In 1987, at the invitation of Robert A. Hefner III, Ai Xuan, Chen Yanning, and Wang Yidong visited the US and held an exhibition at Hefner's Madison Avenue gallery. During the same period, Ai Xuan held his own solo exhibition; in the exhibition catalog, Michael Sullivan noted the special characteristics of Ai Xuan's work, in particular, that 'his realism is poetic, a little disturbing, and totally free from ideology.' In December that year, the Wall Street Journal's Pat Lambert penned an essay, 'Freedom Fuels a New Chinese Art,' which was accompanied by Ai Xuan's The Boy by the White River (Lot 520). Of Ai Xuan's art, Lambert noted especially 'the meticulous detail, for example, of his Tibetan scenes-all the furry hide coats, the seas of grass, the weathered faces. But the real kinship is in the paintings' aura of isolation and mystery. For the most part Mr. Ai's Tibetans, like his Boy by the White River reproduced here, stand alone in their majestic surroundings, their eyes averted from the viewer-voyeur. The painter's palette, heavy on icy grays and blues, adds to the mood of melancholy.'
Beginning in the 1970s, Ai Xuan served as resident artist in the Chengdu Military Command Region for more than ten years. During that period he traveled to paint scenes in Tibet numerous times, from which he developed a deep feeling for the culture and scenery of the region. In 1981 he also happened to see the art of Andrew Wyeth for the first time, in the pages of World Art magazine. He was profoundly impacted by certain aspects of Wyeth's works, such as the pointed absence of specific political themes, their unusual quietness and fine detail, and even the departure from normal principles of perspective. In the early 1980s, Ai Xuan began creating works on Tibetan themes from an entirely new perspective. Four of his oils were chosen by by Li Xianting for publication in the January 1983 issue of Meishu (Art) magazine, an issue that also included He Duoling's painting Old Wall; in them, Ai's human subjects are shown mostly from the rear or in profile. Many critics at the time expressed doubts about these works due to their lack of political themes and narrative detail, and they further wondered, since we never directly see their faces, what exactly are those people in the paintings looking at as they stand dully in place, and what is their reason for being? But what Ai Xuan took such great pains to convey in his art was precisely the simple fact of their existence, and their mood of tranquility and melancholy.
Of Tibet, Ai Xuan once said, 'It will give you the feeling of an immense and unsurpassed power. Tibet is ageless and unchanging, filled with grandeur and solemnity, and facing its reality may leave you feeling powerless. I use the state of things in Tibet as the means of expressing my own feelings.' In The Boy by the White River, the silhouette of the boy stands against a river capped with pure white ice, stretching into the distance, while the dry earth cracks in the foreground. Each of the details of the scene is depicted with undiscriminating details, and a compelling realism permeates every aspect of the painting-in every wear mark along the deep folds of the boy's too-large cotton wadded coat, his intense gaze, the wool lining at his collar and sleeves, and the suggestion of a sharp winter wind that raises tufts of his hair. This is a rite of stillness and solitude, an artistic statement that neither seems to need to pose questions, nor to answer them. Like Frederick Remington's Indian, seated on a horse with his back to the viewer, or the woman in white, her face half veiled, in John Singer Sargent's Fume d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), the focus of the artist here is the state of his subject's being, as it exists at a particular place and a particular time.
Ai Xuan once pointed out that, the 1980s was a period of seeking new knowledge and exploration for many Chinese contemporary artists, many of whom were in search of new artistic language, forms, and styles. From the 1990s onwards, with the economic development and increasing commodification of the society, many artists were inevitably affected, including himself. Created in the 1980s and remaining one of Ai Xuan's most important early period works, The Boy by the White River is suffused with powerful tension. On a deep level, it embodies the spirit of the scholar-painters of ancient China's literati class, such as the Yuan Dynasty's Ni Zan, and the desolate, bleak, and somewhat magical sentiments in his landscapes. Behind the brushstrokes of this painting, a viewer can almost hear the voice of Ai Xuan, intoning his father, famous poet Ai Qing's poem 'I Love This Land': 'This land buffeted by storms, this river, turbulent with our grief, these angry winds ceaselessly blowing, and the dawn, rising so gently over the woods Why are my eyes always brimming with tears? Because I love this land so deeply.'