Li Lida (李力達, earlier romanized as "Li Li-ta") was born in Shanghai, China, in 1922, and came of age in a country torn apart by civil war. The Second Sino-Japanese War began when he was just 15 years old, and the majority of the city he knew as a child was later transformed by Japanese occupation.
Although Lida showed adeptness at drawing and art from an early age, his parents mostly discouraged his artistic inclinations. In deference to them, he enrolled in Fudan University, Shanghai, in more traditional studies. During a time when daily life was in flux due to uprisings against the sitting government, and when he was not joining student protests, Lida immersed himself in drawing and Tai Chi. His interest in both two-dimensional formats and dance performance would form the bedrock of his decades-long career.
After surviving the turmoil of war in China and World War II, he and his family moved to Hong Kong. There, he continued to study calligraphy alongside unfamiliar Western art forms such as ballroom dancing and oil painting. His circle included renowned Hong Kong artists Kuang Yaoding and Feng Kanghou, as well as a collective of seal carvers and calligraphers known as an "elegant gathering." Lida quickly became internationally exhibited for his impressionistic paintings, often under the anglicized name "Edmund Li," as well as for his classical Chinese calligraphy. His work at this point mirrored the style of old masters such as Claude Monet or Edgar Degas but featured charming cityscapes of churches and pedestrians in Hong Kong. He met Dr. Mary Tregear, Assistant Keeper for the Chinese Collection at Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, who was so impressed with his calligraphy that she invited him to hold a solo exhibition of his work at the museum in 1967. Against a backdrop of mounting political tension and anti-colonial protests in Hong Kong, he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1968.
Shortly after settling in San Francisco, Lida's artistic career took off. He began teaching Tai Chi to the public and students at California College of the Arts, then called California College of Arts and Crafts. One of his first Tai Chi students was Wylie Wong, who would later become a respected art dealer and gallerist in San Francisco, known for his expertise on Asian and Asian American art. His students helped introduce Lida to American art, music, and dance that would inspire him to modernize Chinese calligraphy into a new art form entirely. The youth counterculture and independent spirit, formed at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, was instrumental in Lida's artistic evolution to create original expressionistic calligraphy.
Lida also began developing a signature style that hybridized facets of Chinese and Western art at a time when common understanding of Eastern culture in the U.S. was either nascent or emphasized their differences. He believed art could bridge the two cultures by drawing out their similarities: their lyricism, rebelliousness, and discipline.
He first exhibited what he called a "modern approach to Chinese calligraphy" at The Asia Foundation in San Francisco, and then in 1971 at the de Young Memorial Museum. The exhibition at the de Young featured over a hundred works that showed Li's range; from single Chinese characters to vertical scrolls that spanned several feet long, Lida could both deftly produce traditional Chinese calligraphy and experiment with abstract, irregular formats. Using a bamboo brush and black ink, Lida could demonstrate mastery of classical brushwork techniques as well as imagine new forms and compositions. His wife and China Program Officer at The Asia Foundation, Ai-Ling, was a constant supporter of his career and helped translate the de Young exhibition catalogue. The San Francisco Chronicle published a review of his exhibition "Li Li-Ta: Calligraphy" at the de Young, remarking that Li's brushwork contained "immense energy and zest" and likening him to American masters such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Similar to other Abstract Expressionist painters rising to prominence at the time, Lida was inspired to make Chinese calligraphy into "an art which anyone, Chinese and non-Chinese, specialists and non-specialists, can appreciate and like." This approach yielded compositions in which characters written in ink on vertical scrolls often overlapped or appeared to fall off the page.
Like many Asian American artists working in the mid-twentieth-century—Ruth Asawa, Isamu Noguchi, and Isami Doi—Li Lida would not receive as much recognition as his white counterparts in the Abstract Expressionism movement who were similarly inspired by “the Orient.” As former LACMA curator Theresa Papanikolas argues in "Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West," non-Western ideas of Zen Buddhism and spiritual enlightenment were central to Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline, Wlllem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.
While settled with his family and maintaining an artist studio in Berkeley, California, Lida travelled Mexico in 1977, which marked another turning point in his artistic career. While working on nude figures and landscapes abroad, he became interested in reintegrating his earlier training in Western art with his mastery of Chinese calligraphy. When he returned home, he began producing abstract paintings using acrylic on canvas. He again began to see the world from a painter’s eyes and saw the possibility of painting written texts, using his mastery of brush and line of Chinese ideograms. He also became inspired by the burgeoning street art and graffiti movement, creating work that applied his Chinese calligraphic style to English words.
His “calligraphic graffiti paintings” were characterized by a single word or several characters painted with watercolor or colorful acrylics on large canvases. They featured words such as “Love,” “China,” “California,” “Fantastic,” “Sweet,” and “Beautiful” along with tributes to foods from his favorite Berkeley diner: “Cappuccino,” “Cole Slaw,” and “Sunny Side-Up.” He painted an entire series devoted to the United States, painting words such as “America,” “Boston,” “Minneapolis,” “New York,” “Albuquerque,” “Chicago,” “Utah,” and “New Mexico.” He said in an interview with The Montclarion, “The word is very powerful. You can’t paint China—the place—in one picture). China is government, land. But I paint China—the word—and you know. That’s why I paint words.”
Lida also began staging performances that combined his earlier ballroom dance and Tai Chi training, collaborating with musicians and ballet dancers. In his art studio, he applied the same kinetic movements from his Tai Chi Dance (yin-yang, soft-hard, fast-slow) to his paintings, resulting in what he called “Calligraphy in Motion.”
Lida’s art of the “painted word” represented the unceasing evolution of his art, from Western representational painting, traditional Chinese calligraphy, expressionistic original calligraphy, abstract paintings, large acrylic graffiti writing, to multi-language graffiti-calligraphy watercolors.
While suffering from a declining mental state in his later years, Li Lida tragically took his own life at the untimely age of 60 in Berkeley, California. He died during one of the last solo exhibitions of his work, shown by Wylie Wong at Jehu-Wong Gallery, San Francisco.