Life is Like a Dream: Retrospective Brings Ku Fu-sheng Back to New York after 50 Years
Updated: Sep 10, 2019
By Colin DeVries
Ku Fu-sheng, an artist born out of an antiestablishment movement within Taiwan and within his own family, never wanted anything else than to be a painter.
“Ku Fu-sheng is the most pure artist I have ever met,” says Qian Wu, curator of Ku’s first solo exhibition in New York City in more than 50 years. “He is singularly focused on painting. He doesn’t care about the business of it. He doesn’t care about being famous. For him, painting is all that matters.”
As a young man in Taiwan, the Shanghai-born Ku faced enormous pressure from his family to abandon his love of the arts. As the only son of a prominent military general who led the Republic of China’s army against Mao Zedong’s Communist Party, practicing the arts was the last thing his parents wanted of him. But his passion could not be contained.
“Life is Like a Dream,” an exhibit of Ku’s work showing at Gallery 456 in Soho through April 7, captures the evolution and depth of an artist who fled his homeland to pursue a new life, a new dream.
“Fallen” (1964), a dark and emotional oil painting reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists of 1960s New York, uses a messy, footless and headless male form to divide a field of jet black and muddy white/gray. It appears as though the man, with his back on a ledge, is creeping ever closer toward the darkness. It is a reflection of an internal struggle and an emotional, lonely time in his life.
In the 1950s, Ku groomed his artistic talents through work with the Taiwanese artist collective the Fifth Moon Group. He had joined the group while working on his fine arts degree at the National Taiwan Normal University. Ku and the Fifth Moon Group, which formed 60 years ago, were among a counterculture movement in the arts. Though the majority of the group’s art was abstraction, Ku focused his work on the human form. He became known as an innovator, an original painter who was creating work never before seen in China or Taiwan. To this day, Ku is recognized as a pioneer in the Taiwanese art world for his ground-breaking contributions.
In 1961, he left Taiwan and his family for Paris to continue his pursuit of art, though without the financial support of a family who wanted a much different life for him. He continued on to New York in 1963 where he joined the Art Students League of New York.
Like “Fallen,” Ku’s work of the 1960s reflected a tumultuous time in his life. “In Paris and New York, he was very poor and very down,” says curator Qian Wu. “He had trouble finding a lover and wasn’t making any money. He was on his own.”
Throughout each stage of his life, Ku’s artwork represents his mood and his emotional well-being. While the psyche of any artist is not consciously communicated through the work, it becomes an intrinsic part of the creative process and is shown through color, the harshness of brush strokes, and the materials employed. For Ku, the passage of time brings a peacefulness, vibrancy, and depth to his work.
“Sunset” (1999) features a bright, warm setting showing the torso of a fit male form undressing, though faceless and cut off at the thighs. It is a much different emotional state than decades earlier.
Viewers of “Life is Like a Dream” will quickly notice a common thread among the works: the male form. It is present in all of them. Ku, whose homosexuality became another source of conflict with his family, reflected the ideal of masculinity in many of his works throughout his life as an artist.
The highlight of the exhibition, “The Moth” (1989), is a departure from abstraction and a careful mixed media study of a man leaning over a bed. It is his ideal of the masculine form—the man of his dreams. “He is painting himself and his lovers in the dream,” says Qian Wu. “There is this contrast between his real life and his imagination. In his own life, he is not concerned about fitness, but his ideal is the strong, sporty, muscular man that is present in many of his works.”
Ku traveled from coast to coast during his life in the U.S., leaving New York after only a few years to live in Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, and his present day home of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. He created art at each place and built each city’s unique setting into his paintings.
He employs mixed media to capture a moment in his life in “Portland Days” (1995). Using a map of Portland and clippings of a pamphlet from one his own art exhibitions, he blends features of his own reality with the painted male form. The work, one of the exhibition’s most intriguing, also features a painting of himself, which keen observers will notice shows a piercing in his right ear. That piercing is spotted again in “Promised Land” (1999), though the face of the man is replaced with a dreamlike sky at sunset. The flowing purple and orange topped with a trim, brown head of hair.
Ku says his artistic style was influenced by an appreciation for many artists, including Francis Bacon, Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning, Lucian Freud, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock, Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, and others. His own work has affected others just as well, including well-known writers. Pai Hsien-yung, author of Taipei People and Crystal Boys, describes Ku’s work as “people-centered and literary with tragic spirits.” The late author Sanmao, who Ku once tutored in art, wrote that “in (Ku’s) painting, the language of literature shows strongly and powerfully.”
One of Ku’s favored forms is mixed media. He often incorporates clothing, fabrics, gold and silver leaf, wood, mesh, and other materials amid his painting. In “Night and Day” (2004), the most recent work in the exhibition, he uses magazine clippings to populate a cityscape with cars around the silhouette of a man, whose hands are clasped over an active night within himself.
Four pieces of oil on wood make up an anxious figure with his chin on his knees and arms wrapped around his shins in “Contemplation” (1994). Perhaps it is the artist himself, evaluating a path taken in life. It could be him having recently awoken; wondering if his dream would come true.
Work by Daily Media Studio, Editor-in-Chief Felicia Guo.