Art Column
Richard Lin(1933-2011) The Fascination of White Minimalism
Odile Chen / Ravenel Quarterly No. 16 2016/02 / 2016-02-17

“Modern Painting Relief Diptych”, 1967-1968 oil on canvas, aluminum 203.2 x 301.8 cm

© National Palace Museum, Taipei


Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve. The deep wisdom contains in “Book of Changes” (Yi Jing) is abstract and practical at the same time, a quality that Richard Lin placed at the heart of his art.


Richard Pare Lin at work in his studio. Photographs by Richard Pare


In the Realm of Whiteness, There Is Only Richard Lin

Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve. The oldest, most profound, and most mysterious of all the ancient works of Chinese thought, the “Book of Changes” (Yi Jing), is revered as the fountainhead of everything that followed, the first and most important of the classics. The deep wisdom it contains is abstract and practical at the same time, a quality that Richard Lin placed at the heart of his art, and verbally expressed as follows: “The simplest things are the most complicated ones, and the most complicated things need to be conveyed in the simplest fashion.” Throughout his life, he stubbornly pursued “ideal and perfect beauty,” always exploring new avenues and modes of expression that were entirely his own. This obsession with purity and originality, coupled with what many perceived as a somewhat haughty aloofness, earned him monikers such as “the last aristocrat” or “master of minimalism,” and he continues to be much admired for the blend of classical elegance and searing modernity that is the defining characteristic of his oeuvre.


Lin’s artistic philosophy was rooted in the concepts and connotations of Chinese thought, a fact that led him onto the path of ever-increasing simplification, until he reached a state of emptiness: a point where no further reduction was possible. In the Daode Jing, Laozi says that “five colors dazzle the eyes,” a notion that Lin very much agreed with, noting that “traditional ink and wash painting, which is mostly black-and-white, marks the pinnacle of Eastern aesthetic expressiveness.” During the 1960s, the heyday of the modern art movement, Lin’s “White Series,” a collection of paintings breathing the very conciseness and immediacy of Zen, making a lasting impression in Western art circles, and even earning a great compliment from Joan Miró, the eminent Spanish painter and sculptor, who declared that “Lin is unmatched in the world of white color.”


When returning to Taiwan in the 1980s, Lin similarly dazzled local colleagues and critics with his avant-garde minimalism, sparking a wave of admiration for what was termed “the white shock” and “the fascination of extreme minimalism.” Then, in 1984, at the height of his fame and success, he suddenly declared that “painting is dead,” and thenceforward devoted all his attention to the exploration of three-dimensional and installation art.


Richard Lin is one of the pioneers of modern art, a man whose distinguished background, exceptional aesthetic instinct, and outstanding artistic career make him one of the most charismatic and intriguing modern Chinese painters. In 1964, he became the first painter from Taiwan to have his work displayed at the Kassel Documenta in Germany, and in 1966 one of the leading international art dealers and showrooms, Marlborough New London Gallery, began to represent his work, putting Lin in the same category as many other post-war contemporary masters. And to this day, his “Painting-Relief” is the only contemporary work to be part of the Taipei National Palace Museum collection.


“Flow-2”, 1959, oil on paper, 50.8 x 63.5 cm  Private collection


Progeny of a Distinguished Family Who Becomes a World-renowned Painter

Standing 180cm tall and always wearing a starched shirt and white suit, Lin was the spitting image of an English gentleman. As a young fellow, brimming with energy and speaking with a powerful, resonant voice, he resembled nothing more than a revolutionist. Even in his later years, his perfectly erect posture, keen eyes, and witty, humorous attitude remained unchanged only occasionally would he show his more serious side, and allow people a glimpse of the uncompromising and perfectionist self that was at the core of his creative personality. In a documentary shown some years ago at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts retrospective titled “One Is Everything: 50 Years of Work by Richard Lin,” he is seen in free-flowing conversation, elegantly humming Beijing Opera tunes and conducting a chamber ensemble, swaying gently to the rhythm of the music: his broad learning and artistic depth, as well as his suave manners and debonair air, are all part of his lasting legacy.


Lin was born in 1933 in Taichung, at Wufeng’s Gongbaodi Mansion, the largest official residence in Taiwan since the days of the Qing Dynasty. The Lins had been an eminent family for many generations, and were still considered to be one of the island’s five most important clans during the Japanese era. “Born with a golden spoon in his mouth,” he grew up in his ancestral home under the love and care of his elders, who early on instilled in him a love of learning, art, and family tradition, thus laying the foundations for his later career. Lacking for nothing and knowing no cares, Lin, in his own words, led the life of a “little emperor, almost like Puyi.” He went to Taipei to receive his elementary school education in Japanese, and after the war, he graduated from Chien-Kuo Junior High School. When he was still a child, his family had been breeding horses, but for his fifteenth birthday, his father gave him a red Buick as a gift, a car so expensive back then that you could have bought about 25 hectares of land for the money. The young man would cruise along Taipei’s Zhongshan North Road, the former Omotesandƚ, and his father, who was exceedingly fond of him, told him that actually the best car in the world was made in England, and promised his son a Rolls Royce once he graduated from university. However, fate intervened and his father could never make good on that promise. So it was only decades later, after a successful exhibition of his work, that Lin was finally able to make his father’s dream a reality.


Afraid that his rebellious temperament might get him into trouble as the events of the White Terror period were unfolding in Taiwan, the family sent the 16-yearold Lin alone to Hong Kong in 1949, where he attended the Diocesan Boys’ School. In 1952, Lin went to England as a boarding student at Millfield School. After failing to get accepted for an aerospace engineering curriculum in 1954, he entered the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) to study architecture and fine arts. Ambitious and fiercely competitive, the young man also had a rather willful edge to personality, perhaps not unsurprising in someone who had been showered with affection and attention from a young age. Determined not to do anything that he couldn’t do well, Lin always remembered his father’s admonition to “seek real knowledge and learning,” and his quest for perfection in the arts certainly validated the hopes and trust Lin Senior had for his talented if unruly offspring.


Around 1957, when financial support from home dried up, Lin first conceived the idea of trying to make a living off painting, and consequently contacted many galleries and showrooms in the London area, seeking opportunities to promote his work. In 1958, he found favor with the Gimpel Fils Art Gallery, who was among the first to represent his paintings. Lin once said that he could clearly remember the moment when he sold his very first painting, for the comparatively small sum of just £90. Gimpel Fils remained his agents for three years, and it was during this period that the artist, then using the name “Lin Show-yu,” first burst onto the art scene.


By 1963, he had changed his name to “Richard Lin,” the moniker under which he became – and remains – a household name in Western art circles. In his early years, Lin also taught at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, and in 1966 he became a contracted artist with the Marlborough New London Gallery. From there on out, his career took off in earnest, and soon he was having solo exhibitions in many European cities, including London, Rome, Zurich, Brussels, Cologne, and Frankfurt, while his paintings were being acquired for the collections of more than 30 different galleries and museums around the world, including the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. His name was also included in numerous lists and catalogs of famous painters.


“Painting 5-January-1959”, 1959 oil on canvas, 152.4 x 127 cm

Price realized US$55,742 Ravenel 2015 Autumn Auction Hong Kong


During his life, Lin received countless awards, some of which include the Institute of Contemporary Arts Award in 1961, the First Prize of Open Painting Exhibition, Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 1966, the William Frew Memorial Purchase Award, Pittsburgh International in 1967, the Welsh Arts Council Award in 1976, and the Diploma of Merit, Universita delle Arti, Italia in 1982. In 1985, a year after he had declared the “death of painting” and focused on installation art instead, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum presented him with the first prize in the Chinese Modern Sculpture Exhibition for his threedimensional artwork.


In the mid-70s, Lin’s longstanding association with the Marlborough New London Gallery came to an end when his dealers asked him to change his minimalist approach to painting and adopt photo-realism as his new style, since that was a lot more fashionable in the United States at the time. Lin, however, was not willing to budge on such a fundamental issue, and when in the heat of their argument the gallery’s boss told him that “all artists are whores,” Lin famously tipped over the table in a fit of fury and walked straight out the door. As on other occasions, his uncompromising, headstrong even, artistic temperament asserted itself, and he remained true to his vision: realizing the ideals of aesthetic purity, rationality and order in the most succinct and abstract form possible. This methodical drive for order found expression not only in the artist’s outer appearance and personality, but also in his habits and behavior: walking into his studio, one was immediately impressed by the military-like neatness of the place. Everything was kept shipshape, systematically arranged for easy access, and the colors and materials were all of the best quality, with a clear preference for solid products and an aversion to cheap, synthetic stuff. For Lin, there simply was no room for compromise, especially when it came to his art.


When Richard Lin returned to Taiwan and held a solo exhibition in the 1980s, his “White Series” created a big stir in the island’s art circles. Back then, Taiwanese artists and critics mostly associated the term “abstract art” with the likes of Zao Wou-ki and his abstract expressionism, which was marked by a vibrant palette and splash-color techniques. Lin’s kind of abstractionism, reveling as it did in cold geometrical shapes and pure hues, was still far from being a mainstream affair. Before long, however, Lin’s minimalist style and emphasis on rationality and pure mediums began to have a major influence on a number of up-and-coming young artists, such as Tsong Pu, Jun T. Lai, Hu Kun-jung, and Chen Hui-chiao, all associated with the IT Park Gallery and Photo Studio. They are now members of Taiwan’s artistic elite, and their work is living proof that Lin’s legacy continues to grow even after his death in 2011.


“What’s Ahead?”, 1985 steel boards, 122 x 122 x 123 cm

© Taipei Fine Arts Museum


Rational Simplicity: Less Is More

Just after the end of WWII, England witnessed the rise of the modernist movement, and as a student of architecture, Lin was much inspired by two of the pioneers of modern architecture. One was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, arguably most famous for his aphorism “Less is more”; the other Le Corbusier, who equally rejected excessive ornamentation and complexity in favor of simple geometrical shapes and minimalist designs, which he considered to be the epitome of genuine beauty.


Lin once said, “If you want to tell a story, or talk about love and emotions, you should write a novel or make a movie. The fine arts are about something else: they exist to express what other art forms cannot, to explore the realm of absolute logic and rationality.” His earliest works still show some of the qualities of abstract expressionism, such as the “Flow” series (1957-1959), which employs the spirit of traditional Chinese landscape painting and a dripping ink technique to create pieces highly reminiscent of “hot abstractionism,” paintings that overflow with poignant moods, colors, and brushstrokes. During 1958, Lin also produced a number of abstract paintings representing natural sceneries or phenomena, all of which bore very concrete and specific titles, such as “Waves,” “Sun Breaking through the Clouds,” “Solar Eclipse,” and “Black Forest.”


The truth is that Lin never considered his art to be “abstract,” but thought of himself as more of a “naturalist.” Gradually, all figurative clues disappeared from his work, or rather, were merged into calm and emotionless sublimations of increasing simplicity. By the 1960s, he was rapidly moving towards a “cold abstractionism” featuring geometrical lines and shapes. The most representative work from that period is probably the “White Series,” in which the artist focused on precise, condensed blocks and layers of white. Said the artist, “White is both the most common and the most popular color, making one feel at ease and uncomfortable at the same time. And exactly therein lies its sacredness and its sadness”; and, “White is not just a color. It is a continuum of multifaceted shades and hues, an amalgam of tints and tones that fluctuate and oscillate in a myriad of forms and shapes, ever-metamorphosing as they shift across wide ranges of intensity, dilution, brightness, translucence, and semi-translucence, generating the very ephemerality and mystery of pure space.”


Lin’s “White Series” easily puts one in mind of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, the founder and most representative exponent of suprematism, and his composition titled “White on White.” Malevich postulated the supremacy of pure artistic feeling, and for Lin white was the most joyful and pleasing color of the entire palette. Both artists’ work shared a metaphysical, Zen-like quality. Overall, though, Lin’s work strikes a different note from Malevich’s oeuvre: the latter’s style was very much a product of a turbulent historical background, as Russia was undergoing dramatic political and social shifts at the time. With society and art in ferment, revolutionary energies gave extra momentum to the trends of absolute sublimation and abstraction, as opposed to the conventional visual depiction of objects. Lin’s “White Series,” on the other hand, mostly derives its inspiration from Eastern philosophy, especially the more contemplative and idealistic Daoist tradition, whose main exponents were Laozi and Zhuangzi. It are their concepts of “emptiness,” “ethereality,” and “spiritual freedom” that fed Lin’s minimalist style as the artist took the “liubai” and washand-ink techniques of literati painting and imbued them with a distinctly postmodern feel and meaning.


Richard Lin’s ultimate object is to produce art that achieves absolute simplicity of form and meaning. Yet this simplicity is deceptive, since it is the result of very complex thought processes. His canvases harbor fascinating forms that give the viewer a glimpse of eternity, freezing time by captivating the essence of existence. Tsong Pu, one of the younger generation of painters influenced by the great pioneer of minimalism in Taiwan, says that the structure of Lin’s paintings bears much similarity to German composer Johan Sebastian Bach’s counterpoint compositions, with both aiming at the same goal: profound meaning and logical harmony. “The many different shades of white in Lin’s work, ingeniously layered and arranged into almost hypnotic configurations of bars and flat geometrical forms, leave one in a state of deep contemplation. Here one finds a boundless cosmic calm that transcends all petty moods and emotions, transcends even life and death, as one enters the realm of enlightened tranquility. It reminds me a lot of the serenity emanating from traditional Chinese ink and wash works.”


“Four”, 1968, oil and aluminum on canvas 63.5 x 63.5 cm

Price realized US$25,717 Ravenel 2010 Autumn Auction Taipei


Rarity Makes Value, and Lin’s Works Are Much Sought after on the Art Market

The term “minimalism” first appeared in print in a 1965 issue of Arts Magazine, in an article titled “Minimal Art.” But Richard Lin, and other artists, had been pioneering this new style long before that, at a time when Zao Wou-ki, whose approach to modern art was almost diametrically opposed to Lin’s, was also becoming increasingly popular with international audiences. Lin first made a real impact on the European art scene in the early 1960s, favoring a reductionist, detached, and strictly rational approach, stripping art to its bare essentials. In stark contrast, Zao was a flamboyant impressionist-expressionist who dazzled audiences with vivid colors and pulsating compositions. But the two did not just differ in their artistic outlook and method: While Zao Wou-ki, or Chu Teh-chun for that matter, were very prolific painters, Richard Lin’s output was relatively small. A catalogue raisonné that would give us an overview of his complete body of work is not yet available, but it is clear from his rather erratic rate of productivity that the number of works out there is most likely not too large: Lin’s career as an artist lasted about 50 years, 20 of which he spent living like a hermit in Taichung’s Dali, during which time he produced little. And he gave up painting completely in 1984 to devote his time to threedimensional artwork. Overall, then, it is not exactly easy to find and acquire works by Richard Lin.


In 2015, total of 14 lots by the artist surfaced in the auction market, all of which found a buyer. The total turnover amounted to some US$900,000 (approx. NT$30 million), more than half of which changed hands in the Hong Kong market, followed by Beijing and London. Sources say the most avid collectors of Lin’s work are found in mainland China, rather than Taiwan or other parts of the Sinosphere. Before year 2000, his paintings would only pop up very occasionally at auctions in Taipei, Europe, or the United Sates. A good place to look for Lin’s work, outside of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, has always been the London auction market, as well as the city’s galleries, since it was here, between 1960 and 1970, that the artist created much of his best twodimensional work. After his return to Taiwan in 1982, Lin held numerous solo exhibitions at a variety of galleries, including the Lung Men Art Gallery, Spring Fine Arts Gallery, IT Park Gallery, and Jia Art Gallery. In more recent years, venues such as the Xue Xue Institute and the Jia Art Gallery continue to display his work, and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts has previously held two major solo exhibitions, among them last year’s event titled “An Instant Is Eternity 2015 Exhibition of Richard Lin: Donations to the Museum Collection.”


As mentioned above, Lin always recalled how he sold his first painting for just £90 (approx. US$252). However, by 2015 a painting by the artist sold at auction for as much as HK$1.84 million (approx. US$237,000). And prices paid in privately negotiated transactions at commercial galleries have already exceeded NT$2 0 million (approx. US$625,000). Since paintings by Lin are such comparative rarities, most collectors are quite reluctant to sell what they own. At the Ravenel Hong Kong autumn auction 2015, a minor early piece from 1959 triggered a regular bidding war among more than 10 clients, and eventually sold for an impressive HK$430,000 (approx. US$55,742) against an original house estimate of HK$60-100 thousand, that is, for seven times the lowest anticipated price also putting the lot in the current top 20 most expensive works by Richard Lin sold at auction.


Many types of abstract art, including for example Japanese “Gutai” and Korean monochrome painting “Dansaekhwa” have begun to enjoy a growing popularity on the international art market in recent years. Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that Richard Lin, whose unique brand of minimalism has long been a favorite with European collectors, is also starting to garner wider attention. The most important exponent of “cold realism” in the world of modern Chinese painting, he boasts an attractive oeuvre that is very much on par with the best work by currently fashionable Japanese or Korean minimalists. More and more collectors from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are now quietly hunting for Richard Lin’s paintings, and this is a trend bound to gather momentum in the coming years. As appreciation of this masterful minimalist is mounting, prices for Lin’s art are set to rise significantly.