Richard Lin dedicated his career to the development of the Painting Relief concept, which is a wholly original and unprecedented style that combines ideas from sculpture with the vocabulary of painting; this has added a whole new dimension to painting and created a new artistic experience. At the same time, Lin expanded the form and substance of how the colour white is used in painting, which required great exactitude on the part of the artist, using his well-honed sensibility and meticulous artistry to compose order upon the canvas, making the colour a vessel for both Eastern cultures and modern Western spirits simultaneously.
Traditional Western paintings typically rely on the Three-Point Perspective to achieve the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional plane, and since the dawn of the 20th-century Modernist painters from the West have tried repeatedly to break through this illusory space that had become integral to the Western canon. Lin studied architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London between 1954 and 1958, and spent his nights studying painting and crafts. At his first solo exhibition in 1961, the public saw their first showcase of Lin’s “Relief Painting” works: influenced by modernist philosophy, Lin used media such as aluminium strips and Perspex to create abstract forms like the point, line, and plane, while also using thick oil paint to create palpable thickness on the canvas, resulting in a multi-dimensional composition. Compared with works by British artist Ben Nicholson, who made reliefs by carving directly into white planks (Fig. 1), Lin stands out with his attention to the technicalities of painting, which he combines with sculptural ideas to create a brand-new form of abstract painting.
In the mid- to late-1960s, after years of exploration with relief paintings, Lin gradually reduced his use of multiple media in his works. Unlike his earlier oversized work such as the “Modern Painting Relief Diptych ” held at the National Palace Museum, which features both aluminium and yellow paint, this “Painting Relief Diptych ” (Lot 40) made in 1965-1968 is composed only of white paint despite being from his same series of works. Here, the white paint is laid in intricate layers, which is a progression and development from earlier ideas about relief paintings and requires painstaking plus time-consuming processes from the artist to retain the layered dimensionality of relief paintings while accentuating the degree of painting work involved. All of the above render his stylistic language even more essential and unique, and is a masterpiece of perfected concepts and techniques.
Among other 20th-century masters, Lin’s creative ideology can be compared with the Italian artist Lucio Fontana. Both of them “sculpt on canvas”, and used concepts from sculpting to extend the dimensions in paintings, but they did so through opposing directions. Fontana broke through the confines of painting on canvas by slashing and tearing the canvas itself, revealing the space beyond the surface of it (Fig. 3). He explained that he “want[s] to open up space, create a new dimension, tie in the cosmos, as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture.” Fontana’s ground-breaking acts have thus become an integral part of Western postwar art history because of his breakthrough in the conception of the medium of painting. Lin’s relief paintings, which extend longitudinally on top of the canvas and combines sculptural and painting techniques to construct space beyond the canvas, thus approaches Fontana’s ideals albeit from an entirely different direction. In this “Painting Relief Diptych ”, for instance, Lin stacked sheets of oil paint on canvas to build complicated layers, impart different degrees of physical depth to the colour blocks, occupy varying volumes in three-dimensional space, which achieves diverse proximities and spatial relationships (to the viewer). This also means that lighting and projection are key elements in the composition, adding further layers and variations to the work. It can be said that Lin’s works, much like Fontana’s, have moved beyond the surface of traditional canvases and broadened the realm of painting and forged a new kind of artistic experience – a feat doubly impressive and forward-thinking for the 1960s. Their contribution to art history is that they have brought a new multidimensional experience to painting, by introducing a multisensory thinking with both visual and tactile aspects to a piece of work. In effect, Lin’s relief paintings have not only shattered the purelyvisual Three-Point Perspective tradition that had dominated the Western canon since the Renaissance: by treating paint as objects (or reliefs), and incorporating the tactile sensations of the lights and shadows created by these objects, a new painting experience wholly apart from the Three-Point Perspective is created.
In 1966, Spanish artist Joan Miró visited Lin’s studio in London, and said of his work that “In the world of white, Lin is without equal.” The use of white is another defining characteristic of Lin’s creations, and the question of how he developed the simple colour into his own artistic vocabulary can perhaps be inferred from this diptych. Lin’s “White on White” series is distinguished by overlaying white on top of white, and this particular diptych is a particularly complex and rare example of an All White work. Upon closer examination, viewers would notice many subtle variations in the shades of white employed – some warm and with a hint of yellowish pastel, some cool and tinted with grey or blue, realizing a sequence of whites. In reality, because colour exists on a spectrum, the human eye is capable of identifying many more shades of colours than have been defined by language, and Lin effectively expanded the spectrum of whites in his paintings. His ability to develop and express white to its zenith depends on the artist’s extreme precision, sharp artistic sense, and ability to meticulously create order and structure on the canvas, in effect developing a new and unique way to draw with white. In this diptych, countless horizontal white blocks are drawn in parallel with smooth glistening surfaces, and each line’s width, thickness, opacity, depth, profile, lighting, and shadow were precisely measured by the artist with repeated coatings and layers. All of the above factors were combined and melded into one, achieving perfection in unity, or as Lin put it, “one is everything”.
The colour white is a cardinal feature in 20thcentury art history – a result of the use of white space in modern architecture, which afforded the colour a supreme status, and also because of the cultural symbolism behind the colour, representing not only purity and chasteness, but also infinity and minimalism, complementing the ideals behind contemporary civilisations. Kazimir Malevich famously spearheaded the development of modernism with his “White on White” (Fig. 4), and in it he used two layers of white, with a cool white square placed on top of a warm white base, to defeat the limit of colours, letting artists swim in the infinite space in “the free white sea”. Lin’s conception about white develops and glorifies this idea from Western modernism, and bridges it with substance from Eastern cultures as well. In Chinese paintings and philosophies, for instance, white is more than a colour. In the Tai Chi diagram (also called the Yin Yang symbol), black and white represent the diametric ends of the universe, and white is used to stand for “yang” or the force of the sun. In Chinese paintings, white is better seen as a kind of space than just a colour. Aside from snowy landscapes, the “white” in Chinese paintings are usually presented as negative space, in a process described as “counting white as black”; this reveals major differences between Chinese and Western paintings, in their treatments and understandings of space. Around the four sides of this diptych, Lin also used different degrees of white space to create a sense of expansiveness, which is characteristic of his works. Furthermore, in Chinese painting there is the idea of the “Five colours of black ink”, and Lin’s use of white is similarly separable into multiple layers, which is what allowed him to do without other colours. To him, the concept of “one is everything” in Eastern philosophy connects with the Western idea of “less is more” in their expansion of white beyond the conventional definitions of colours, turning the colour into a vessel for both Eastern ideals and modern Western ideologies. It would be fair to say that Lin’s “White on White” relief paintings began with Western medium, but ends up consciously presenting core values in Eastern cultures.
This diptych visualises Lin’s observations of and study into “repetitions and change”, given their use of similar techniques in layering blocks of white on top of one another, and the negative white line in the centre of both paintings. Between the pair, the right piece has a tighter composition than the left, much like variations on a theme from different angles. Also, from a compositional point of view, the biggest difference between a diptych and a singular piece is that the diptych fractures and severs the canvas, which affects how viewers might perceive the work – viewers are prevented from dwelling on the narrative or aura within a single piece, and are forced to extricate themselves to compare and contrast the pair, creating an alienation effect and supporting Lin’s insistence that “painting must return to the painting itself”. Because of this, this diptych does not simply double the aesthetics from a stylistic point of view, it also closely channels the artist’s creative ideology, much like the Chinese distich or couplets. Given this symbiotic relationship, viewers can better understand Lin’s philosophy about being and metamorphosis.