MFA masterpiece: Handscroll, Nine Dragons (1244) by Chen Rong
  • Artist’s response: Handscroll, Nine Trees (Collection of the Artist, 2009) and painted panels in a zitan wood screen, titled Dragon Screen (Collection of the Artist, 2009)

Additional Information

Please contact Amelia Kantrovitz, 617.369.3447, for more information about the exhibition, or for digital photography.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its encyclopedic collection, which includes an estimated 450,000 objects. The Museum’s collection is made up of: Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 9:45 p.m. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For general visitor information, visit the MFA website at or call 617.267.9300.