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Zhang Yu making a Fingerprints work in Beijing, 2007. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Zhang Yu making a Fingerprints work in Beijing, 2007. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zhang Yu 张羽

Chinese, born 1959

Artist Profile

Zhang Yu has been a key figure in developing a dialogue between traditional-style Chinese painting and contemporary art since the early 1990s. The artist’s unconventional use of brush and ink—two fundamental elements of traditional-style painting—constitutes an important trend known as “experimental ink painting” (shiyan shuimo).

Practitioners of experimental ink painting sought to rethink traditional ink painting through the use of new materials, methods, and formats. Zhang’s Fingerprint series is an example of the artist’s novel and conceptual approach to painting. From a distance, the scrolls of this installation appear as if they are made of plain paper, devoid of any pictures or writing. With a closer look, however, the surface texture becomes visible: they are covered with the impressions of thousands of individual fingerprints.

Zhang created these impressions by dipping his index finger in water, then tenderly pressing it to the paper’s surface; the spot he touched became wet and darkened slightly, but soon dried, leaving only a subtle, sunken dot. Using neither ink nor brush, Zhang created a series of works that forge a synergetic relationship between painting, installation, and performance with the human body.

Zhang Yu. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Zhang Yu. Photo courtesy of the artist.
“When I wasn’t traveling, I worked on it continuously for two years, except for eating. I work for five to six hours per day, or even longer, every day. It is similar to monks chanting non-stop.”
—Zhang Yu 1


  • 1

    Zhang Yu: One Finger Zen,” interview by Blake Carter, Flash Art, no. 282 (January–February 2012), accessed January 17, 2019.

Works on View

Wrightwood 659

Fingerprints, 2008

Longjing water on xuan paper
275 1/2 x 43 1/4 in. (699.8 x 109.9 cm)

Collection of the artist, Beijing

Zhang Yu, Fingerprints, 2008. Installation view, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, Wrightwood 659.
Zhang Yu, Fingerprints, 2008
Zhang Yu, Fingerprints (detail), 2008
Zhang Yu, Fingerprints (detail), 2008

Working Process