Some artists, for good reason, hesitate to reveal their tricks, so as to avoid any chance of diminishing their work’s mystery. But learning how Liu Kuo-sung makes his moon paintings doesn’t take away from the enigma—it only enhances the effect. The 91-year-old artist’s lunar series—begun in the late 1960s and revamped in the 2010s—features in a retrospective at the National Gallery Singapore. All of the 60 works on view are the product of the decades that the Chinese ink master spent innovating ways to paint without a brush.
You would be forgiven for overlooking the works’ brushlessness—Liu conceals and controls his experimental methods—and you could appreciate the simple elegance of his compositions and his mesmerizing color combinations all the same. But the magic is enhanced when you come to appreciate how he directs the swirling ink he uses when marbling—a technique that involves adding droplets of pigment to a vat of water, then dragging the paper across its surface. Whereas most artists turn to marbling to invite an element of chance, Liu approaches it as a challenge to prove his control.
Firmly committed to his brushless bit, Liu developed his own kind of cotton paper that leaves visible, linear fibers. When you see a white line in a composition of his, you can bet that he first stained the entire page and then removed a cotton strand, revealing fresh, unstained paper beneath. In fact, once you focus on the brushlessness, you might find yourself looking at each of Liu’s impressive paintings and asking: how’d he do that without a brush?
Liu is dedicated to painting nature, and his moon paintings—colorful orbs hovering majestically in commanding compositions—count among his finest works. He first started painting the moon and other celestial bodies after watching the 1969 Apollo landing and experiencing a decidedly modern strand of the sublime that landscape painters have tried to evoke for centuries. He returned to the lunar motif again in the 2000s, with works whose crinkled, then flattened paper came to represent the moon’s craggy surface.
But all this is more than just a cool trick: Liu rewards curious, meticulous viewers of both his work and the world. One benefits from looking at his work as he looks at the moon, for wondering: how does this work? He shows how the moon can be more magical when you know some of the math behind the mystery—when you appreciate, for instance, that the moon is both 400 times smaller than the sun and 400 times closer to the Earth. When his painting Midnight Sun III (1970) shows the trajectory of a fiery astronomical presence moving across a dark sky, it isn’t didactic and it doesn’t demystify; it invites more marveling.
Liu’s celestial paintings merge geometric abstraction with a glimpse into the infinite, expansive cosmos. In this way, the works speak across time and culture. But they also respond to and update traditions specific to Chinese ink painting. In the 1970s, Liu established a modern ink art curriculum during his tenure as chair of the fine arts department of Chinese University Hong Kong. Art historians such as Wu Hung credit Liu’s work as a teacher—in addition to a 1983 exhibition of his art that eventually toured 18 Chinese cities—with showing a generation of artists how to modernize Chinese ink painting. And when, in the 2000s, contemporary Chinese art had its global explosion, experiments in ink were central to the narrative—as seen in major shows like “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013.
Gazing at the moon can sometimes make the world and its attendant problems feel small. But looking at Liu’s lunar works—none of which I’d known before seeing his impressive retrospective in Singapore—I was instead reminded that the world is big and brimming with artists oceans away whose work I have yet to encounter.