Oakland Artist Hung Liu Passes Away Ahead of Major National Portrait Gallery Show

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Hung Liu at the opening of 'Hung Liu: Golden Gate (金門)' at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. (Photo by Drew Altizer; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Oakland-based visual artist Hung Liu died over the weekend. She was one of the first Chinese artists to establish a successful career in the United States.

Liu was less than two months shy of opening a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.—the institution’s first ever solo show by an Asian American woman—when she was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. She was 73 years old.

“The National Portrait Gallery mourns the loss of Hung Liu, whose extraordinary vision reminds us that even in the midst of despair, and when people help each other, there is joy,” said the institution’s director, Kim Sajet, in a statement issued on Monday. “She believed in the power of art and portraiture to change the world.”

Liu is best known for her massive, detailed portraits of working-class people, often based on photographs and featuring linseed oil washes giving the imagery an ethereal, melting quality. Liu’s work earned her many art world accolades and the admiration of curators from all over the country.

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Her work has been collected by institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Asian Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the San Jose Museum of Art. And galleries and museums as far afield as Virginia and Maine have featured Liu’s work in exhibitions.

“She spent her career focusing on the dispossessed—people who have been traditionally elided from historical narratives—giving them a voice, giving them a place and foregrounding their stories,” says Janna Keegan, the curator of Liu’s immigration-themed show currently on display at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

Installation view of 'Hung Liu: Golden Gate (金門)' at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Liu was born in China in 1948 under the Maoist regime. She immigrated to the United States in 1984 to attend grad school at UC San Diego. In addition to working as an artist, she also taught painting for more than two decades at Mills College, starting in 1990.

Even though much of her work foregrounded human rights, gender and cultural memory issues over overt political commentary, Liu made national headlines a few of years ago when a prominent arts center in Beijing, the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, was forced to cancel a major exhibition of Liu’s works after the local authorities declined to issue the necessary import permits.

“Topics that were once relatively open for discussion are now increasingly scrutinized,” Philip Tinari, the UCCA Center’s director, told the New York Times about the show’s late-stage cancellation. “An exhibition that might have been greenlighted a few years ago—such as this one—must now be canceled.”

Galleries and museums across the country issued statements in response to the artist’s death, such as the Oakland Museum of California, which had a long relationship with Liu. The museum collected her pieces, co-commissioned Going Away, Coming Home, an installation at the Oakland Airport, and presented a 2013 survey of her work, Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu.

“Hung’s work bridged cultures, spanned history, and connected hearts around the world,” wrote Oakland Museum director Lori Fogarty in a statement released on Monday on social media. “Beyond her artistic career and her stunning paintings, Hung was a beloved friend. She was vibrant, funny, playful, and joyous. She was also strong, fierce, and courageous. She was the most generous of people and the hardest working. She painted nearly every day and was continually finding inspiration for her insatiable curiosity and creativity. And she had the ability to make everyone with whom she came in contact feel special and honored. We count ourselves so lucky to have known her.”

Liu is survived by her husband, Jeff Kelley, and son, Ling Chen Kelley.

Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands opens at the National Portrait Gallery on Aug. 27, 2020 and Hung Liu: Golden Gate is on display at the de Young Museum through March 13, 2022.