The World Catches Up With Tishan Hsu

For most of his more than four-decade career, the multimedia artist Tishan Hsu had a knack for being steadily out of sync with the art world, and the art market in particular.

But rather than brooding over that, Mr. Hsu, now 68, simply pursued his vision — making works that ask “how do we embody technology?” as he puts it.

Born in Boston to Chinese parents, Mr. Hsu is about to be featured in three shows in Hong Kong.

“These are my first-ever shows in Asia, and it represents a kind of return, which is really interesting,” he said.

At Art Basel Hong Kong, taking place this weekend at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, Empty Gallery will show his works from the 1980s to the early 1990s. The gallery also features a show of Mr. Hsu’s newer work, “Delete,” from March 26 to May 25 at its gallery space in the city’s Aberdeen neighborhood. At the same time, several of his works are featured in “Glow Like That” at the K11 Art Foundation from March 27 to May 13.

“I’ve always made very personal work,” said Mr. Hsu, chatting in his large studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (he lives upstairs). “But I admit it’s been a little frustrating at times when people have said, ‘What planet do you come from?’”

As he spoke, Mr. Hsu was surrounded by old and new works that demonstrate how hard he is to categorize: He’s sort of a painter and sort of a sculptor, and he works with photography, too. But his creations aren’t really “installations” in the way the term is used these days, either.

Standing on the floor was “Virtual Flow” (1990), a two-part sculptural contraption made of antiseptic pink ceramic tiles, with a screen-like square evoking a computer or a TV, attached to a cart covered with strange-looking growths.

Hanging above it was “Outer Banks of Memory” (1984), a painting on wood with an evocative textural grain that incorporates concrete and Styrofoam and is studded with biomorphic forms.

In the latter work, Mr. Hsu said, “memory” referred to that of a computer. It was a perfect example of how he has employed shapes that evoke mid-20th-century Surrealism and Modernism, but always with a forward-leaning, technological slant.

It was with such works that Mr. Hsu gained the attention of the art world in the 1980s, after growing up all over the United States and graduating from M.I.T. He worked with some the most renowned dealers of the day, including Leo Castelli, Colin de Land and Pat Hearn, who were encouraging, even though Mr. Hsu’s work didn’t fit the prevailing ethos.

At the time, image appropriation was all the rage, as evidenced by Pictures Generation types like Cindy Sherman, as was the painterly brio of Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Leo Castelli once told me, ‘Tishan, the work needs a context,’” Mr. Hsu recalled. “I could see it didn’t fit in anywhere, so I was sort of in agreement.”

Asked whether his being Asian-American was an impediment to breaking out as a star in the ’80s, he responded, “Oh yeah, definitely,” adding that the art world seemed to be asking the question, “Is this American work?”

Mr. Hsu said that in retrospect, a gig in the early ’70s doing word processing at a Manhattan law firm, during which he had to look at a screen all day, was probably influential in terms of his subject matter. “It was very new at the time,” he said. “People had just started putting together this virtual world.”

Christopher Y. Lew, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, says Mr. Hsu now looks prescient.

“Where we are now in art, more than one generation has been taking on technology and the body,” Mr. Lew said. “We’re all catching up to what he was doing. He was so ahead of the curve.”

Mr. Hsu largely took himself out of the gallery scene for two and a half decades when he took a job teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, from which he recently retired. But he was always making new art, and his practice took a new direction around 2013.

“My mother died, and a lot of family history emerged out of that,” Mr. Hsu recalled, adding that there was “blocked trauma” bubbling up because of what his relatives endured during the Cultural Revolution and other upheavals in Chinese history. “At the same time, because of the opening up in China, I was able to meet a lot of my relatives that I never met before.” He started exchanging family photos with cousins.

It eventually led him to spend two years in Shanghai, making the body of work that will be on view at Empty Gallery. In “Boating Scene GREEN 2” (2019), he has manipulated and then printed on canvas a family photo showing his great-uncle and a group on a lake outing. He studded it with green silicone forms.

“I don’t speak Chinese, and I found it about as foreign as you can possibly get,” Mr. Hsu said of his time there, adding that the family photo albums fascinated him. “It was riveting for me, to see this whole narrative. So that became the basis for this project.”

The series was enabled by changes in technology that Mr. Hsu took pains to master several years earlier. “I actually took a year off from Sarah Lawrence and just focused on how to do work with Photoshop,” he said. “I said, ‘You have to do this every day like a sport so that it becomes automatic.’”

His return to the art world conversation continues in the United States, too. Last year, Mr. Hsu was featured in “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, and next year he has a solo survey show that will travel from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to the SculptureCenter in New York, which organized the exhibition.

He was sanguine about whether such visibility represented a long-awaited moral victory, after so many years of making work.

“Are people coming back around to me?” Mr. Hsu asked. “I’m not sure I’d put it that way. I think that now, there’s more of the world that I was imagining.”

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