Ching Ho Cheng | The Subtlety of Expression

Ching Ho Cheng | The Subtlety of Expression


“I want to capture something of the miraculous. Light is the most awesome symbol of the Order of the Universe. Nothing can beat the speed of light. When I paint light I’m not just concerned with the phenomenon of light. I am trying to depict the illumination. The light will continue. It is eternal. A light bulb will die but there will always be light. A match will die but there are stars and new stars to be born.” – Ching Ho Cheng

Ching Ho Cheng | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and William Duke

Ching Ho Cheng (b. 1946, Havana, Cuba) was a New York-based artist recognized for his psychedelic paintings, torn works, and oxidized sculptures that investigate light, texture, and processes of transformation. He is now being considered as one of the foremost Asian American artists of his generation. Primarily working on paper with gouache, ink, graphite and mixed mediums, his body of work is divided into four distinct periods including the Psychedelics, Gouache, Torn Works, and Alchemical Works. Born to a family of government officials and grew up in Queens, New York, his father Paifong Cheng was the last Chinese diplomat to Havana, Cuba during the 1940s and later moved to New York in 1951. From 1964 to 1968, Cheng studied painting and sculpture at the Cooper Union School of Art while living in the East Village. During his study, Cheng developed an interest in the spiritual traditions of Taoism and delved into Hopi and Navajo artifacts, and Tibetan art. In the 1970s, he moved to Soho, hanging out at the popular artist’s bar, Max’s Kansas City.

Ching Ho Cheng, Sun Drawing, 1970 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

Cheng lived in Europe for periods of time, often returning to New York where he always stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. In 1976, his first solo exhibition took place at Kunsthandel K276 in Amsterdam. In 1977, he had his first solo exhibition in New York at the Gloria Cortella Gallery. On his return to New York that year, Cheng settled into the legendary Chelsea Hotel until his death of AIDS in May 1989, forging connections with the building’s other creative residents such as William Boroughs, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsburg, and Tally Brown. In his lifetime, Cheng’s work was shown and collected by major institutions including the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum and NYU’s The Grey Art Gallery. His work has also been collected by many other major institutions including The Whitney Museum of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Detroit Museum of Art, The Phillips Collection and many others.


Four distinct periods of transformation

Primarily working on paper, his body of work is divided into four distinct periods. “Epic” painting referred to his early work period of the Psychedelics from 1966 to 1973.

Ching Ho Cheng, Astral Theatre, 1973 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

“I find great beauty in very simple things”, Cheng shifted his focus away from “explosions” and towards “subtlety” in the period of Gouache from 1973 to 1982. In the 70s, Cheng was sensitive to the environment of his Chelsea Hotel studio. He captured everyday objects such as his studio window, matches, light bulbs, and peaches. By the end of this period, Cheng had distilled his work down to the essence of light and shadow.

Ching Ho Cheng, Untitled, 1978 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

From 1982 to 1986, Cheng started to experiment with torn gessoed paper, iron and copper powder. Cheng destroyed works that were not up to his standards, and tore a drawing he found inadequate. From this one transformative act evolved his stunning body of torn works. He realized that the process of tearing paper was simultaneously constructive and destructive.

Installation view of torn paper works at Bruno Facchetti Gallery, 1986 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Bruno Facchetti Gallery

From 1986 to 1989, after a trip to Turkey, Cheng developed his alchemical—rust or copper oxide—pieces in the 80s. The texture of the caves and grottos inspired him and led to his exploration of the oxidation process, creating organic elements on paper, and later on canvas, as abstractions.


The Chelsea Hotel as a substantial body of his paintings

“I have had all my explosions. Now I am concerned with the subtlety of expression.” The Chelsea Hotel was Cheng’s last home, he settled in the Chelsea Hotel in 1976 where he lived until he passed away in 1989. The period of staying at the Chelsea Hotel was his first time attaining the “perfect state of calm”.

Ching Ho Cheng | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

He used the living room of a very small one-bedroom apartment as his studio which had southern light. “Shadow Boxes”, a series of window frames in different colors were created from 1981 to 1984. The effect of light was the key subject in his paintings. He portrayed light and its corresponding shadows through the frame of a window. The white-on-white shadow boxes are among the most subtle of all the gouache works and as such take time to study and consider from all angles to truly appreciate.

Ching Ho Cheng, Untitled, 1980 | Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Sunpride Foundation

The subject matter for a substantial body of his paintings during his stay at the Chelsea Hotel also included “Waterfall, Chelsea Hotel, NY” (1978) resides in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and “Light Bulb Triptych” (1976), a painting that depicts his studio is at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.