“Guo Fengyi: To See from a Distance” and “3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Emma Kunz, Hilma af Klint, and Agnes Martin”

Guo Fengyi, The Grave of Lao Jun (Lao Zi), 1990. Colored ink on glazed printing paper. Collection of Amy Gold and Brett Gorvy.

Artists have been approaching the mysteries of our world through unique artmaking practices for centuries. Modernist titans such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian are well-recognized for experimenting with elemental concepts such as color, shape, and line, to produce abstract and geometric work aligned with spiritualist ideas. Mystically-minded women artists shared the same project yet they have been severely underrecognized, and have only started to gain recognition in recent decades. In 2005, The Drawing Center presented the work of three such artists in “3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Emma Kunz, Hilma af Klint, and Agnes Martin”. Today, we exhibit the work of Guo Fengyi in “To See from a Distance,” an exhibition that continues our legacy of surfacing singular artists whose drawings ignite new conversations and discourses.   

“3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Emma Kunz, Hilma af Klint, and Agnes Martin”  brought together three artists that used geometric abstraction as a means of visualizing philosophical, scientific, and transcendental ideas. The exhibition illuminated the historic and artistic correlations among the three artists, who all believed in abstraction as a way to achieve higher consciousness and self-knowledge in order to reveal sacred workings of the universe. Kunz, af Klint, and Martin all lived solitary lives in relative seclusion as each were utterly devoted to their respective practices. Their profound dedication to gaining intuitive knowledge of the connections between the physical world and the cosmos resulted in mesmerizing drawings in which every line, mark, and color corresponds and holds meaning. 

Analogous to the practice of this legendary trio of artists, Guo Fengyi (1942 – 2010, b. Xi’an, China) also dedicated herself to drawing and to her quest for knowledge about herself and the universe. Using a methodology most similar to af Klint, Guo developed an astounding visual language derived from visions she had while practicing qigong, an ancient Chinese wellness and healing technique that combines coordinated movements, breathing, and meditation. While af Klint received formal artistic training, Guo did not; her qigong, meditation, and advanced knowledge of Chinese medicine and cosmology provided her with a structure from within which she created a symbolically charged visual language that represent divine concepts. Guo’s dedicated search for healing also became a search for mystic knowledge as a core belief to ancient Chinese cosmology is that the human body “is a replica of the macrocosm.”[i] Guo’s line of questioning began with the body but connected to an expanded external search. “I began drawing on May 21, 1989. Before that I was frequently ill, and my health wasn’t optimal.,” Guo explained, “I heard that even those who cannot write can prescribe medicine, which to me sounds quite magical, so I decided to try drawings – that’s how I began. What I drew was mostly about treating illness: How to treat leukemia? How to treat toothache? How to treat depression? I then drew accordingly.”[ii]  

Guo began her drawing sessions with a word or phrase such as “Japan” or “the human body,” and would ensue an intuition-driven drawing session in which her conscious self was not in control. Under this special condition of consciousness, which was trance-like and similar to the indigenous Chinese concept of “wu” or being “possessed by spirits,” Guo would seek knowledge on the chosen theme. “I draw because I do not know,” she said, “I draw to know.”  The generative and inductive way in which she produced art, set Guo apart from her contemporaries. Instead of drawing from observation, Guo drew from internal visioning processes that were unique to her. “I’m different from you guys,” Guo asserted, “You people paint after you understood, and yet, I understand only after I paint.”

Despite the support and promotion of her work by major voices in Chinese contemporary art, Guo’s work remains lesser known both inside and outside China. Precisely because of this similarity Guo shares with the female mystic artists of previous generations, The Drawing Center is proud to share Guo Fengyi’s drawings with our audience in this first survey exhibition presented in the United States.

[i] Ryor, Kathleen, Besaw, Mindy N., Hopkins, Candice, and Well-Off-Man, Manuela, Drawing Papers 142: Guo Fengyi To See from a Distance, (New York: The Drawing Center, 2020), 46. 

[ii] Fengyi, Guo quoted in Drawing Papers 142: Guo Fengyi To See from a Distance, (New York: The Drawing Center, 2020), 74.