In 1996 while on his hospital sickbed, Huang Hua Cheng was eagerly completing two final projects. The first was his own funeral, for which Huang laid out his instructions in detail—what snacks to purchase, what dishes to serve, and a sketch of the stage layout for his final departure. The second, no less important, was the 30th anniversary art exhibition of Huang’s one-member, self-proclaimed art movement “École de Great Taipei.” The exhibition would be a chance for Huang to celebrate his life with friends and family for one last time. The plan was to present the range of his life’s work, including stage designs, experimental films, conceptual art, fiction writing, graphic design, and advertising—but he passed before he had the chance to see his vision become a reality.
Twenty-four years after his death, Chang Chao-Tang, Huang’s long-time friend and photographer, and historian and curator Chang Shih-Lun organized Huang’s first and long-awaited retrospective at the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts. The 2020 exhibition introduced Huang’s role in Taiwanese design history to a new generation, presented his accomplishments in several fields, and offered a look at the political and cultural contexts he was a part of during the late 20th century.
While Chao-Tang received the original exhibition plans before Huang passed, tracing and collecting Huang’s work presented its own set of challenges. With only three remaining original works by Huang, the rest of the show presented hundreds of photographic reproductions gathered from Shih-Lun’s investigation over the years. The urgency to present a figure that had yet to be seriously discussed in art and design history outweighed the desire for original works. The show’s title, Huang Hua Cheng: An Open Ending, not only nodded to Huang’s free-spirit, enigmatic character, and the remaining mysteries he left behind to uncover—but presented an opportunity to consider his work with an eager curiosity just as Huang approached his own life.
Huang was born in 1935 in Nanjing, China. At the age of 14, following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, he and his family were part of millions that fled to Taiwan. When the Communists under Mao Zedong took over China, Chiang Kai-shek moved his defeated Kuomintang Party from Nanjing to Taipei, Taiwan, and established a military dictatorship to regroup with hopes to someday reconquer the Mainland. Those who left with Chiang were businessmen, landowners, political elites, and KMT soldiers who felt their continued existence threatened under a government helmed by the CCP. Since Huang’s father ran his own foreign trade operation with a small fleet of ironclad ships, when tensions in China were increasing he and his family decided to sail to Taipei in 1949.
Growing up in Taiwan during this time, Huang inevitably became a part of the cultural influences that made up the country’s past, present, and future. Five decades before Chiang’s arrival, Taiwan had been under Japanese colonial rule and multiple industries underwent modernization influenced by both Japan and the West. Art was institutionalized and public schools were established to teach fine art and learn Western techniques. Americans in Taipei also introduced abstract expressionism and pop art. When the KMT moved to Taiwan, many artists followed, and taught at various universities including the department of fine arts at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), where Huang attended from 1954 to 1960. While the school mainly taught traditional Chinese and traditional Western painting, at the time most young artists were interested in imitating modern Western techniques in a Chinese style. Huang, however, wasn’t interested in these popular movements and sought out his own path.
Following graduation, he founded his one-member École de Great Taipei to explore his interest in conceptual art, readymades, installations, films, and theater. He penned his own manifesto stating his opposition to the abstract-figurative dichotomy, painting, and sculpture. His focus on concept, everyday objects, and symbolism seemed to naturally translate into his design work for journals, book covers, and posters. When the concept of “designer” was not yet clearly defined during the 1950s and ’60s, Huang was already exploring and exemplifying its definition by introducing new ways of expressing typography and design in Taiwan.
After graduating, one of Huang’s first big gigs was as the art director of the Taiwan Television Enterprise. Outside his full-time job, Huang and a group of friends co-founded Theatre Quarterly in 1965, a publication that was one of the first in Taiwan to cover, introduce, and translate modern literature, poetry, and film from the West. Huang served as the creative lead, and was also heavily involved in planning and editing content.
The journal’s design was unconventional for its time, and established Huang’s reputation as Taiwan’s pioneer of modern Chinese typography. Although financial resources for producing the journal were scarce, Huang made the most of these limitations by composing rhythmic, typographically-driven spreads. The 1-x-1 characters of Chinese metal type were perfectly suited for making and breaking grids. He rotated, repeated, pushed and pulled apart characters, materializing information into textural collages. Huang produced dynamic compositions by shuffling baselines and combining the contrasting shapes, textures, and scales of Chinese and Latin letters.
Huang also updated the journal’s logo, which was previously drawn in a clerical script style of calligraphy and set right-to-left according to the traditional reading direction for Chinese. In the second year, Huang lettered the logotype, forgoing the texture of the calligraphic brush for crisp, high-contrast, deconstructed strokes, and further showing his innovation in treating Chinese characters as moldable material. The new logo read left-to-right according to Western reading directions as a nod to modernity. At the center, one radical from each word is cleverly stacked on top of each other like a ligature, stylizing the letters into a designed mark by shaping the characters and their components into a new formation. The back covers of both old and new issues detail the journal’s cost and subscription plans. But whereas the first issues list them just as lines of secondary information, in the latter issues Huang exaggerates and turns the information into a self-aware composition, blowing up the type to the edges for maximum impact.
In the backdrop of Huang’s career, from 1949 to 1987, the KMT’s authoritarian regime imposed almost four decades of martial law, a length that broke the world record at the time. Freedom of speech was suppressed, and anyone, including artists, journalists, and activists, who was seen as a political threat to the KMT was subject to censorship, trial, and execution. Yet even within these limitations, Taiwan’s modern art movement flourished. Careful not to garner notoriety that could make him a target, Huang would use different pseudonyms depending on whether he was illustrating, writing, editing, or photographing. Records show he would use his real name selectively, crediting himself on works related to his experimental films and the École de Great Taipei, otherwise using his alter-egos as a form of protection.
Even as repressive as Taiwan was during this period, Huang did not refrain from airing out his thoughts on politics in his work. In 1976, when Taiwan was invited to participate in the Montreal Olympics, the debate over “Two Chinas”—the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chiang’s Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan—following the Chinese Civil War was called into question. The Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau only allowed for the country to participate as “Taiwan,” but Chiang refused, and Taiwan’s 43 Olympic athletes withdrew from the Games the day before the opening ceremony. Rumors buzzed that Canada’s refusal to let Taiwan compete as ROC was due to a major economic deal with the mainland China’s government, and that the PRC would only join The International Olympic Committee with the condition of kicking Taiwan out. In response, Huang designed the poster series “Five Coins for Trudeau” with five coins arranged in the formation of the Olympic logo laid out on a maple leaf dish to comment on the economic greed and games of international politics.
Taiwan had become a key player in relations between the U.S. and China, as well as on an international stage. Huang was critical of both Taiwan’s infatuation with the West and the U.S.’s involvement in Taiwan. In unfinished novels, he alluded to how U.S. and Taiwanese authorities pretended to work in parallel but actually interfered with each other in pursuit of their own interests. In an art magazine, Huang published a photographic poster with unused photos from the Taiwanese edition book cover of The Washington Fringe Benefit, which documented a U.S. Congressman’s sex scandal. Titled “The Mother of Washington,” the piece shows 12 scenes of two people supposedly tangled up in coitus under a U.S. flag, suggesting a scandalous entanglement between the U.S. and Taiwan. He labeled each scene with Taoist sex positions, serving a message that was both a self-deprecating jab to École de Great Taipei, which had also been criticized for glorifying the West, and also a reminder of the ongoing American presence in Taiwan.
By the 1970s and ’80s, Taiwan’s economy was flourishing and publishing houses became increasingly interested in the value of book cover design, causing Huang’s design reputation to take off. He was invited to design book covers for several houses, and his experience in producing experimental films and visualizing in frames translated well into this medium.
While many covers at the time featured illustrations, Huang’s art direction of high-contrast, close-up crop photographs were dramatic, eye-catching, and fresh. Throughout his career he designed over 300 book covers, partnering up with photographers to reframe and recontextualize everyday objects as a nod to American Pop Artists. This vision was also guided by his firm belief that art should be closer to reality and reason. Huang’s covers included items such as screwdrivers, rubberbands, whistles, canned food, soda, and flowers.
Taiwanese culture writer Fu Yueh An once discussed how Huang led Taiwan into the first design revolution, inspiring generations of designers that followed. Huang’s designs boosted sales and captured readers with his symbolic and conceptual covers. In some cases, in order to achieve the ideal shot, Huang would even dress up and pose as the main characters—an unprecedented move that may have been seen as daring to others, but was perhaps second-nature for a man who enjoyed taking on multiple personas, both on and off the theater’s stage. Throughout his career and up until his last moments on Earth, Huang’s free and bold spirit offered new ways of thinking and appreciating art, language, design, photography—and life itself.