Liu Xiaodong, Out of Beichuan, 2010, oil on canvas, 9' 10 1/8“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

A SENSE OF DOOM about painting prevailed in China in the 1990s. Painting had entered its endgame, or so the story went, just as it had in so many narratives of art the world over. But here, when easel painting hit the wall, it seemed to hit harder than ever. Many of its practitioners abandoned the medium altogether, while others sought to find a way forward by making their canvases look anything but painterly. Critics began to expound on “conceptual painting,” a term that was applied to strategies such as citation—specifically, the appropriation and even parody of well-known socialist-realist tableaux—and the displacement of the properties of performance, photography, or video onto painting so as to flaunt postmedium promiscuity. The rationale (as in Western painting’s own such turn) was that a “conceptual” interest would drive the work, freeing painters from having to

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