Born of strife and turmoil that killed millions of victims around her, Hung Liu prevailed and succeeded as an internationally acclaimed artist. The Oakland resident who grew up in Maoist China died last week of pancreatic cancer. She was 73.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of artist Hung Liu’s sudden, premature passing and our thoughts go out to her family… A trailblazer among Asian American artists, the legacy and extensive oeuvre she leaves behind will continue to inspire,” tweeted officials at the de Young Museum, where the installation “Hung Liu: Golden Gate” has been on view for free since July 17.
Her death comes as she was getting ready to go to Washington D.C. for the Aug. 27 opening of a National Portrait Gallery exhibit of “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” a retrospective of her career from early landscapes recalling Cézanne, which she painted in secret to hide from Communist censors, to a 2006 mural of cranes in flight at the Oakland Airport.
Liu, who was born in Changchun, China in 1948, came of age during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She was one of millions sent to the countryside for an agrarian “re-education.”
She came to California in 1984, and after attending UC San Diego and later teaching at Mills College, Liu developed a unique style she called “weeping realism,” often using linseed “tears” streaked over her paintings, which retained photo-like aspects of socialist realism, but revealed sorrow and empathy for her subjects.
“Hung grew up in Maoist China, personally experiencing the hardships of the time, the attacks on the intelligentsia and the ideological indoctrination,” Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Director Thomas Campbell said on social media. “Much of her subsequent work has focused on challenging official narratives, both Chinese and American. Many of her paintings are inspired by historical photographs, enlarged to a massive scale, and they consistently celebrate the identity and humanity of the victims of poverty, harsh immigration policies and social stereotyping.”
Liu had a long relationship with the de Young, which in 1994 commissioned “Old Gold Mountain” — “Jiu Jin Shan” or San Francisco’s nickname in Mandarin — one of her most famous works. The installation, which features 200,000 golden fortune cookies piled atop railroad tracks, represents the junctions of East and West and honors Chinese immigrants who died while building the transcontinental railroad
“Hung Liu: Golden Gate” at the de Young is dominated by “Resident Alien,” a painting that covers an entire wall. Liu created it in 1988 during a residency at Capp Street Project in San Francisco. It’s part of a body of paintings in the installation that deal with the history of Chinese immigration to California, beginning with the Gold Rush in 1949 and continuing through her own resident alien status at the time.
Works seen at the de Young and also in an exhibition at the Monadnock Building on Market Street in The City brought Liu her first significant art world attention, and established her as an artist examining the politics of identity, especially relating to immigration and the fate of immigrants.
Although she gained fame in the West, China was ambiguous in recognizing her.
In 2019, the Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing finally scheduled a show of her work. Just before the pandemic struck in December 2019, as her works were being shipped to China from museums around the world to Beijing and she was about to fly there with a large group of her friends, the show was canceled without explanation. Having waited for recognition in her country of birth all her life, Liu was deeply hurt.