(CREDITS TO CNN) Artist Hung Liu, whose striking portraits depicted life in Maoist China and the American immigrant experience, has died at age 73.
Liu’s death on Saturday followed a battle with pancreatic cancer, according to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, where she was due to open a major exhibition later this month.
The gallery’s director, Kim Sajet, praised the late painter’s “extraordinary artistic vision” in a statement, adding that Liu’s work “was always rooted in history as she transformed marginalized subjects into monumental, heroic, contemporary figures.”
Liu’s forthcoming exhibition, the first solo show by an Asian American at the National Portrait Gallery, will still go ahead, the museum confirmed.
She was born in Changchun, a city in northeastern China, in 1948, the year before the Communist Party declared victory in the country’s bloody civil war. Growing up in the early decades of Mao’s rule, Liu trained in Socialist Realism — an idealized style typical of communist art education and propaganda at the time — before studying mural painting at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Art.
In addition to sketched portraits of villagers and landscape paintings of rural China, Liu also experimented with photography in her early years, capturing images of her village during Mao’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution. Liu’s interest in the medium would later prove central to her work, which often merged historical photographs with her own compassionate portraiture.
When Liu moved to the US to study at the University of California San Diego, in 1984, she continued to draw inspiration from the history and iconography of China. Basing many of her works on historical photographs of everyday people, including laborers, street performers and prostitutes, she shone a light on those overlooked by society in a style she dubbed “weeping realism.”
She never directly copied the photographs, but instead brought their subjects to life with color and depth, renewing their humanity in a process that both “preserves and destroys” original images, according to her official website.
While indulging her self-professed nostalgia for China, Liu also sought to unravel the realities of immigration in her adopted homeland. The painter’s later work saw her depicting Chinese communities in Idaho and inCalifornia during the gold rush, imagining immigration papers bearing the name “Cookie, Fortune.” Buther interest in human movement and memory stretched far beyond the Asian diaspora, too, with several series of paintings centered on photographer Dorothea Lange’s Depression-eraimages of migration in America’s Dust Bowl.
Although she primarily exhibited in the US, Liu’s work intermittently showed in China, until it eventually fell foul of Beijing officials. In 2019, a planned show at the city’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art was canceled amid Sino-American trade tensions, according to the Art Newspaper. She later told the New York Times that the country’s censors had been concerned about her depictions of China’s past.
Tributes have been flooding in from across the art world since her death. The Oakland Museum of California, which in 2013 hosted a retrospective of Liu’s work, described her on Twitter as “extraordinary.” San Francisco’s de Young Museum, where several of Liu’s works are currently on display, meanwhile called her as a “trailblazer among Asian American artists.” In a statement, one of the museum’s curators, Janna Keegan, described her as a “vibrant and vital part of the art world in the Bay Area and beyond.”
“Hung Liu’s art practice focused on recovering the stories of people who have been often forgotten in traditional historical narratives,” Keegan is quoted as saying. “The legacy and wonderful oeuvre she leaves behind will ensure that she too will always be remembered.”