Until March 2, 2019 Galerie Karsten Greve is presenting a collection of pieces from Chinese artist Ding Yi which had been discovered by European audiences during the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993. Entitled Grids, this exhibition brings together more than 20 paintings on paper and canvass that feature the “+” sign which is sometimes positioned to make an “x” in different colours which are often set against monochrome backgrounds.
Consistent with the ideas introduced by art critic Rosalind Krauss in her article titled Grids: “The grid proclaims, among other things, the will of modern art to remain silent, its hostility to literature, to narrative and to discourse”. The essay that accompanies the exposition confirms that “In Ding Yi’s canvasses the ‘+’ sign is devoid of any semantic reference and is chosen for its simplicity and universal nature”. The artist’s work should therefore not be interpreted based on the reading of Rosalind Krauss, who, in the same article, turned the grid into a symbol of a secular form of belief after having stressed “the symbolic power of the crucifix”. Ding Yi’s use of the cross should instead be understood in terms of the book Abstraction, with or without reason in which historian Éric de Chassey emphasizes the visual similarity between the sign and the axis of a frame. By making the cross the index and the icon of the frame, Éric de Chassey incorporates the theories of Amy Goldin whose article entitled Patterns, Grids and Painting presents the painted grid as a shape that seeks to call attention “to the fact that we are in front of an artificial object, having its own characteristics that separate it from the world of objects”. This concept can also be applied to the work of Ding Yi who discovered 20th century European and American art when China became open to global markets in 1979 and consequently abandoned studying traditional painting to focus on abstractionism. If his pieces tend to be quite large – in fact, encompassing like the abstract expressionists—then the grids are, to borrow the terms of the debate that shook up American art criticism at the time the format was introduced, “centripetal”, meaning that they were separated from the space in which they were displayed. With respect to Yi’s work on paper, the lines do not reach the edges of support thus leaving an empty space between the grid and the wall. As for the oils on the canvasses, the grids completely cover them and then they themselves are inserted into a frame, often glazed, that makes them stand out from the picture rail. Consequently, Ding Yi’s compositions do not come from an assembly of elements that cover the surface but from a division of them, beginning with the frame. They do not result from a “cumulative process” but from a “subtractive process”, to paraphrase John Ederfied who, in his article which was also called Grids, associated the second process to a description of the surface. Ding Yi’s pieces are not intended to “dematerialize” beyond the support, they are a work on the surface that transform them into independent objects.
Interestingly, and even though theorists who have associated the grid to textile have done it by emphasizing the visual proximity between this shape and the crisscrossing of the warp (horizontal) and weft (vertical) of the canvas, it’s Ding Yi’s paper grids that most naturally suggest a resemblance to fabric. On those displayed in the first room, called Appearance of Crosses 2018-B 8, the intersection points get thicker to form different stains in shades of grey reminiscent of canvas art. This visual resemblance to textiles once again allows us to think of the grid not only in analytical and intellectual terms but also “as coming from the sensitive and material domain” as Lucile Encrevé explains in the article The Textile Behind the Grid: an impure abstraction.
Éric de Chassey notes, from his perspective, that weaving has often played the role of model in painting when it becomes overwhelmed by the fantasy of a return to its origins. This viewpoint reflects what Ding Yi himself has said (cited on the Guggenheim website): “[I’ve] found it necessary to demarcate myself both from the burden of traditional Chinese culture and from the influence of ancient Western modernism, in order to get back to the beginning of art, in order to literally go back to the drawing board”. Simply put, he uses the grid to start from scratch and to better express his own individuality in “a dialectic of personal and impersonal” to cite Éric de Chassey, who noted in the 1980s that the grid Ding Yi’s had undergone a certain modification. Even though abstract artists tend to disappear behind this impersonal form, the postmodernists reconnect with it through their choice of colours and the display of movement.
Such is the case of Ding Yi who, after having tried to minimize his presence by using a ruler and tape, finally abandoned using any tools at all in 1991 and began painting freehand, leaving the imperfect outlines and the material’s unintended effects visible. His grids represent a kind of artistic research that examine form and colour in their relationship to space. In that sense, the “+” sign or its variant, “x” make up the basic elements and the density of colours allows the artist to reveal the vertical, horizontal or diagonal (lines), depending on the paintings. Similarly, painting many crosses (straight or inclined) in the same colour, allows the artist to stand out in the crowd, to form patterns to create different compositions such as the piece entitled Appearance of Crosses 2013-2.
Since Ding Yi’s grids express a concept of art based on formal research that was not intended to change the world but rather to express the artist’s originality, they neither resemble Mondrian’s nor Martin’s. They demonstrate, as Rosalind Krauss states, that this form which “only permits a very limited freedom” is a place where, despite everything, an artist’s individuality can be strongly expressed. In this sense, the Ding Yi’s extraordinary quality lay in this vocabulary reduced to a single sign “+” gathered in a complete system, a language that the curator and critic Hou Hanru had rightly described as “excessive Minimalism”.