Born in Shanghai in 1943, Yu Youhan returned to his hometown to teach painting, drawing, and photography at the Shanghai Art & Design Academy after he graduated from the Beijing Central Academy of Arts and Design in 1973. Not only did he start introducing Western Modernist painting to his students, but also he experimented with the Abstract Expressionist style of painting with a group of like-minded students in the early 80s. In the mid - 80s Yu Youhan diverged from the mainstream artistic collective who were concerned with regional characteristics and cultural symbolism, instead choosing to focuse on representing ancient Chinese philosophy and cultural tradition with Modernism through his own idiosyncratic brand of abstract art.
Untitled (Lot 61) is an exceptional work from Yu Youhan's Circle series painted in the 1980s. Over a black background, the artist created a circular space in greyscale that hangs suspended in stillness and gloom. This irregularly - shaped circle is covered with black and white dots. The form floats ambiguously in space, shimmering in and out of existence, loaded with a sense mysticism. The picture is divided into four quadrants by a cross that is barely visible. This forms a cosmology that hints at the perpetual cycle of Taoism. Seemingly chaotic and arbitrary, the densely painted white dots congregate into a contrasting symmetry. Such a balanced composition with elements that echo one another present several dichotomies to the viewer - uncouthness versus wisdom, tranquility versus dynamism, and eternity versus a state of flux. The philosophical concepts of existence and non-existence are thoroughly expounded on the canvas, constructing a mysterious world of Eastern metaphysics.
In this work Yu Youhan also explores the topic of trajectory and movement: a circle symbolises cyclical motion and also hints at the contraction and expansion of matter. The dots on the surface of the circle are not arranged in a uniform manner; instead they are fading in and out of existence allowing viewers to witness a symbiotic relationship that is set into motion by the force of nature. This motion references the microcosm of atoms – the building blocks of life that are charged with positive and negative energies. These dots silently circulate the entire picture, immersing the viewer in a world of quietude, a murkiness out of which emerges harmony. The juxtaposition between the intangible circle and the tangible dots precisely reflect the mental state and emotion of the artist - it is a personal exploration expressed through abstraction. Akin to Piet Mondrian's transformation of the laws of nature and the composition of natural phenomena into a visual language of abstraction, Yu Youhan also constructs a sense of tension and release through this rhythmic composition (Fig. 1).
Yu Youhan elaborated on his Circle series, explaining, "The circle is a simple shape. It is the principle shape in my painting series. It's breadth has an inner strength and expansiveness. It exudes a sense of tranquility that speaks of the fleeting moment and the eternal. Through the use of the circle, I can unify the opposing concepts of crudeness and cleverness, stillness and dynamism, equilibrium and transformation, existence and non-existence. The circle's power of representation can achieve a kind of communion with the spirituality of the universe. The surface events on the painting realise the value of oneself. Through the picture plane, one can be enlightened by both the immaterial realm (Tao) and formal elements of the painting (the material)."
The way in which Yu Youhan utilizes these opposing concepts in this work stems from his insights into the Taoist philosophy and Western abstract art. As if visually echoing the Taoist saying "darkness within darkness, all mysteries lead to the same door," the artist represents this state of the Tao through the use of the mysterious colour black. The circle, meanwhile, represents a state of perpetual motion and the cyclical nature of life lending the work the air of a Chinese literati painting. Meanwhile the work's improvised quality, repetitive strokes, reduction of representation, and texture expressed through the natural qualities of the medium are all drawn from Western abstract art. A close visual comparison can be made to Jasper John's White Target which also disassociates colour from form and is created with historically rooted medium of wax and pigment - the resulting texture from this unique treatment bestows new meaning on the painting.
The "non-action" teachings of the Taoist philosopher, Laozi, are not only apparent in Yu Youhan's Circle series paintings, but also reflected in the artist's artistic development as well. During his formative years, Yu Youhan learned about Western Modernist paintings from his next door neighbour who happened to be a professor at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. The artist received formal training in art in the 60s, but it was not until the later half the 70s that he had the opportunity to explore abstract art. In the 90s, he took a detour in Pop Art, before in 2007 returning to abstract art, a style which he continues to practice today. This circular path that led Yu Youhan back to abstraction is a central principle of Taoist meditation.