Hung Liu Devoted Her Career to Remembering Others, Now the Art World Remembers Her

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Hung Liu poses at the de Young Museum in July 2021 with a large-scale reproduction of her 1988 work 'Resident Alien' (Drew Altizer, Courtesy Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe)

The first thing visitors come across when they enter San Francisco’s de Young Museum is Oakland artist Hung Liu’s U.S. Permanent Resident card.

Not the actual artifact—but rather a colossal, painterly reproduction (itself based on Resident Alien, an installation the artist made in 1988) that satirizes the experience of immigrating as a Chinese person to the U.S. The outsize print covers the entire back wall of the museum’s atrium. And it stops visitors like Beatrice Harrison, visiting the de Young for the first time from her home in Sacramento, in their tracks.

“It’s quite in your face,” Harrison says. “For a lot of folks that are just not familiar with how aliens have been treated, it’s good to see a representation.”

Liu died unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer earlier this month, just weeks ahead of a major, career-defining retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The courageous, quietly revolutionary artist channeled her youth in Maoist China into monumental artworks that focus on working class people and immigrants.

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“Somehow you need to make a connection with whatever your subject,” Liu told KQED in a 2005 video profile. “Because when you have a human figure in any photograph or painting, you always ask, you know, ‘Who’s this?’”

This empathy is what gives Liu’s work such power, whether focusing on Dust Bowl migrants inspired by Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs, or Chinese peasants and “comfort women” recreated from photos she took or collected herself.

“She’s uncovering forgotten histories—those people who are at risk of being forgotten—and making sure they’re seen and visible and respected,” says Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery. “The scale is monumental. The colors are searing. The texture is dripping with linseed oil, like a veil of tears. And the faces: There’s so much humanity in the faces.”

Hung Liu's 'Migrant Mother: Mealtime,' 2016 is one of many recent works inspired by the photographs of Dorothea Lange. (Collection of Michael Klein/Copyright Hung Liu)

Growing Up Under Communism

Liu was born in 1948 in the northeastern city of Changchun. The city was soon under siege in the struggle for power between nationalist and communist armies. When Liu’s family tried to escape, the communists arrested and imprisoned her father for his nationalist ties.

“She was six months old,” says Liu’s husband, art critic Jeff Kelley. “And she didn’t see him again until she was 46.”

The communist authorities continued to dictate the terms of Liu’s existence as an educated young woman. In 1968, during the Cultural Revolution, she was sent work in the fields with other students as part of a sweeping “reeducation” program.

Hung Liu, 'Village Photograph 4 Paintbox,' circa 1970–72. Liu photographed villagers during her four years of farm labor during the Cultural Revolution. (Collection of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley)

“They worked seven days a week, 364 days a year, for four years,” says Kelley.

Liu, who had enjoyed painting and drawing since she was little, spent her free moments sketching scenes of country life. But the art she was interested in making—even after she was allowed to resume her studies in Beijing as an art teacher—didn’t exactly capture the revolutionary spirit.

“She would paint landscapes in a kind of expressive Impressionist style,” Kelley says. “And they didn’t include heroic peasants. They didn’t include the Great Leader. They didn’t include signs of industrial or agricultural progress.”

Liu hid the contraband landscapes under her bed—and dreamed of escape.

“She told me that, one time, she was working in the fields, and she saw this silver passenger jet,” Kelley says. “And she looked and thought, ‘Where is it going? And will I ever be able to go there?’”

After several years of petitioning the Chinese government, in 1984, Liu did manage to board a plane. She headed on scholarship to art school at UC San Diego.

Hung Liu as a graduate student in Beijing, 1980. (Courtesy of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley)

There, she studied with the feminist art historian Moira Roth as well as artist Allan Kaprow, who coined the term “happenings” for the influential form of performance art he helped shape in the 1950s and 60s.

Kelley, who met Liu while he also studying art at UC San Diego, says Kaprow’s methods were unorthodox. “He took the class out to a dumpster with a bunch of paint. And then the professor said, ‘OK, do something.’ And Hung said, ‘Do what?’”

Kelley says that was a pivotal moment for Liu. “That was perhaps the most defining, liberating act in her education as an artist,” Kelley says. “That art could be whatever you insisted that it was.”

She and Kelley married in 1986; Liu brought her son Ling Chen (LC) from her previous marriage to live with her and Kelley in the U.S. The family settled in Texas, where Kelley had a university job. Liu divided her time between making art and working a series of day jobs, such as serving as a security guard at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth and painting labels for soup cans. She started getting gallery shows around the country and eventually landed an academic position at the University of North Texas in Denton.

In 1990, Oakland’s Mills College offered Liu a teaching position, and the family moved to the Bay Area, where they’ve lived ever since. In 2014, Liu became professor emeritus of painting at Mills.

Hung Liu, 'Strange Fruit: Comfort Women,' 2001; Oil on canvas. (Karen and Robert Duncan Collection, copyright Hung Liu)

Breaking Barriers for Others

In addition to her paintings, Liu earned critical acclaim for conceptual artworks exploring the Chinese immigration experience and identity, such as the previously mentioned Resident Alien and Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), a 1994 installation fashioned a mound out of 200,000 fortune cookies. Her steady stream of gallery and museum shows both nationally and abroad included a major 2013 retrospective organized by the Oakland Museum of California, Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu. She is represented locally by Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco.

Today, her works are in the collections of prestigious institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She made national headlines in 2019 when the Chinese government prevented a big solo show from going ahead at the high-profile UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

And she’s the first Asian American woman ever to get a solo retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery.

Hung Liu, 'Cotton Picker, 2015; Oil on canvas. (Collection of Sig Anderman, copyright Hung Liu)

“Hung is one of those artists that was breaking those barriers so that people like me can be represented for what we do,” says her longtime friend, Bay Area artist Mildred Howard, who’s African American. “She was one of the artists that helped us to get a place at the table.”

Liu’s passion for connecting with people from all walks of life extended well beyond the canvas. She is remembered by friends, colleagues, former students and family for her generosity and enthusiasm. “Mom showed her love in many ways,” says Liu’s son, LC. “She was always laughing and making jokes.”

“She was kind of up for everything, just ready to go,” says Trish Bransten, of Rena Bransten Gallery.

Even in what could be stressful situations, like the installation of her monumentally scaled de Young exhibition, Liu stood out. “I’ve met many artists in my over 25 years of working in the arts, and she’s by far the nicest artist I ever met,” says de Young technician Paul Tavian.

Her over two decades of teaching at Mills had a profound impact on generations of artists, some of whom say Liu forever altered the course of their lives and careers. “As a professor, she was generous and nurturing, yet firm and exacting,” says artist and former student Monica Lundy.

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While the Bay Area arts community mourns the sudden loss of one of its central figures, art institutions on both coasts, including SFMOMA and the de Young, are planning memorials in the coming months to further celebrate the legacy of Liu’s life and work.