Richard Lin: Minimalism in Vogue

Discovering the Taiwan-born artist’s body of work
By Mary Ann Lim

In the purified aesthetic of Minimalism that is marked by its absence – of the artist, of emotional reflection, and of latent, coloured expression – Richard Lin’s presence and influence is fully felt through the distinctive mark he left on the movement itself. A prolific painter whose practice pioneered a new generation of artists who succeeded him, his corpus of works has been presented by major institutions such as the Tate, Brooklyn Museum, Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art and many others.

Despite the legacy the artist has left behind however, he remains an understated figure in the global market. This is set to change with an exhibition dedicated to Lin at Bonhams in London. Paying homage to the distinguished artist seven years after his passing, the exhibition is supported by the Lin estate.

The main exponents of the display include eleven of his famous ‘White Series’ works from the 1960s and the 1970s. They will be shown alongside two sculptural reliefs in aluminium, as well as acrylics, sketches from his time in Normandy, and an exquisite selection of delicate works on paper. With this presentation, Bonham hopes to play a part in repositioning Lin within the global pantheon, who in his lifetime was displayed not only in Kompas 2 and Documenta III, but was featured alongside Francis Bacon at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.

Richard Lin, 'Painting Relief', 1961, copper rectangle, aluminium disc, diagonal blackon the stretcheroil, aluminium and copper on canvas, 101.6 x 101.6cm. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Richard Lin, 'Painting Relief', 1961, copper rectangle, aluminium disc, diagonal blackon the stretcheroil, aluminium and copper on canvas, 101.6 x 101.6cm. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

The seismic movements underlying the evolution of Lin’s practice were distinguished and informed by the specificity of his ever-changing environments. Born in 1933 in Taiwan, Lin was educated in both Japan and Hong Kong at a young age and visited Bayeux in Normandy frequently during his undergraduate stint at Regent Street Polytechnic London. During that period, his foray into the fine arts saw the production of works that demonstrated experimentation with different artistic styles.

In particular, these representational paintings took external reference from his surroundings in Normandy, where his approach meandered through the almost-folkloric appearance of ‘Marital Bed’ to the abstraction of ‘Black Sun’. While he would never again visit these styles in the rest of his oeuvre, a progression towards greater precision and formlessness is discernible as he strove to create pieces that were highly rational in structure.

His career was propelled quickly to prominence following his graduation in 1958. Debuting that same year at the Institute of Contemporary Art London, his subsequent solo show at Gimpel Fils was the first of many to come before he was represented by the pre-eminent Marlborough Fine Art in 1966. His initial involvement with Gimpel Fils, who was championing a new wave of modernism at the time, saw a dramatic shift in his practice.

‘Two White Squares’, which was painted by Lin in 1960, was a pivotal point in his artistic development and embodied the pristine and coolly unemotional style that would characterise the rest of his career. It would also earn him recognition from the renowned Spanish surrealist Joan Miro who praised Lin, claiming that “in the world of white, no one can exceed you.”

Richard Lin, ‘Untitled (The Black Sun)’, 1958-1960, oil on canvas, 152.7 x 127.5cm. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Richard Lin, ‘Untitled (The Black Sun)’, 1958-1960, oil on canvas, 152.7 x 127.5cm. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Indeed, no one in his time could quite exceed Lin in his command of the white surface, an expertise born from his artistic position that pioneered minimalist canvases in a time where abstract expressionism was in rage. The trajectory of his craft was fuelled by his determination to overcome the emotionalism of the abstract expressionists that preceded him alongside an unyielding devotion to surmounting the classical state of art.

Fastidious in his methods, he employed both the precision and dexterity of a surgeon in manipulating his relentlessly repeated brushstrokes until the strokes themselves were obfuscated and the existence of the artist was obliterated entirely from the canvas. It is by no coincidence that he considered among his contemporaries the great Piet Mondrian, Kazmir Malevich and Ben Nicholson. And like Mondrian, whose geometric works were governed by an exceptionally rigorous approach that betrayed no hint of emotion, Lin’s practice was constantly refined, with each canvas offering increasing altitudes of purified beauty.

While he is currently entrenched in the canon of Minimalist art, his particularity set him firmly apart from the other Minimalist painters he had a loving regard for. Notably, his ability to synthesise both Eastern sensibilities and Western philosophies to inform his untainted and meticulous works formed the inimitable foundations for his work. Quoting the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi, Lin has expressed that his juxtapositions of white can be better understood in this manner, “…know the white but abide by the black, and be a model for all the world...”

A thorough understanding of white can only grow out of an acknowledgement of its polarity, and no other work better embodies this aesthetic than his piece, ‘White Ascending’. Here, the subtle yet distinct blocks of white tones are not disclosed to the viewer through gestural marks or gradations of colour. Rather, the cleanly discrete shapes of white emerging from their white background are created by means of incisive brushstrokes. Their amalgamation yields sharp and precise inflections as well as depth, perceptible only through a subconscious comprehension of blackness.

Richard Lin, ‘Daffodils’, 1971, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 63.5cm. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Richard Lin, ‘Daffodils’, 1971, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 63.5cm. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Western classical ideas of beauty were also a point of reference for Lin, who studied the foremost Western masters of architecture in the Polytechnic. Specifically, the ideas of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a first century A.D. Roman architect and scholar, ostensibly permeate through Lin’s conception of art. One need look no further than the exaltation of gestalt in Lin’s works to also see Pollio’s principles of architecture and Leonardo Da Vinci’s analysis of those principles thereof. For the two scholars, man was the highest measure of all art, and architecture’s imitation of man and nature was also an imitation of the order present in the universe, from which the most primal geometric forms can be derived.

Lin’s interpretation of these classical theories elucidating the intimate relationship between nature and geometry is especially apparent following his move to the remote and tranquil Gwynfryn in Wales. The shift marked a quiet transition away from the epicentre of London’s progressive and bustling art scene and was the site of the last series of paintings he would make. In ‘Daffodils’, the addition of elegant yellow rectangular strokes, alongside similarly constructed white brushes, gently distils his experience of the environment into congruous shapes. Likewise, the introduction of a singular, ethereal green line into ‘One, Two, Three’ is a profound motif that condenses his immediate landscapes into linear constitutions.

Where a sensible manifestation of the object is obscured, Lin presents with enlightened clarity the metaphysical substance of his surroundings that is enduring in its form, unrestrained from the facticities of both fixed time and space. As Beatrice Hsieh, art critic and curator writes, “For (Lin), seeking to transcend his own confines was not as innocent and naïve as Don Quixote’s jousting with windmills, but was rather an all-out effort to overcome his earthly restraints and surmount the fatalism of life. In doing so he created works that are timeless and eternal, almost peering into the infinite.” Indeed, Lin’s poignant contributions has left an indelible mark on the art world, ensuring that this retrospective is merely a prospective gaze into the potentialities of the artist’s works.