National Portrait Gallery Presents Hung Liu Career Retrospective In August A career retrospective for the Oakland-based Chinese-American painter, who died on Aug. 7, opens at the National Portrait Gallery on August 27.

Remembering Hung Liu, A Portraitist Who Memorialized The Invisible

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California-based artist Hung Liu died unexpectedly earlier this month, just weeks ahead of a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED brings us the story of a courageous, revolutionary artist who channeled her youth in Maoist China into artworks that focus on working-class people and immigrants.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss and artist Hung Liu got together more than a dozen times over the past few years to try to figure out what to put in Liu's career-defining show.


DOROTHY MOSS: Oh, they're beautiful. I think that could work very well in the...

HUNG LIU: This one is right up there on the wall. But anyway...

VELTMAN: Liu was 73 when she died, only weeks after being diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. She had a prolific career, so selecting 50 or so works from the thousands of possibilities was daunting.


MOSS: Oh, my gosh. How are we going to narrow this down?

LIU: I know.

VELTMAN: Moss tells NPR the exhibition that eventually came out of that process, "Hung Liu: Portraits Of Promised Lands," stands in stark contrast to the museum's countless images of powerful white men.

MOSS: The scale is monumental. The colors are searing. The texture is dripping with linseed oil like a veil of tears. And the faces - there's so much humanity in the faces.

VELTMAN: The faces Liu paints are mostly those of Chinese peasants and prostitutes from historical photographs she's taken or collected over the years and Dust Bowl migrants inspired by Dorothea Lange's Depression-era photographs.

MOSS: That is shocking, in the National Portrait Gallery, to see that perspective. And therein lies her contribution to the history of portraiture.


LIU: But somehow, you need to make connection with whatever your subject.

VELTMAN: In this 2005 KQED video profile, Liu explains how she approaches her subjects.


LIU: Because when you have a human figure in any photograph or painting, you always ask, you know, who's this?

VELTMAN: The artist's deep sense of empathy springs from experience. She was born in the northeastern city of Changchun in 1948. When Liu was just a baby, the Communist authorities imprisoned her father and continued to dictate the terms of the educated young woman's existence.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The red torrents of the great proletarian Cultural Revolution are sweeping the country and shaking the whole world.

VELTMAN: In 1968, they sent her to work in the fields with other students. Liu spent her free moments sketching scenes of country life. But Liu's husband, art critic Jeff Kelley, says the art she was interested in making, even after she was allowed to resume her studies in Beijing four years later, didn't exactly capture the revolutionary spirit.

JEFF KELLEY: She would paint landscapes in a kind of expressive, impressionist style, and they didn't include heroic peasants. They didn't include the Great Leader. They didn't include signs of industrial or agricultural progress.

VELTMAN: Kelley says Liu hid the contraband landscapes under her bed and dreamed of escape.

KELLEY: She told me that one time, she was working in the fields, and she saw this silver passenger jet. And she looked and thought, where is it going, and will I ever be able to go there?

VELTMAN: After several years of petitioning the Chinese government, in 1984, Liu did manage to board a plane. She headed on scholarship to art school at UC San Diego.


ALLAN KAPROW: Forget all the standard art forms.

VELTMAN: ...Where she studied with the influential artist Allan Kaprow.


KAPROW: The point is to make something new, something that doesn't even remotely remind you of culture.

VELTMAN: Liu's husband, Jeff Kelley, says the day Kaprow took his class dumpster diving was a turning point for Liu.

KELLEY: That was perhaps the most defining, liberating act in her education as an artist - that art could be whatever you insisted that it was.

VELTMAN: With her art, Hung Liu insists that we see those that might otherwise be invisible. As the first Asian American woman ever to get a solo retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, Liu elevates other artists of color in a similar way, says her friend and fellow artist Mildred Howard.

MILDRED HOWARD: Hung is one of those artists that was breaking those barriers so that people like me can be represented for what we do. She was one of the artists that helped us to get a place at the table.

VELTMAN: And just as Liu devoted her career to memorializing others, now others are doing the same for her. Art institutions on both coasts are planning memorials in the coming months.

For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman in San Francisco.

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