‘When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money,’ says Hsiao Chin, quoting Mark Rothko in a new film created in conjunction with his retrospective at the Mark Rothko Art Centre. ‘Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain.’

It’s Hsiao Chin’s own vision that sets him apart in the story of abstract art, which was often weighted towards American art in the mid-20th century. When Hsiao Chin began finding his artistic pulse in the late 1950s and early 60s, abstraction was in the wake of Informalism and in a volatile mood of action painting, both described by the artist in the film as ‘more actions than thoughts’. He was in search of something different, more meditative, what Rothko deemed ‘pockets of silence’. The results were minimal and utterly fundamental forms in black and white, drawing on the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Hsiao Chin later discovered the work Tibetan Buddhist art, which prompted the use of vivid colour. These bold compositions fuse a European approach to abstraction with flushes of Fauvism and the liberal brushwork of Chinese calligraphy.

Hsiao Chin, The Origin of Chi 3, 1962. Ink on canvas, 40 x 60cm. Courtesy of 3812 Gallery

Hsiao Chin’s retrospective at the Mark Rothko Art Centre sees six decades of the artist’s work – from 1959 to the present day – converge with the institution’s permanent collection of Rothko paintings. The exhibition explores, for the first time, how both artist’s ideas intersected in the 1960s. Its title, ‘In My Beginning Is My End’ is an extract from the second poem in TS Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. The line has both spiritual and biographical relevance for Hsiao Chin. He was born in China in 1935, moved to Taiwan, then to Spain, settled in Italy for half a century, travelled through America, returned to Italy, then circled back to Taiwan. It’s perhaps this international view and global circularity that soaks Hsiao Chin’s work in such a contemporary feel. 

Though his artistic origins were in oil paint, it became too lethargic a medium for Hsiao Chin, and he turned to acrylic (then a relatively new medium), which he found to have a similar immediacy as Chinese ink. Works such as Power of the light, and La Vibrazione del Sole (both 1965) see the circle motif, a symbol for heaven in Chinese culture, take centre stage, anchoring the paintings in a sense of spiritual balance and harmony.

Hsiao Chin, Power of the light, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 160 x 130cm. Courtesy of 3812 Gallery

Hsiao Chin was also instrumental in bringing Chinese contemporary art, and creative voices from Chinese diaspora, into the Western conversation. In Milan in 1961, he became the first Chinese artist to found a major international avant-garde movement, the Movimento Punto, which drew on Eastern philosophy. In 1963, he curated ‘Chinesische Künstler der Gegenwart’, an exhibition in Leverkusen (West Germany), which is said to be the first post-war group show of Chinese contemporary art in the West.

So where do Rothko and Hsiao Chin share common ground? In abstraction, certainly, but they are bound by something deeper, and even more intangible: spirituality. They first met in 1968 on Hsiao Chin’s first visit to New York and became friends, with Hsiao Chin gravitating towards Rothko’s rejection of consumerism and use of abstraction as a spiritual portal. ‘His peers may appear to be the Italian Lucio Fontana and the American Kenneth Noland, but in his search for a language of painting that can incarnate spiritual experiences, the only comparable painter of the time is Mark Rothko - which makes holding Hsiao Chin’s retrospective in Mark Rothko’s hometown museum so compelling,’ explains exhibition curator Philip Dodd. 

Installation view: ‘In My Beginning Is My End: The Art of Hsiao Chin’, Mark Rothko Art Centre, Latvia. Courtesy of Mark Rothko Art Centre

Hsiao Chin infused his visual language with a distinctly international flavour. This is a meeting of Hsiao Chin and Mark Rothko. It’s also a meeting of East and West; terrestrial and otherworldly; introspection and global vision; beginning and end. It also proves that in art, these boundaries need not exist. As Hsiao concludes in the film, ‘My paintings reflect my vision of life, which has no beginning or end and never stops.’ §

Hsiao Chin in London, 1965