S. C. Yuan Biography


Si-Chen Yuan lived a life precariously balanced between the highs of undisputed 
talent and the lows of tormented self-assessment. Born in Hangchow, 
China in 1911, he lived and worked in the Monterey/Carmel area from 1952 
until his death by his own hand in 1974. Although equally skilled as a 
graphic artist in both charcoal and pastel, it is his lush oil painting 
that remains for us a lasting reminder of his complicated but devoted life 
as an artist. His work, often produced through many arching mood swings, 
mapped the territory between the sublime and the prosaic. His output was 
prodigious and his choice of subject matter ranged from still-lifes through 
landscapes, seascapes, portraiture, and exquisitely composed abstractions.

Yuan's paintings appear effortless in their execution but their longevity was 
often doomed by Yuan's choice of inferior mounts, another indication of his 
tenuous commitment to the future. While painting appeared effortless, his 
personal relationships were difficult and his legacy remains one of a complex 
and oftentimes brilliant artist whose career was thwarted by troubled human 

One of Yuan's strengths as an artist was his ability to communicate a wealth 
of visual information with swift and concise markings. The freedom displayed 
as he wielded his brush and palette knife struck many as his genius. Sureness 
and confidence in his artist's eye were in part instilled by student training 
with artist Xu Beihong at the Fine Arts Academy in Nanking. His early art 
education in China is an important component in the development of his career.

Throughout his work, Yuan fused an Eastern elegance of economic line with the 
robust energy of Western abstraction. We see this abstraction not only in his 
bold, gestural brush strokes but also in the surface rendering of the objects 
leaving out their light and shadow. He often treated the objects as abstracted 
shapes on which he intuitively placed his colors and textures, almost ignoring 
their sculptural qualities in real space. Yuan's style is not unlike California 
artist Wayne Thiebaud. Kenneth Baker described Thiebaud's paintings as offering 
"isolated images reduced to simple, basic forms...in clean, largely uninterrupted 
backgrounds; (with) luscious, full colors and thick impastos -- a kind of bas-relief 
modeling, rather than an illusionistic rendering of forms in depth."

His still-lifes are examples of the deep pleasure S.C. Yuan found 
in manipulating the sensual texture and sumptuous color of oil paint resulting 
in these exuberant and indelible portraits of flowers and fruit. However, the 
paintings are about more than just the chosen placements. As in a Paganini violin 
concerto, the music furthers the composition it highlights by bringing out the 
distinct qualities of the violin and the virtuosity of the violinist. In the same way, 
Yuan's still-lifes are about more than the obvious images, they are about the paint 
itself and the artist's mastery. Crafted to reach beyond the subject matter, they 
encourage us to consider the transactions of color, the viscosity of paint, 
the skill of the artist, and the joy to be found in "just looking" at painting.