“White is the most ordinary of colours, it is also the most extraordinary; it is the absence of colour, it is also the sum of colours; it is the most majestic of colors, it is also the most common; it is the colour of tranquility, it is also the colour of grief.” — Richard Lin
Born into a prominent Taiwanese family in central Taiwan, Richard Lin left his hometown at the age of 16 to study in Hong Kong in 1949. In 1954, two years after arriving in England, Lin was accepted at the Regent Street Polytechnic to study architecture and art. After completing his studies, Lin chose to remain in London, where he continued to develop his art for over five decades; it was not until 2002 that Lin returned to Taiwan. His works are often categorised as minimalistic, however, he once remarked that “when I started to create the white series, the term ‘Minimalism’ was not yet coined.”
Founded in the the post-war era of the sixties, Minimalism began as a response to Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated the fifties’ art scene. The Minimalists believed practitioners of Abstract Expressionism were guilty of an excessive sentimentality and proposed to eradicate the artworks’ lyricism. Using simple forms and emphasising the expression of two-dimensional space, the new school of thought allowed viewers to perceive work in a direct and authentic manner. By employing straightforward quadrilateral shapes, stripes, or cubes, Minimalists strove to express and compose their work using correct proportions and involving minimum incidents. Additionally, they avoided the use of concrete forms in an attempt to eliminate transferring their consciousness to the viewer. The Minimalists used tools such as repetition and equal distribution to focus on a pure and artistic development while minimising personal expression. Ultimately, their aim was to lead art back to its fundamental form; by restricting the artist’s imposition of their consciousness upon viewers, Minimalists believed viewers might once again be able to take an active part in the construction of the work. The influence of Minimalism goes far beyond the art of painting, sculpture, and installation; it has also made an irrevocable impact on architecture, design, music, and literature.
Lin first saw the works of British artist, Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) while visiting the Tate Modern upon his arrival in London in the beginning of 1952. Nicholson’s abstract compositions had a lasting influence on Lin. As a child, Lin learned the art of Chinese calligraphy, and between the ages of 6 and 12, he was placed under the tutelage of a family in Japan. Lin’s early immersion in Eastern culture cemented his way of thinking. During his time in England, he studied Western architecture and painting, and was influenced by the major artistic movements in the sixties and seventies — such as De Stijl (of which Mondrian is the most well-known), Bauhaus, Cubism, and Constructivism. Triggered by the American Abstract Expressionist movement, and with his idea of art informed by both East and West, Lin began to meditate on his own cultural background.
Lin began creating art in the late fifties from the ideals of an Abstract Expressionist. In 1958, he began layering blocks of black and white on canvas to compare and contrast darkness and light. In the sixties, he simplified the elements of his creation; he made use of more precise lines and gradually abstained from color until white was all that remained. This period marks the establishment of Lin’s artistic style and the birth of his most iconic series — the White Series. He continued to develop this series until he declared in 1984 that ‘painting is dead,’ then turned his focus to three dimensional arts. When observing Lin’s work, one sees undeniable elements of Minimalism. His work departs from representational forms, using only lines and squares to create a precise and rational composition; and his execution is so meticulous and careful that brushstrokes are undetectable. However, Lin’s work is readily distinguishable from other minimalist works. One distinctive characteristic of Lin’s art is his multitudinous use of whites — rich or diluted, heavy or light — which he applies in lines of varying length and width. He then pairs aluminum plates and the occasional, yet ingenious, strokes of red, yellow, gray, and black. Lin does not necessarily abide by the standards of Minimalism — he is not regulated by the purely logical use of geometrical shapes, nor is he insistent upon removing all emotion or denouncing lyricism. In Lin’s paintings, we see a greater energy; we feel presence within absence, and we perceive a fluid sensibility that flows beneath the surface of the rational composition.
In 1970, during one of Lin’s solo exhibitions in Belgium, the artist and the gallery’s owner, Rene Withofs, had a discussion about the work. The rigorous and succinct paintings, Lin stated, were deeply rooted in Eastern culture and invoked the fluidity and vigour so valued in the art of calligraphy. When Withofs interpreted Lin’s work as an embodiment of Zen, Lin clarified that it was instead Taoist. Further, Lin offered that instead of categorising his work as Minimalist, it would be more analogous to the work of Northern Song Dynasty artist, Mi Fu (1051-1107). Having received his training in Europe, Lin’s work takes on the appearance of Western art, but its true meaning and fundamental aesthetics are entirely Eastern. Despite the work’s external, minimalist qualities, Lin stressed that his practice was more sympathetic with Mi Fu. Lin maintained that this Song Dynasty master’s abstract landscapes, created some nine centuries ago, resonated more deeply with his work in their illustration of the difference between seeing with one’s eyes and perceiving with one’s spirituality.
In a catalogue for Lin’s 2010 exhibition at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, the artist wrote the following words to reflect on his half-century-long artistic career: ’What is before us? There are not enough words to describe and no words to do so aptly. Anything can be something; there is no difference between anything, and anything is everything.’ These words perfectly elucidated the fundamental meaning of Lin’s art. Chinese painting differs from Western painting in that it does not concentrate on the techniques of focal points and perspective; instead, through the utilisation of ink’s wetness and dryness — its richness and diluteness — artists are able to create works that transcend time and space. Chinese aesthetics heavily emphasize a spirit and concept that cannot be seen, but only perceived. In Lin’s art, we perceive a unique artistic language, born from an amalgamation of Eastern and Western culture.