I went to see the de Kooning Retrospective at the Whitney Museum in the Fall of 1983, just weeks after I arrived in New York City from China. I had vaguely heard of his name and had never seen his work, even in reproduction.
I remember clearly the moment I stepped into the first gallery, where the show started, as I faced this wall filled with huge canvases. I felt like I was hit by lightning and landed on the moon, I was in a different world. There were figures, supposedly female, painted fiercely with thick, juicy paint. The images filled the entire canvases and seemed like they would burst out of the frames any second. These women were confrontational, right in your face and vulnerable at the same time, they were beautifully ugly. The paintings looked unfinished and naked, nothing like any female figure paintings I had ever seen.
I grew up in communist China, had academic art training in college, and was ordered by the Communist party to do propaganda paintings in social realist style. When I came to the United States, I vowed to paint what I wanted to paint in the style I chose, but I really didn’t have an idea how and what to paint in this entirely new world. De Kooning’s Woman with a Bicycle opened the door for me and gave me license to explore, and to, in Samuel Beckett’s words, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
Ying Li is a painter born in Beijing, China and immigrated to the United States in 1983. She lives and works in New York City and Haverford College, PA where she is the Phlyssa Koshland Professor of Fine Arts. Li is represented by Pamela Salisbury Gallery, Hudson, New York and Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia.