Hung Liu was born on February 17th (January 8th on the Chinese calendar, Year of the Rat) in Changchun, China. Changchun had been the capital city for the Japanese puppet dynasty of the exiled “Playboy” Emperor Pu Yi. Changchun is defended by the Nationalist Army (the Kuomintang) of Chiang Kai-shek from the advance of Communist forces led by Lin Biao and Mao Zedong.
Liu’s father, Xia Peng, is a captain in the Kuomintang army. Starvation and panic ensue after months under siege, despite attempts by American planes to drop food and supplies into the city.
In September, the family flees the city looking for food, crossing over into Communist territory. Liu’s father is detained by Communist troops at a checkpoint outside Changchun. She will not see him again until 1994.
Seeking refuge, the remaining family - Liu, her mother, aunt, uncle, and grandparents - make their way to Jilin, a nearby city, and then to a village in the Manchurian countryside where the name “Liu” predominates.
Changchun falls to the Communists in October. Soon after, the family returns to Changchun, “the dead city.”
Liu begins school at a Kindergarten for teachers’ children. Her mother, Liu Zong Guang, is a middle school teacher.
Liu begins elementary school.
Mao Zedong initiates the “Great Leap Forward,” an attempt to catch up with the West in agricultural and industrial production.
Liu, age eleven, decides impulsively at the Changchun train station to accompany her aunt, Liu Zong Yu, to Beijing (where her aunt had lived since 1956). Her mother allows her to go “with only the clothes on her back.”
Liu’s grandparents and mother follow her to Beijing, where they will permanently reside together.
A mass famine, the result of Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward,” grips the nation.
Because of high exam scores, Liu enters a special “experimental” girls’ boarding school in Beijing, the Girls Middle School Attached to Peking Normal University. Her schoolmates include the daughters of Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shao Qi, as well as children of other high Party officials. (Mao’s daughters had attended several years earlier.) Liu remains, performing at the top of her class, until 1966.
The famine begins to ebb in the cities.
Chinese/Soviet relations deteriorate.
Liu’s grandfather - a scholar of the monasteries of Mount Qian in Manchuria - dies.
As Liu is about to graduate from high school, the Cultural Revolution (which will continue for ten years) begins. Millions of youthful Red Guards are unleashed by Mao in an effort to purge Chinese society of Western, “counter- revolutionary,” influences.
Schools close. Liu is unable to receive her diploma.
Liu’s aunt, Liu Zong Yu, has her head shaved in public for having joined the Nationalist Party during the 1920s.
Mao decrees free train travel for young people. Although not a Red Guard, Liu rides the trains throughout China: to Xinjiang, Guangzhou, Harbin, Dalian, Shanghai, and Tianjin.
Liu is sent for proletarian “re-education” among the peasants in the countryside. There, she works in rice and wheat fields seven days a week for four years. She also photographs and draws portraits of local farmers and their families. The drawings are kept in notebooks and pads, and the photographs are not printed until forty years later.
Schools begin to reopen. Liu enters the Revolutionary Entertainment Department of Beijing Teachers’ College to study art and art education.
Nixon arrives in China.
Liu graduates and begins teaching art at the Jingshan School, an elite Beijing school modeled after the Russian system (first grade through tenth).
Asked to teach children’s art on national television, Liu gives weekly lessons from the studios of the Central China Television station, attaining an unexpected fame (and receiving numerous written proposals of marriage). Her program, How to Draw and Paint, lasts several years.
Zhou En Lai dies. Liu is among thousands who take wreaths of paper flowers to Tiananmen Square, nearly covering it. By the next morning, the flowers had been swept away by the authorities.
Liu travels to northern China with a group of school art teachers. There, she experiences the great Tang Shan earthquake in which perhaps a million people were killed.
Mao Zedong dies. His body lies in state, and Liu is among the millions who pass by in procession.
The Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, is arrested.
At age twenty-nine, Liu marries an astronomer. They separate within a year.
Liu gives birth to son, Ling Chen.
Deng Xiaoping emerges as the Paramount Leader of China.
The “Open Door Policy” toward the West is established.
After taking national entrance exams, Liu is accepted by the two leading art schools in China: The Central Academy of Arts and Crafts and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. She decides to attend the latter, majoring in mural painting.
Liu travels to the famous Buddhist cave murals at Dunhuang, in the Gobi Desert along the Silk Road. She meets a young Ai Wei Wei there. During her stay of several weeks she falls ill and nearly dies, perhaps from drinking local water. She is transported back to Beijing, where she recovers after several months.
Liu’s grandmother, Wang Ju Shou, dies in the family’s Beijing apartment.
Liu returns to Dunhuang, where she studies and copies the Buddhist cave murals for forty days. She also visits various famous religious shrines throughout China.
Liu begins work on Music of the Great Earth, a graduation mural project designed for the Foreign Students’ Dining Hall of the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
She applies to the University of California, San Diego, for admission to graduate school in the Visual Arts Department.
Liu divorces her husband (divorces were still uncommon in China).
Liu completes Music of the Great Earth, and begins teaching at the Central Academy.
She is accepted to the University of California, San Diego, for the fall quarter, but her bid for a passport is refused by the Chinese government.
The University of California, San Diego, holds her application open.
Liu studies traditional calligraphy and stamp-making from Niu Jun, an aging scholar and Peking Opera playwright. She continues for three years.
She continues teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
Liu gets a limited passport for temporary travel to Hong Kong in the hope that it will be easier to get from there to the United States. While in Hong Kong, she receives word from the Chinese Cultural Ministry that her request for a passport has been granted, and she returns to Beijing.
On October 26, Liu boards a China Air 747 in Beijing and departs for San Francisco. At the airport she bids farewell to her mother, aunt, and son. It is the first time she’s ever been on an airplane. She arrives at San Francisco International Airport with two suitcases and $20, spending $1 to rent a luggage cart before flying on to San Diego.
Liu begins her graduate studies at the Visual Arts Department of UCSD. Halloween is the first American party she attends.
At UCSD, Liu meets Moira Roth, Allan Kaprow, Eleanor and David Antin, Sheldon Nodelman, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Manny Farber, and Patricia Patterson, as well as fellow graduate students Lorna Simpson, Christine Tamblyn, Hal Fisher, and Jeff Kelley (her future husband).
Liu participates in making a “dumpster” environment and in several Happening-type events with Allan Kaprow.
She travels around the western states with Kelley, and has a residency at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Humanities in Idaho. In November, she has her first one-person exhibition at the Sheppard Gallery, University of Nevada, Reno, where she uses the whole space for a mural-installation based on the ancient grotto caves of Dunhuang.
Liu visits New York and its museums, seeing important works of Western art for the first time.
In the spring, she completes a mural, Up and Tao, in a USCD stairwell. In the summer, she marries Kelley at a friend’s house in San Antonio, Texas. Her son, accompanied by her mother and aunt, arrive in San Diego and live with her throughout the fall.
At year’s end, Liu has her graduate exhibition of variously sized white boxes and standing screens painted with traditional Chinese cloud forms. The family moves to Arlington, Texas, where Kelley takes a teaching job at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Liu teaches a Chinese art history course at the University of Texas at Arlington. She also works as an artist-in-residence for the public schools of east Texas.
She paints at home in a “family room” studio, and has several Dallas/Fort Worth area exhibitions and installations.
In need of a job, Liu works as a security guard at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth. There she meets Dr. Emily Sano, who later becomes the director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. They remain close friends.
On a trip to New York City, Liu introduces her husband to Chinese expatriate artist Ai Wei Wei.
Liu begins a series of small pencil on canvas drawings that depict Mao Zedong meeting various world dignitaries, such as Nixon, Khrushchev, and Chiang Kai-shek. In each case, she does not fill in (or erases) the features of Mao’s face, leaving it blank with only an outline of his profile.
Liu’s mother and aunt return to Beijing. Her son, Ling Chen, remains.
Liu uses her first Apple computer.
Liu spends the summer as a resident artist at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco. She produces a mural, Reading Room, for the community room of Chinese for Affirmative Action in Chinatown, and creates an installation with paintings, Resident Alien, the culmination of her research into the history of Chinese immigration to California. It is a breakout moment in her career.
She completes Where is Mao?, an installation of 1,000 felt cut-outs of Mao’s profile, each with a fortune cookie on top, at the Southwestern College Art Gallery in Chula Vista, California.
In the spring, students in Beijing begin assembling in Tiananmen Square, resulting, on June 4th, in their forced removal by the People’s Liberation Army. These events serve as inspiration for Liu, who borrows an old, turn-of-the-century photograph of a Chinese woman whose feet were bound (from friend and fellow artist Jim Pomeroy) and completes the painting Goddess of Love, Goddess of Liberty.
She receives her first National Endowment for the Arts Painting Fellowship and, in December, has a debut exhibition of paintings in New York.
Liu is offered a teaching position in the Art Department at the University of North Texas, Denton, Texas. Her friend and colleague there is Vernon Fisher.
In the spring, Liu is offered a position with the Art Department of Mills College, in Oakland, California.
In June, before moving from Texas to California, she travels throughout Europe with Kelley, visiting the Venice Biennale, where Robert Rauschenberg, who was being honored at the Russian Pavilion, signs his name on her Chinese passport, offering her “a passport to the art world.”
In a mini-van and a big rental truck, Liu’s family moves in August to Oakland, California.
Liu begins teaching at Mills.
Liu receives her second National Endowment for the Arts Painting Fellowship and begins showing at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco and the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in New York City.
She returns to China for the first time since leaving, and discovers a trove of old turn-of-the-century photographs of Chinese prostitutes that she begins using as reference points for her paintings.
With her son, Liu becomes a U.S. citizen in San Francisco.
Liu completes Map No. 33, a major installation/mural project for the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.
Based on the photographs she discovered in Beijing in 1991, Liu begins a body of work in which 19th and early 20th century Chinese prostitutes, whose pictures were taken in photo studio settings, are associated with master works of Western art, including Mona Lisa, Olympia, Odalisque, and Raft of the Medusa, among others. She also intensifies the theatricality of her paintings by shaping the canvases, displaying Kitsch and antique objects on lacquered shelves, and attaching fragments of traditional Chinese architecture.
Liu participates in the 43rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
She travels again to China in search of more archival photographs.
Liu, her husband, and son return with her mother – Liu Zong Guang – to the family’s small ancestral village near Shenyang, in northern China, where they participate in a “grave sweeping” ceremony honoring her grandparents, whose graves are earthen mounds in a corn field.
Liu paints a large self-portrait in the cornfield called Burial at Little Golden Village.
Drips begin to appear as an erosive force in Liu’s paintings.
During this period, the physical shapes of Liu’s canvases correspond to the outlines of her subjects, so that the idea of “ground” is illuminated in favor of “figure.”
Liu paints a number of “revolutionary” self-portraits: as a soldier, as a Buddha, as a peasant, and as a third world woman with a “third eye.”
She also paints – through 1995 – several works depicting cross-gender performance, including a boy making up as a girl in Peeking Opera, and ballerinas dressed as soldiers in the Cultural Revolutionary Red Detachment of Women.
Liu participates in Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art at the Asia Society in New York City.
Using historical photographs from 1930s China, she paints a series of modern Chinese women, posing as athletes, students, dancers, and matrons of bourgeois means.
During her opening of Year of the Dog, an exhibition at the Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in New York, young Chinese artists Liu Xiao Dong and Yu Hong introduce themselves.
Liu also completes Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), an installation of 200,000 fortune cookies at the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, California. The large golden pile of fortune cookies refers, in part, to the earthen grave mounds of her grandparents in northern China (and also, of course, to California – a mountain of gold).
She learns that her father, whom she hasn’t known since infancy, is still alive and living on a rural work farm for elderly inmates near Nanjing, where he had lived for many years. By coincidence she travels there on Father’s Day to meet him, and learns that he had been imprisoned on and off since 1948.
The Internet arrives – sort of – in China.
Liu serves on the last National Endowment for the Arts Painting Fellowship panel.
Inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor (1988), Liu begins work on a series of grand canvases taken from 19th and early 20th century photographs of China’s last imperial court, the Qing Dynasty. Focusing on its boy (and playboy) emperor (Puyi), the powerful Dowager Empress (Cixi), and the various concubines and eunuchs of the court, she creates a pre-revolutionary analogue of the power, intrigues, and betrayals of the Chinese Communist Party under Mao. These paintings continue through 1998.
The Last Dynasty opens at the Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in New York.
She receives tenure from Mills College.
Liu participates in American Kaleidoscope: Art At The Close Of This Century, at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, in Japan, her work is included (with such artists as Mike Kelley, Enrique Chagoya, and Manuel Ocampo) in American Stories: Amidst Displacement and Transformation, an exhibition organized by the Setagaya Art Museum and Asahi Shimbun that travels to five Japanese museums.
Xia Peng, Liu’s father dies.
Ling Chen goes to college.
Liu turns forty-eight in the “Year of the Rat.” Her year. In Chinese mythology, every twelve-year cycle brings a life-changing event. At her “Year of the Rat” celebration dinner, Liu reflects upon how her life has changed at twelve-year intervals: how at twelve she moved to Beijing; how at twenty-four the Cultural Revolution ended, she left the countryside, and went to college; how at thirty-six she immigrated to the United States; and how at forty-eight – with her father’s death, her son’s leaving home, her inclusion in a Tokyo exhibition as an “American” artist, and the beginning of plans by The College of Wooster Art Museum for her ten-year survey – she can finally look back in amazement.
Hong Kong is returned to Chinese rule.
Hung Liu: Unfolding Memory - Embodying History opens at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College (where Ling Chen is a student).
The theme of “women at work” emerges in Liu’s paintings. Chinese women – young and old – are depicted in stooped labor and domestic tasks.
Liu begins painting circles into her compositions, as if brushy gestures that neither begin nor end – a kind of Buddhist abstraction.
Liu’s first retrospective exhibition, Hung Liu: A Ten-Year Survey 1988-1998, is organized by Kathleen McManus Zurko for the Wooster College Museum of Art. The catalogue includes essays by Allan Kaprow, Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Dave Hickey, and Norman Bryson. The show travels to five additional U.S. museums and establishes Liu’s thematic and pictorial vocabulary.
For an exhibition at the Rena Bransten Gallery called Chinese Types, poet and critic Bill Berkson writes about Liu as an “action painter” whose drips, veils, and runnels of paint constitute a kind of slow (almost anticlimactic) disillusion of the rigid Socialist Realist academic style in which she was trained.
Motifs from traditional Chinese painting – birds and flowers in particular – begin to appear in Liu’s paintings.
Liu receives a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant.
Construction begins on the Great Firewall of China.
Millennium Messages - Time Capsules opens at the Heckscher Museum of Art, Long Island, New York.
On large canvases, Liu depicts women and children as refugees from war and social upheaval. In each painting she offers her fleeing subjects the solace of their own heritage by including motifs – birds and flowers, Buddhist iconography – from traditional Chinese painting.
Liu purchases a new studio in Oakland - unlike the studio she rented for ten years, it has a bathroom and running water.
Where is Mao? 2000 is exhibited at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. During a discussion with students, Liu is asked what it feels like to be an American after being Chinese. She replies “China is my homeland. An American is something I’m always becoming – it’s a verb.”
Ling Chen graduates from college.
Exhibits in Text & Subtext – Contemporary Art and Asian Women, a show that travels over three years from Singapore to Sydney, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Taipei, and Beijing.
Participates in The View from Here: Issues of Cultural Identity and Perspective in Contemporary Russian and American Art, the Hand Print Workshop International, Alexandria, Virginia, and the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. This is Liu’s first trip to Russia. On a bus ride outside St. Petersburg in December, she sees the wintery, melancholy landscapes of Sulykov, Savrasov, and Repin - painters she has studied since childhood.
An American spy plane collides with a Chinese fighter plane and makes an emergency landing in Hainan, China. The Chinese pilot is killed and the U.S. crew is detained for ten days.
Liu’s father-in-law, Don Kelley, dies in Las Vegas.
Liu awakens to a radio report that the World Trade Center towers in New York are on fire. In the aftermath of 9/11, she paints a canvas called September, which depicts a traditionally rendered Song Dynasty duck crashing through the face of a young Chinese bride, each image disintegrating the other. The work soon comes to seem like a portrait of a new age in which we are wedded to the unthinkable.
In the wake of 9/11, she explores the themes of annunciation and lamentation, as portentous messages beam through individuals, and the society weeps.
Strange Fruit: New Paintings by Hung Liu, a traveling exhibition of 25 paintings, is organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum and the Boise Art Museum. It’s depictions of Korean “comfort women,” famine victims, and prisoners of war – inspired by Strange Fruit, the blues song about southern lynchings that was made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939 – suggest a bitter ripening of subject matter.
Liu exhibits in Art/Women/California: Parallels and Intersections, 1950 – 2000, at the San Jose Museum of Art.
The United States invades Iraq.
Toward Peng-Lai (Paradise) is exhibited at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco. Critic Kenneth Baker writes “many modern artists have proclaimed painting a realm of freedom, but too little contemporary work makes us feel the truth of this view … Hung Liu’s new work at Bransten does … (her) toying with historical and stylistic impossibilities would seem merely arbitrary did it not apparently free her hand to paint as it pleases.” If paradise is unattainable in this world, then perhaps a more perfect world can be found in painting.
Liu paints a series of twenty-nine small canvases entitles Mission Girls. Each canvas, depicting several orphaned girls, is based on a larger communal photograph from a 19th century Chinese orphanage.
Liu’s beloved aunt – Liu Zongyu – dies in a senior care facility outside Beijing.
Liu exhibits in China for the first time since leaving. The exhibition, in Shanghai, is called Lament.
Liu is invited by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Humanities to paint portraits from archival photographs of Chinese in Idaho during the 19th century gold rush, resulting in the exhibition The Vanishing: Re-presenting the Chinese in the American West. Polly Bemis, a who was smuggled from China to San Francisco in 1872, and then found her way to Idaho, where she became a prominent woman, is Liu’s primary subject.
She accompanies Kelley and writer Bill Fox on a sojourn up the Yangtze River where they meet the painter Liu Xiao Dong as he works on a large group portrait of male peasant laborers overlooking the river as it rises, inch by inch, behind the Three Gorges Dam.
Liu paints Modern Time, a pseudo-propaganda style diptych that contrasts two dreams: the trance of the Marxist worker (with pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin hovering overhead) and an artist’s reverie (inspired by Van Gough). It also includes three ticking Mao clocks from the Cultural Revolution on lacquered shelves.
Liu participates in Visual Politics: the Art of Engagement, curated by Peter Selz, San Jose Museum of Art.
She is also invited by artist Tom Marioni to produce a five-minute video for A Motion Picture, at the DeYoung Museum, San Francisco. Other invited artists included David Ireland, Jim Melchert, William Wiley, and Lynn Hershman Leeson.
The Vanishing: Re-Presenting the Chinese in the American West travels to the
University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie. Liu adds “China Mary” paintings to the show (China Mary was a 19th century Chinese pioneer in Wyoming).
Matriarchy: Hung Liu’s New Work opens at Art Scene China Warehouse in Shanghai.
While in China, Liu travels with her mother and husband to Mount Qian (Qian Shan) in Manchuria. Liu’s grandfather, Liu Weihua (1894-1962), was a scholar who spent most of his adult life traveling through, photographing, and researching the monastic culture of these mountains. Known in English as “One Thousand Lotus Flower Peaks,” Qian Shan is a region with a unique integration of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries dating to ancient times. (In 2002, Liu helped publish her grandfather’s eleven volume book in China.)
Liu takes painting students from Mills College to Beijing, where they visit the studios of such artists as Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaodong, Yu Hong, Sui Jianguo, Wang Gongxin, Lin Tianmiao, and others.
Allan Kaprow dies; with Kelley, Liu attends his memorial at the University of California, San Diego.
Going Away, Coming Home, a 160 foot long window mural created in Germany is installed in the new terminal of the Oakland International Airport. Liu’s use of crane imagery in Going Away, Coming Home is directly influenced by the 12th-century Chinese silk painting, Auspicious Cranes. Dating from the Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127), this rare hanging scroll was painted by Emperor Huizong and depicts 20 cranes flying over the roof of his palace, bringing blessings, peace and prosperity to his dwelling. Combining these with digitized images from satellite weather maps of the US west coast and the Asia-Pacific region, the windows quickly become one of Liu’s most popular works.
Liu invites Liu Xiaodong to speak at Mills College. While there, they complete blind, simultaneous portraits of each other (they watch each other watching each other painting each other) and exchange the results.
Inspired by a 1948 Chinese propaganda film, Daughters of China, which she saw as a child, Liu embarks on a series of paintings by the same name. Each painting represents a single frame from the film, which tells the true story of a detachment of Chinese women soldiers in 1938 who, with their backs against a river, carried their dying and wounded into the water to drown rather than surrender to the Japanese. In the context of her own life and work, Liu’s Daughters of China paintings reframe the heroic impulses of socialist propaganda in feminist terms.
Daughters of China is exhibited at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco.
Hung Liu: ZZ (Bastard Paintings) opens at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. This represents the most ambitious expression to date of the mixed media and resin pieces created in collaboration with David Salgado of Trillium Graphics.
The Year of the Rat begins (Hung Liu is a rat).
“Take Off,” a large-scale public mural, is installed at the San Francisco International Airport, International Terminal Gate A-5.
One day before Liu arrives in Beijing, the Wenchuan Earthquake strikes the Sichuan Province of China. Measuring at 7.9, it kills an estimated 68,000 people, including many school children attending school in poorly constructed classrooms.
Daughters of China travels to the F2 Gallery in Beijing. At the opening reception, the artist Fang Lijun tells Liu after looking at her paintings “Chinese artists make paintings like they fart. You actually struggle when you paint.”
The following day, Great Granary opens at the Xin Beijing Art Gallery. A kind of mini-retrospective of paintings never seen in China, the exhibition revolves around a new, ambitious installation - Tai Cang (Great Granary) - in which a 40 foot long reinvention of Liu’s 1981 mural - Music of the Great Earth, in the since destroyed dining hall of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing - hangs on a refurbished wall of the 14th century Imperial Granary, while 34 antique wooden containers (dou) filled with grains and spices from every province in China are deployed across the gallery floor.
Liu’s mother, Liu Zong Guang, completes her book, Rainbow Over the Pacific, on her daughter’s life and art.
Liu’s work is exhibited in Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The show was curated by Jeff Kelley.
On August 8, 2008, at 8pm, the Beijing Summer Olympics open with a globally-televised extravaganza that reminds Liu of political pageants from revolutionary China.
The Great Recession begins in the US.
Rat Years is exhibited at the Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles. A series of portraits depicting the artist at twelve-year intervals from infancy to 6o years of age, Rat Years contrasts each self-portrait with an image from a drawing or painting done by the artist in that same year, including in childhood. Thus, Liu “collaborates” with her “younger self.”
With her husband, Liu attends the inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington DC.
On a hike near her home, Liu happens upon a deer lying in the grass alongside a road. Although killed by a passing car, it remains angelic, as if asleep. She walks around its body in a circle taking pictures with her iPhone. These photographs become the basis for numerous paintings in which the image of the deer, seen from so many angels, seems to pivot through space.
Liu devotes herself to a series of paintings depicting people in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan quake. The subject of these paintings is less the disaster itself than the expressions of mythic emotions on the faces of the survivors: grief, shock, confusion, stunned silence, courage, and mourning. Drawing upon her experiences at the Dunhuang caves, she incorporates images of Apsaras (wingless, female spirits - like angels - derived from Hindu and Buddhist iconography) into the paintings.
In collaboration with poet Michael McClure, Liu works with Don Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions to create a book called Deer Boy. She does drawings of the dead deer she photographed in 2008 and McClure writes an epic poem.
Liu attends an art education conference in her hometown, Changchun - the first time she’s been to the “dead city” since her family fled the Communist army in 1948.
Paintings from the Daughters of China series are exhibited at the 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong.
Liu donates her little painting box - the one she used in China before coming to the US - to the Oakland Museum of California.
As part of a fundraiser for the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Liu designs the exterior for a Smart Car by “wrapping” a pattern of Chinese imperial cranes around the tiny vehicle’s body.
As a visiting artist, Liu paints several canvases in a classroom in front of hundreds of students at the art department of Fullerton College, California.
Drawing from Life and Death opens at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco. In a departure from her habit of painting from historical photographs, Liu’s new paintings depict subjects that are dead - the deer, a robin that fell from the sky into her studio, a human cadaver - but which have been studied, photographed, and rendered from life.
She is awarded an honorary doctorate from the Laguna College of Art + Design.
While Liu is visiting with her mother in Beijing, her mother-in-law, Rosemary Kelley, dies in Maine.
As the year ends, Liu’s mother takes ill in Beijing and enters Tongren Hospital.
Liu Zonguang dies on January 29th - January 28th in California.
Liu is awarded the SGC International Lifetime Achievement Award for Printmaking.
In Beijing, Liu and her husband empty her mother’s apartment. All of Liu Zong Guang’s former middle-school students - men now in their 60s - attend a memorial dinner in their teacher’s honor.
First Spring Thunder opens at the Alexander Ochs Gallery in Beijing. The paintings in this show revolve around the idea of some kind of awakening in the dreamscapes of war, memory, and the natural world. They also refer to one of the twenty-four traditional Chinese seasons during which rumbling skies awaken the insects and the land. In a gesture of respect, some of China’s most prominent artists - including Fang Lijun, Liu Xiaodong, Yu Hong, Yang Shaobin, Lin Tianmiao, Wang Gongxin, and Zhan Wang - attend the opening.
(re)Pressed Memories, a mini-retrospective of Liu’s prints, opens at the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque.
Liu Zong Guang’s ashes are spread in the ocean off the coast of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands - half way between China and California.
Liu is a speaker in Shanghai at the International Conference on Chinese Women and Visual Representation, the first feminist conference in China to explicitly include lesbians. The title of Liu’s talk is From Mulan to the Red Detachment of Women.
The Hung Liu Endowed Fellowship - an annual gift to a promising incoming graduate student - is established in the Mills College Art Department.
The Year of the Dragon begins.
On the one year anniversary of her mother’s passing, Liu completes a series of 51 small paintings over a 49 day mourning period. Beginning with images from photographs taken in her mother’s apartment when she was in the hospital - a bowl of dumplings never eaten, spots of mold growing in a jar of old soup, an empty chair pulled askance from the dining table, a toothbrush in a cup on the bathroom sink, the telephone over which Liu talked with her mother every day for the prior eight years - the paintings pass through the final stages of a life’s decline. One painting represents the moment of death as a green electronic line on a bedside monitor that goes flat; the very next painting is a thick, anguished smear of black paint, followed by another in which a faint painted circle emerges. In quick succession, the circle morphs into the form of a lighted candle, and one candle follows another - each a close-up of a waxy, luminous orb in a dark space - for the remaining several weeks, until the artist runs out of canvases.
Liu exhibits ambitious new mixed media and resin pieces at Di Rosa in the Napa Valley. Long, horizontal compositions, they are a glistening synthesis of traditional Chinese landscapes and stage designs for Cultural Revolutionary ballet.
Liu welcomes a Chinese daughter-in-law.
In a striking change, Liu begins a body of paintings that are based on the patriotic stories in Chinese “picture books,” or xiaorenshu, from her childhood. Like little graphic novellas, the picture books tell patriotic stories of heroic figures and deeds, but their official realism is tempered by the individual styles of artists who, though now in the service of the state, were once trained in traditional Chinese art. Like Dick and Jane primers for American children during the 1950s, the images of Chinese workers, peasants, and soldiers building a better nation are hand-held lessons in socialization, at once charming and eerie. If seen from an historical perspective, and at a cultural remove, the propaganda supplants the fable. Painted in Liu’s dissoluble style, however, and in a brighter, more graphic pallet, her paintings become knowingly (but not merely) ironic; their influences are neither propaganda nor Pop, but personal contact as a child with the little paper books and, as an adult, with the training and styles that lay behind them. They can be understood as an homage to all of the artists who lost their art during China’s revolutionary epoch - and to the possibility of finding it again.
Liu prepares for her first major retrospective exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California.
Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu opens at the Oakland Museum of California in March. It is a critical and public success. Sixty works, gathered from museums, private collectors, and from the artist, allows one to discern the arc of a life as it bends from collective experience, political repression, and artistic orthodoxy to the invention of an individual (and yet international) language whose subjects, drawn from archival photography, are the dispossessed of Chinese history – prostitutes, peasants, orphans, immigrants, exotic types, prisoners, the condemned. They are the women and children of violent, revolutionary modernity, the ghosts on the other side of the photographic plate. By turning old photographs into new paintings, Liu brings her subjects out of the shadows of history and into the space of contemporary consciousness, where she offers them the stroke-by-stroke solace of her attention.
Offerings opens at the Mills College Art Museum. Liu’s large-scale installations have been an important part of her work throughout her career. This exhibition presented a rare opportunity to experience two of the Oakland-based artist’s most significant installations: Jui Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain) (1994) and Tai Cang—Great Granary (2008).
Liu retires from Mills College after twenty-four years.
Summoning Ghosts travels to the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, which also hosted Liu's ten-year survey exhibition (organized by the Wooster College Museum of Art) in 1999.
In February, “Summoning Ghosts” opens at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco shows three of Liu’s paintings of Chinese shrimp junks based on 19th century archival photographs of boats in the San Francisco bay during the gold rush, between 1850 and 1885. At that time, a "long wharf" jutted into the bay at the present site of the Embarcadero Centers, for which the paintings were originally commissioned. In 2000, the paintings were gifted to the Asian.
"Map No. 33," Liu’s bold multimedia artwork in the Esplanade Ballroom Lobby of the Moscone Center, is deinstalled as the Moscone Center itself is soon to be demolished and rebuilt. Liu's larger-than-life re-creation of the first survey map of San Francisco, drawn in 1839 by Jean Jacques Violet, was originally installed in 1992, when the Moscone Center was new. The work's 41 canvases, shaped to conform to the historic map's city blocks, charted the young port town of San Francisco when it was still a village, newly renamed from the original "Yerba Buena."
Liu begins researching in the Dorothea Lange Archive room at the Oakland Museum of California.
Liu begins work on paintings based on Dorothea Lang’s photographs, a shift away from her decades of focusing on historical – and often anonymous – Chinese photographs.
With Jeff Kelley, Liu leads an art trip to China for members of the San Jose Museum of Art. Starting at Art Basel in Hong Kong, they travel to Shanghai and then Beijing, visiting studios, meeting artists, and attending museums. Among collectors and gallerists, they meet Uli Sigg, Urs Meile, and Arne Glimcher. Artists included such notables as Liu Xiaodong, Zhang Huan, Qiu Anxiong, Liu Jianhua, Li Songsong, Song Dong, Qiu Zhijie, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Gongxin and Lin Tianmiao, Yang Shaobin, Fang Lijun, Yu Hong, Sui Jianguo, Yue Minjun, and Zhao Zhao. Liu’s in her element.
For the Katzen Center Museum at Washington DC’s American University, eminent art historian and curator Peter Selz (with his collaborator Sue Kubly) combines two bodies of Liu’s works – “Daughters of China,” and “Jiu Jin Shan” – to examine themes of sacrifice, memory, and history in a show that navigates the complex and never-ending tension between emigration (with its emphasis on leaving one's homeland) and immigration (with its emphasis on arriving in a new place). It also represents the epic journey of the artist herself, who is deeply rooted in Chinese history while realizing her aspirations as an artist in the ever-changing contexts of contemporary American (and global) experience. The proximity in time and place of this exhibition to the US national election feels like a commentary both on the politics of immigration and on the (heroic) possibility of a woman president - two themes then interwoven in the national debate. The realization of that possibility, were it to happen, may have created a revolutionary place in which a daughter of China and a naturalized American can finally be home.
On November 3rd, Donald J. Trump is elected President of the United States.
“Hung Liu: Scales of History,” curated by Jeff Kelley for the Fresno Art Museum, juxtaposes thirty four of Liu’s “Secret Freedom” paintings – little plein air oil paintings of landscapes done furtively on the outskirts of early-seventies Beijing – with examples of her larger historical and sometime political paintings done over the decades since coming to the US. The aim of the exhibition is to suggest that the big paintings came from the little ones, and this in spite of the profound differences between them: private vs public scale, painted from life vs painted from historical photographs, timeless landscapes nearly devoid of human figures vs moments of history overflowing with humanity. The thread connecting these very different times and societies is the personal experience of the artist. Hung Liu's freedom is no longer secret.
Liu partially repaints her “Reading Room” mural in the Community Room of the Kuo Building in Chinatown. Originally executed in 1988, the mural – about the history of the Chinese written language – was preserved and realigned to accommodate design changes in the building. She brings “Reading Room” back to life after 29 years.
Liu and Kelley spend a week in residence at the Oxbow School in Napa, working with high school artists.
Liu exhibits her newest Dorothea Lange paintings at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco. At first, shifting focus from Chinese to American subjects seems a surprise to Liu's audience. But by training her attention on the displaced individuals and wandering families of the American Dustbowl, Liu finds a landscape of overarching struggle and underlying humanity that for her is familiar terrain, having been raised in an era of epic revolution and displacement in China. The 1930s Oakies and Bindlestiff's wandering like ghosts through Liu's new paintings are American peasants on their way to California, the promised land. The well-known fluidity of her style, in which drips and washes of linseed oil dissolve the photo-based images the way time erodes memory, seems to congeal in these new paintings as a kind of topographic realism in which the paint thickens around a webbing of colored lines, together enmeshed in a rich surface that belies the poverty of her subjects. In this, the new paintings are more factually woven to Lange's photographs, while also releasing the energy of color like a radiant of hope from beneath the grey-tones of history.
Visits gilrs school
Liu is invited to design - using her own art - an issue of Zoetrope: All Story, Francis Ford Coppola's quarterly literary magazine. Taking a cue from the process of writing itself, of shaping and extending a narrative, Liu decides to publish images of her most recent paintings which are based on the documentary photographs of Dorothea Lange, showing many in different stages of completion and before-and-after sequences. In “Notes on Design,” her introduction to the book, she writes “I wanted to reopen paintings that were already complete, to sort of tell their stories.”
Liu shows her “Secret Freedom” paintings at Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles. Painted in 1972-73, there is expressed in these landscapes a desire to get closer to the everyday character of China while getting away from the revolutionary fervor of its people. While they may seem bucolic, serene, even lighthearted to us today, the artist was plucking these paintings, like stubborn little flowers, from a toxic ground. When you understand these little paintings in the context of utopian correctness, you can see how much bigger than themselves they actually are. Like the times in which they were painted, Liu's Secret Freedom paintings were epic - not because of everything they allowed in, but because of everything they kept out: melodrama, hero worship, clichés, proper technique, official subjects, the party line, patriotism ... propaganda.
Liu, in conjunction with David Salgado of Trillium Graphics, donates 51 resin paintings to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Working with Tonya Turner of Turner Carroll Gallery in Santa Fe, she also begins the process of funding an endowment at the university to reward innovative student artists.
Liu is formally invited by Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, to have a one woman show of her portrait focused works in 2121. Planning begins.
For the first time at its annual gala, the San Jose Museum of Art honors an artist, and she is Hung Liu.
Liu shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in “Theater of the World: Art and China after 1989.” Organized by the Guggenheim and traveling to Bilbao, the show’s final venue is SFMOMA. Included there is the well-known self-portrait of the Liu in the Chinese militia in 1972, "Avant-Garde.”
As part of a lecture series at SFMOMA focusing on contemporary Chinese art, in association with the exhibition "Theater of the World: Art and China After 1989," Liu talks about her experiences living in China under the repression of the Cultural Revolution.
Phil Tinari, Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing (UCCA), invites Liu to show her works there by the end of 2019. A major coup.
Liu is appointed to the Board of Trustees at the San Jose Museum of Art.
At the Nevada Museum of Art, Liu joins with artist Zhi Lin to discuss the sacrifices of Chinese Railroad workers who raced to complete the rail line that would unite America in 1869. Following their remarks, a ceremonial gathering takes place at the exact time 150 years prior that the Golden Spike was hammered into the last rail at Promontory, Utah by Leland Stanford. Liu and Zhi then recite of the names of over 800 known Chinese railroad workers between 2:27 pm and 2:47 pm - a twenty minute period during which the original telegram announcing the completion of the railroad was sent from Utah to Washington DC. This somber, contemplative recitation is accompanied by the playing of traditional Chinese instruments as the audience gazes westward at the vast Sierra Nevada through which the Chinese workers cut the tunnels of the Union Pacific.
Peter Selz dies. Several years earlier he said of Liu’s work, “Why is somebody a good painter? I think it's a combination of things. It's a combination of inventions. Even though these paintings relate to history and to actual facts in the past, Old Gold Mountain was something else - I mean, the inventiveness, this is what really first turned me onto her work. I had never seen anything like that installation. For 50 years, nothing like this has been done quite the same way. And I think it's that kind of innovation that matters. And as far as the paintings are concerned, I mean, it's extremely well painted, and maybe going back to her training in Socialist Realism, but you don't find much painting these days that is such a dexterous combination of pictorial ability and mythic drama.”
Planning continues for “Passerby,” Liu’s UCCA Beijing show.
For the first time in thirty years Liu gathers and rolls out the many hand-painted murals on paper she did on the floor of the Dun Huang Caves in the Gobi Desert in 1979-80. They are stronger – and more contemporary-seeming – than she remembers.
Liu attends Judy Chicago’s 80th birthday event in Belen, New Mexico, where they meet for the first time. Chicago says “You’ve made history.” Liu replies “I’m surprised you know who I am.” Chicago is amused.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with the guidance of Senior Curator Gary Garrels, acquires all of Liu’s “Secret Freedom Paintings.”
In "This Land ...," at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York, Liu continues her focus on Lang's subjects as they migrate across America in the 1930s in search of work, dignity, and salvation. Though she invokes the title of Woody Guthrie's anthem of 1940, written as a rejoinder to Irving Berlin's "America the Beautiful," the title of Liu's exhibition, "This Land ...," does not offer the visions of sweeping vistas - the ribbons of highway, the golden valleys, the diamond deserts, or the wheat fields waving - but a landscape of broken down cars, flattened tires, stranded and damaged and hollow people, tarpaulin and cardboard shacks, a harvest of bitter onions. "This Land ...," like the ellipsis in the title, indicates an omission, all that "America the beautiful" was not.
In New York, Liu meets up with fellow Chinese painter Li Songsong, whose exhibition opens the same day at Pace Gallery.
On November 14, Liu’s show in Beijing is cancelled by the Beijing municipal Bureau of Culture. Originally scheduled to open on December 6th at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), “Hung Liu: Passers-by,” does not receive the necessary government approvals to import the work to China. In essence, the Beijing government censors Liu’s entire show. The reasons for this are unclear, since the process for seeking approvals from Chinese officials is itself opaque. Probably, it relates to the history of 20th century ideological struggle embodied in Liu’s work. The atmosphere is tightening in China. This is the era of Xi Jinping thought. Artists are now cautioned that their works must serve the state by reflecting the realities of common people, not global elites or art world esthetes. Demagogues and party bosses want an art that classicizes the simple objective realities over which they hope to rule. In China and the Soviet Union, visual realism was pressed into the service of socialism on behalf of the state in the name of the people. Liu has spent her career dissolving the techniques, changing the colors, and bearing witness to the people whose lives have been swept aside by the epic currents of history. Liu has always painted the subjects of revolutionary modernity. But she has never been an ideologue. She is a patriot, ennobling the struggles of the common people of both her homeland and her adopted home with an amazing grace. Autocrats want pictures of a perfect society. Liu’s pictures weep as they witness the tragedies of history.
The year ends with a “Cancellation Party” at the Piedmont home of Liu’s dear friend Mary Ellen Herringer. Many friends show up: artists, curators and museum directors, dealers from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and Ketchum, Phil Tinari from UCCA – all the way from China. The party takes place on the exact day in which Liu’s Beijing show was scheduled to open. Following the cancelation the art world press covers the censorship: articles in The Art Newspaper, the New York Times, Artforum, Art News, Artnet News and more. The Chinese censors in Beijing were surprised by all the attention.
Dawns the year of the rat, again. Liu’s year.
Dawns also the hovering, prickly threat of the coronavirus. Liu has been to Wuhan, where the excavated bronze bells referred to in her 1981 CAFA mural are conserved and exhibited. It’s hard to imagine the whole population there locked-down. But draconian measures are taken and she hopes her friends in China are OK.
A state of emergency is declared in California.
A shelter-in-place order is issued for the Bay Area. It is expected to continue for three weeks.
Liu is appointed to the Board of Trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Some exhibitions continue (Kansas City, Ketchum) but all travel stops.
Dawns, too, the era of Zoom studio visits and artist talks.
Liu goes daily to her studio in Oakland. Working hard on new paintings, she also invents a new form of composing called “ensemble paintings” in which people and things from Lange’s photographs are digitally plucked from their chemical grounds and digitally printed on shaped wood, aluminum, and canvas which are then painted and reordered into new compositions, suggesting fresh narratives in the lives, belongings, and shelters of these Dustbowl migrants.
Meanwhile, she is offered an updated version of the cancelled Beijing show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, scheduled for May 2021. (Take that, Chinese censors!)
Hong Kong is essentially taken back by China.
The Year of the Rat is not what the artist had hoped for. It is tragic for so many, and the politics of the time make everybody sick. Still, Liu knows she is lucky – for having come here, for having been allowed to earn her way in her own way, for the many friends and supporters who lit her path, for Mills College, and for the institutions, small and large, who continue to hold out hope for the future. She has been through epic change and endless sorrow before.
A new Rat is born to Ling Chen Kelley and Juan Yu, his wife: Casimir Arthur Kelley. Cas! Hung Liu is finally a grandma! Like her mother, and hers. A matriarchal line that crossed rivers in China and crossed an ocean to get here. A Grandma Rat and a Baby Rat. Year of the Rat indeed.
Compiled and written by Jeff Kelley between 1998-2012.