Green Library closed for maintenance June 19 and June 26

To support mandatory, scheduled electrical work, Green Library will be closed to both staff and patrons on Wednesday, June 19, 2024 and Wednesday, June 26, 2024. 

See library hours

Victoria Yau: “I slept in the mountain cloud”

Article

A piece of artwork consisting of multiple overlapping swatches of different colored cloth.

“Victoria Yau: ‘I slept in the mountain cloud’” is an exhibition on display at the Stanford East Asia Library from April 24 - October 31, 2024, curated by Beryl Zhou, a graduate student at the Center for East Asian Studies, and Dr. Ellen Huang, Ph.D, distinguished practitioner at the Center for East Asian Studies and associate professor of art history and material culture at ArtCenter College of Design. In this essay, Dr. Huang reflects on the significance of Victoria Yau’s work and her legacy as an Asian-American artist. (Banner image above, Canyon Love, ca. 1990s.)

Shanghai-born artist Victoria Yau (1939–2023) created around 300 works of abstract ink paintings, watercolors, multimedia collages, prints, and textiles after she moved to the United States. While she is celebrated for her contemplative acrylic landscapes, which were exhibited with acclaim at the time of their execution, her creations in other media remain little known. Nonetheless, spanning nearly half a century of artmaking in the Pacific Northwest, Chicago, New York, and the Southwest, these artworks testify to her commitments to abstraction and material experimentation. Featuring pieces in a range of media, complemented by the artist's collections, writings, and poetry, this exhibition asks viewers to consider the transformation of East Asian landscape painting from an emphasis on brushwork compositions to formal investigation into line, color, and media. 

Two women stand in front of an open display case containing a painting, one faces the camera pointing toward the painting, and the other stands in profile, examining the painting.
Dr. Ellen Huang (left) and Beryl Zhou (right) discuss the installation of Victoria Yau’s paintings.

Born in Shanghai, the artist later moved to Taipei, where she learned brushwork by studying Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. During her childhood, Yau took private lessons with notable painters and calligraphers such as Sun Duoci 孫多慈 (1913-1975) and Fu Chuan-fu 傅狷夫 (1910-2007), who were actively developing ink painting for twentieth-century international audiences. Her early training laid a foundation for a lifelong practice in landscape art and kindled a sustained interest in ink and paper. As she moved to the United States in 1960, her practice pivoted toward abstraction. An avid reader and writer, Yau began her undergraduate studies at National Taiwan University, enrolled at UCLA, completed a philosophy degree at the University of Puget Sound, and published in the British Journal of Aesthetics. 

Highlighting the connections between textures, lines, and shapes observed in nature and found objects, Yau’s artworks challenge conventional depictions of landscapes through a distilled visual language. The resultant works blend historical ink landscape concepts with abstract expressionist principles. Repeating dots, lines, and ink marks place emphasis on bodily presence, process, and perception. Considering her artistic practice in light of her prose writing and poetry, her oeuvre is characterized by thoughtful and sensitive iterations of shape and color. These elements engage viewers in the experience of duration and material abstraction.

Woman carring a framed piece of artwork. A red plush chair to her left and open exhibit glass doors to her right.
Beryl Zhou prepares a painting for installation.

Victoria Yau often wrote of her art as “truly her daughters,” the daughters that she “never had in her physical life.” A mother of two sons, she enfolded motherhood into the realm of her creative work. Her caretaking and artistic production were extensions of each other. Her other writings, rare for a woman artist of her background, generation, and multilinguistic life, narrated the role of women in family life and artistic training. Among her surviving texts is an unfinished biography of her family reaching back to the end of the Qing dynasty, or late 1800s, that follows a lineage of women across generations. While the art historical canon of landscape painters in imperial China focuses primarily on the output of men, Victoria Yau’s unwavering devotion to making landscapes subvert these narratives and revise art history. As a mother and a woman artist, Yao claimed ink art as her own language. Making landscapes of her mind, she made art to express her own presence. She wrote on more than one occasion: “My works are truly my daughters…They represent my own intimate space. What is the most intimate space in a house? Most people say it is the bedroom. To me, [it] is my bathroom…” Humor, it seemed, was also part of her repertoire. 

As a diasporic woman artist, she persisted in artmaking as a way to negotiate the disruptions of immigration and to bridge her movement amongst disparate art worlds, worlds that extended from Shanghai to Taipei to multiple locations in the United States. Her art, art historical writings, and poetry highlight her unique voice as a woman artist living and painting amidst the transformative postwar milieu. Raising questions about the capacity of landscape in expressing emotion, her creative practice gestures towards importance of making art in everyday circumstances, even if the everyday was seemingly mundane or a product of constant dislocations. 

A piece of artwork consisting of large blotches of black ink on a white rectangular canvas.
Passage, ca. 1990-2000s.

This exhibition seeks to rediscover this culturally important artist and reconsider her artistic creations as part of early Asian American and Asian diaspora art in the postwar period. Together, the works and texts on display explore the significance of art made by an artist whose life and career spanned transnational historical contexts and were marked by a negotiation of geopolitical change and physical struggle. Situated within a cross-cultural framework, her works contribute to our understanding of the historical depth of Asian American art and international artistic modernism. This exhibition also draws our attention to underexplored historiographical concerns in the broader discipline of art history, namely the challenges of writing global modernist art histories and producing art from marginalized positions. Modern in their simplicity but complex in their historical and international references, Victoria Yau's "mountain clouds," a phrase taken from her own poetry that turns on the Chinese-language term for landscape (shanshui 山水 or mountain-water), signal the global and local intricacies of international contemporary art by an Asian diasporic woman artist. 

– Ellen Huang, Ph.D., with Beryl Zhou

Further reading

  • Gordon Chang. “Chinese Painting Comes to America: Zhang Shuqi and the Diplomacy of Art,” in eds., Mills, Cynthia, Lee Glazer, Amelia Goerlitz, East-West Interchanges in American Art: A Long and Tumultuous Relationship. Washington, DC : Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2012, pp.126–141. 
  • An-Yi Pan, “The Fifth Moon Group: Pioneers of New Chinese Modern Art in Taiwan,” in Orientations, 49:1 (December, 2017), pp. 77-82. 
  • Amanda Wangwright. The Golden Key: Modern Women Artists and Gender Negotiations in Republican China (1911–1949). Leiden: Brill, 2020. 
  • Victoria Yau. “Use of Colour in China.” British Journal of Aesthetics, 34:2 (April, 1994), pp.151-163. 


This exhibition was curated by Beryl Zhou and Ellen Huang, Ph.D., with assistance from the Center for East Asian Studies and Stanford University East Asia Library. The contents of this exhibition and essay were developed under grant #P015A220015/84.015A from the U.S. Department of Education. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. Special thanks to the many people who helped make this occasion possible: Joshua Capitanio, Deardra Fuzzell, Regan Murphy Kao, John Groschwitz, Daniel Meltzer, Ekaterina Mozhaeva, Andrea Park, Alison Velasco, Haiyun Xu, Grace Yang, Yumi Igarashi, Richard Vinograd, the Kumars, the Bischofs, and Cynthia Kop and Philip Yau.

Last updated June 6, 2024