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An open ending for Taiwan’s avant-garde art pioneer Huang Hua-cheng

By Yali Chen
Taiwan’s avant-garde art pioneer Huang Hua-cheng (黃華成) died before his time, his life was full of mystery, and he allowed few of his original works to survive.
In recent years, some of his friends have tried in vain to mount a retrospective exhibition on Huang. But now their dream has finally come true with this exhibition chronicling the development of Huang’s avant-garde artwork. Curated by Chang Chao-tang (張照堂) and guest curator Chang Shih-lun (張世倫), “An Open Ending: Huang Hua-cheng” (未完成,黃華成) features three oil paintings, manuscripts, hundreds of book cover designs, an experimental film, and stage installations.
The exhibition aims to showcase the versatile artist’s countless talents, and will run through November 8, 2020, at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM). This is the first time Chang Shih-lun has worked with the TFAM.

“An Open Ending: Huang Hua-cheng.”
Photo from TFAM
From left to right, curator Chang Chao-tang, guest curator Chang Shih-lun, and Taipei Fine Arts Museum Director Lin Ping at the May 8 press conference of the exhibition
“An Open Ending: Huang Hua-cheng.”

“Huang was a close friend of my father,” said Chang. His father, Chang Chao-tang, was the first photographer to receive the Taiwan National Awards for Arts (1999) and the Taiwan National Cultural Award (2011).
From a young age, Chang heard about Huang’s story from his father, who regarded him as one of the greatest pioneering artists in Taiwan in the 1960s.
Huang was born in Nanjing, China, in 1935 and moved to Taipei with his parents at the age of 14 when the Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan in 1949. A heavy smoker, he died of lung cancer in Taipei in 1996.
Huang studied traditional art at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) in 1954, but preferred modern literature and film. After graduating in 1958, he branched into modern art, literature, advertising design, art installations, conceptual art, theater, and experimental film.
The artist was a core figure behind “Theater” (劇場), a quarterly magazine. He also founded the “Ecole de Great Taipei” School (大台北畫派). But the School had only one member—himself.
“Huang’s innovative concepts and uncompromising attitude made him a pioneer in the development of Taiwan’s avant-garde art in the 1960s,” said Chang. “But he refused to be considered a painter.”
A Pioneer in different fields
“Still Life” (1958) by Taiwan’s artist Huang Hua-cheng.
Photo from TFAM
“Still Life” (1958) by Taiwan’s artist Huang Hua-cheng.
At the entrance to the exhibition hall stand three oil paintings that Huang made in college. They have been kept in the NTNU warehouse for more than six decades. Except for these three pieces, Huang left behind few original artworks.
“Viewers can see the three paintings as the origin of his later creations,” Chang said. “In fact, Huang was reluctant to repeat himself. He constantly changed jobs and liked to challenge himself in different ways.”
The versatile artist played a pioneering role in various fields, including novels, modern theater, scripts, experimental film, and book cover design. In each field, he shattered the conventional framework.
In August 1966, Huang held an autumn exhibition of the “Ecole de Great Taipei” School at the Hai-Tien Gallery in Taipei. When visitors arrived, they thought they come to the wrong place: the exhibition hall had no paintings, only a bench, a few chairs, a pair of slippers, an electric fan, a tea urn, paper cups, a suitcase, a ladder, and a rod with wet clothes hanging on it, scattered about the exhibition space.
At that time, viewers found the notion of an exhibition without paintings bizarre. With this exhibition, Huang placed the focus on the ideas behind his production, rather than painting forms or techniques.
“He was seen as a maverick in Taiwan’s fine arts community,” Chang said.
Huang threw a farewell party before his death in 1996. With the help of his family and friends, he used an unfinished artwork—a decapitated Guan Yu (關羽)—on a lame horse to end his art career.
The many-sided artist was also a writer. He was a prolific writer while in college. After graduating from NTNU, he worked for the Guohua Advertising Agency and continued writing. In 1961, the writer had two novellas published in the “Modern Literature” (現代文學) magazine, “Blue Stone” (青石) and “Filial Son” (孝子).
Experimental theater in the eighties
A visitor watching the fascinating exhibits.
Photo from TFAM
A visitor watching the fascinating exhibits.

One year later, Huang joined Taiwan Television (TTV), where he served as art director. He worked for TTV for six years, all the while continuing to write short stories and scripts.
A college friend invited him to join “Theater”, a quarterly magazine. Huang designed the magazine cover using red, blue, and yellow. He put maximum effort into the magazine’s art design.
In September 1965, the magazine sponsored two performances—“Waiting for Godot” (等待果陀) and “Prophet” (先知)—but they attracted unfavorable criticism and ended in failure. Huang starred in the two shows and wrote the script for “Prophet.” This was an important development for his later creation, including experimental film.
Starring as Estragon in “Waiting for Godot” inspired him to hold the autumn exhibition of the “Ecole de Great Taipei” School in August 1996. The first installation art show in Taiwan, it had a dramatic impact on the development of avant-garde art in Taiwan in the 1960s.
Despite the failure of the plays, the two performances gave birth to the Lan Ling Theatre Workshop. Founded in 1980, it was the first experimental theater in Taiwan and led to the experimental theater movement in the 1980s.
At the end of 1968, noted Hong Kong film writer and director Chiu Kang-chien (邱剛健) recommended Huang to the Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong as a scriptwriter. But Huang’s scripts were not valued, and he felt lonely, frustrated, depressed, and far from home.
A cover design defines a book
A collection of book covers designed by Huang Hua-cheng during the 1970s.
Photo from TFAM
A collection of book covers designed by Huang Hua-cheng during the 1970s.

Back in Taipei in early 1970, Huang worked for various advertising agencies. His focus shifted to book cover design. At that time, publishing houses in Taiwan were starting to put a focus on book cover design.
Originality played an important role in Huang’s design style. He designed more than three hundred book covers using photographic collage. His concise, highly symbolic design style opened a new chapter in the development of Taiwanese book cover design.
“While curating this exhibition, I faced an enormous challenges—I had to make a list of his book cover designs from the seventies from scratch,” Chang said. “After making the complete list, I spent a lot of time approaching each of the publishing houses.”
More than 200 books are on display in the exhibition. Over 95% of them were bought by the curator, which was a substantial outlay. Chang also went to second-hand bookstores to find them.
Not all out-of-pocket expenses will be reimbursed by the TFAM. But the curator believes that his hard work will pay off in the end. “These book covers designed by Huang will help viewers better understand the trend towards popular books in the seventies in Taiwan. The covers also show how his designs influenced the development of modern arts, films, and theater on the island.”
Another challenge was that Chang only had a year to organize the exhibition. He had to start by creating a timeline of the artist’s life by collecting and reading background materials.
Concepts, not works
One corner of the exhibition conveys the spirit of Huang Hua-cheng’s “Ecole de Great Taipei” School.
Photo from TFAM
A corner of the exhibition conveying the spirit of Huang Hua-cheng’s “Ecole de Great Taipei” School.
The curator explains that Huang often wanted to change because of setbacks or challenges, and he tended to keep his distance from others. Huang changed jobs more than thirty times, and wrote short stories under countless pseudonyms.
Huang did not pay much attention to the preservation of his original works. Most have disappeared, and he only left behind fragments of his notes, documents, manuscripts, and sketches.
Chang pieced together Huang’s art career from these fragments and historical research. The curator tried to reproduce Huang’s last exhibition during his lifetime, which took place in 1996.
“Huang also opposed any concrete artwork. We can see him as a conceptual artist. The essence of his creations lies in his concepts, not concrete works,” said Chang. He hopes viewers will gain a better understanding of the ideas and spirit of the artist’s creations.
Asked how he would define Huang’s art career, Chang returned to the theme of the exhibition: “His life was a story with an open ending.”