Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Visual Arts

Goh Beng Kwan

Singapore's pioneering modern artist


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

We need to think about how to preserve the old as we build the new so that there is a balance. All this is part of our culture.

Goh Beng Kwan is a pioneering Singapore modern artist. As one of the first Singapore artists to study in the USA in the '60s, he returned to introduce a new approach to art-making with abstract collages that incorporated materials such as nails, paper and fabric, influencing modern artists in Singapore after him. His works—the result of inspirations from his travels—have been exhibited internationally. He received the first prize at the inaugural UOB Painting of the Year Competition in 1982. In 1989, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in 1937 in Medan, Indonesia to a Chinese immigrant father and Peranakan mother, Goh Beng Kwan moved to Singapore with his parents at the age of eight after the end of World War II.

Here, he attended The Chinese High School and studied art under Singapore pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi. Seeing Goh's artistic aptitude and potential, Chen gave him art lessons in his home after school and brought him on art excursions with fellow Singapore pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng. From almost 10 years from 1952, Goh's artistic studies with the two master Nanyang style artists instilled in him a strong foundation in a largely Western representational style of painting as well as an appreciation of Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. In 1961, Goh exhibited his work for the first time at the Five Man Exhibition at the National Museum Art Gallery.

After this, he moved to USA to further his studies at the prestigious Art Students League of New York, studying oil painting under acclaimed artist Sidney Gross. Inspired by Gross, the works of Willem De Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg, and the vibrant New York art scene, he left representational painting behind for Abstract Expressionism, which was then flourishing in the city's art circles. He also worked part-time in a Chinese restaurant to help pay his way, continuing to work even after receiving the Allen Tucker Scholarship in the second year and the Ford Foundation Scholarship in the third.

During this period, Goh also attended the two-month long Provincetown Workshop in Massachusetts, USA in 1964. There, he gained inspiration from abstract painter and collagist Leo Manso and modernist painter and teacher Victor Candell. At Manso's advice, he began to focus on developing a more Eastern style of art that was closer to his roots. He also began to explore collage as a medium; before, he had painted mainly figurative but abstract forms in oils. From the mid-'60s onwards, he turned his attention to collage and assemblage, preferring it as a quicker and more immediate medium. He also began to incorporate Chinese artistic principles and Chinese calligraphic strokes in his artistic expression, creating abstract painting-collages. Here, he developed his distinctive voice.

The following year in 1965, Goh attended his second Provincetown Workshop and then held his first solo exhibition at the Ruth Sherman Gallery in New York. Returning to Singapore in 1966, he held his first solo exhibition in Singapore, exhibiting in the National Library to acclaim. The works he presented were lauded for introducing fresh ideas and approaches to the Singapore art scene. Never before had materials such as nails, tea wrapping and Chinese oracle papers, newspapers, and acupuncture diagrams made their way onto artworks in the history of Singapore art.

Goh grew to become a highly influential artist through the '70s, contributing significantly to the development of Singapore contemporary art. The subsequent decades saw him exhibiting his works in several solo and group exhibitions, art festivals, and events in Singapore and abroad.

He drew frequent inspiration from his surroundings that he felt gave a place its soul. His early works were inspired by places in Singapore such as Chinatown and the Singapore River with its tongkangs (wooded cargo boats). He then drew inspiration from his extensive travels, drawing from natural surroundings.

Most of his works are collages and mixed media works featuring a variety of materials such as rice paper, rubber sheets, newspaper, wood and metal as well as found objects such as Chinese woodcut prints, fabric, jute string and in one instance, a Malay kite. These are layered, tinted, treated and assembled in abstract painting-collages that create engaging impressions rather than representations of an environment and mood. They express his experiences of the diverse scenery, colours and moods of different countries or cities. For example, his works from Bali are joyous works layered in shades of green that celebrate his falling in love with the beauty of its verdant landscape. And the works arising from a trip to Europe during winter are pale and subdued, reflecting the long nights and quiet of the season.

In 2006, Goh spent a month as Artist-in-Residence at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. There, he worked with the Institute team and master papermaker Richard Hungerford to explore new papermaking techniques and processes. Together, they created a groundbreaking "water collage" technique where the material is floated onto the surface of a work. Goh’s resulting work Renewal, a series of 40 large paper pulp works and a surprising and unusual set of etchings (executed by STPI master printmaker Eng Joo Heng using the intaglio printing process), is a vivid celebration of the renewal of life in nature through the renewal of discarded materials in collage, evoking vibrant seas, gentle pools and rich terrain.

Over the years, Goh has received numerous accolades and awards including the first prize in the inaugural United Overseas Bank Painting of the Year Competition in 1982, the first prize at the Australia Business Council and Australia High Commission Art Awards in Singapore in 1984, and the silver medal in the Salon des Artists Francais in 1985. In 1989, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

His works have been collected by several organisations including Deutsche Bank, Singapore Art Museum, Changi Airport, United Overseas Bank and Westin Hotel. He has created commissioned work which can be found in many places such as Conrad Centennial Hotel, May Bank, Punggol MRT/LRT station and the Singapore Turf Club among others.

Goh currently continues to travel and create new work.


26 Dec 1937

Born in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia.


Moved to Singapore.

1952 to 1957

Studied art with Singapore artist Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng at the Chinese High School.


Participated in Five Man Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1962 to 1965

Attended Art Students League of New York, USA.


Received Allen Tucker Scholarship, New York, USA.

Received Ford Foundation Scholarship, New York, USA.


Attended Provincetown Workshop on a Provincetown Workshop scholarship, Massachusetts, USA.


Solo exhibition, Ruth Sherman Gallery, New York, USA.

Participated in Six Best, Ruth Sherman Gallery, New York, USA.


Participated in ASIA Convention, Contemporary Sculpture Centre, Tokyo, Japan.


Participated in exhibition, Adelaide Arts Festival, Australia.


Solo exhibition, National Library, Singapore.

Participated in Four Young Contemporaries, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.


Solo exhibition, Dewan Sri Pinang, Malaysia.


Participated in Singapore Contemporaries, Cultural Centre of Philippines, Manila, Philippines.


Participated in Three-Man Exhibition, Alliance Française, Singapore.

1980 to 1984

Participated in exhibition, Singapore Festival of Arts, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1981 to 1985

Participated in ASEAN Exhibition – Painting, Graphic Art and Photography, various ASEAN countries.


Solo exhibition, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.


Received First Prize, inaugural UOB Painting of the Year Compeition.

Solo exhibition, Citibank, Singapore


Solo exhibition, Raya Gallery, Singapore.


Received First Prize, Australian Business Council and the Australian High Commission Art Award, 1st Prize, Singapore.


Received Silver Medal, Salon des Artists Francais, Grand Palais, Paris, France.

Participated in Singapore Award Winners at the Salon des Artists Francais, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Artistes Contemporians de Singapour au Grand Palais, Meridien Hotel, Singapore.

Participated in Salon des Artistes Francaise, Grand Palais, Paris, France.

Participated in Contemporary Asian Art Show, Fukuoka, Japan


Participated in Invitation Exhibition, Singapore Arts Festival, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Singapore-Japan Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore


Received Category Award, IBM Art Competition, Singapore.

Solo exhibition, Art Forum, Singapore.

Participated in IBM Singapore Art Award Exhibition, IBM Towers, Singapore.

Participated in New Directions, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore


Received Merit Award, IBM Art Competition, Singapore.

Participated in Hong Kong Art Exhibition, Hong Kong Art Centre, Hong Kong.

Participated in Masterpieces from Private Collections, Singapore Art Festival, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Japan Art Exhibition, Sogo Art Gallery, Yokohama, Kobe, Sapporo, Japan.

Participated in Club Med Asian Arts Festival, Cherating, Kuantan, Malaysia.


Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Participated in Contemporary Art in Singapore: Where East Meets West, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Deutsche Bank AG, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Neurburg, Mannheimer Kunstverein, Mannheim, Groningen, Germany; and Glasgow, Scotland, UK.

Participated in First ASEAN Sympnosium on Aesthetics workshop and exhibition, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Participated in International Artists, Sarawak, Kuching, Malaysia


Participated in Artist Camp International 1990, Museum & Art Gallery, Penang, Malaysia.

Participated in International Art Fair, Hamburg, Germany.

Participated in Tradition – The Source of Inspiration, The Japan Foundation ASEAN Culture Centre Gallery, Tokyo, and Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan.

Participated in Modern Art Travels East-West, World Trade Centre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Empress Place, Singapore.

Participated in Twelve Singapore Contemporary Artists, City Hall, Macau.

Participated in Singapore Artists Speak, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.


Solo exhibition Journeys, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in exhibition, Folklore Museum, Songkhla, Thailand.

Participated in Many in One: 25 Years of Art from Singapore, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in Southeast Asia Art Society Art Exhibition, Express Place Museum, Singapore.

Participated in Singapore Art Fair, IMM Hall, Singapore.

Participated in Singapore Contemporary Art, Sri Lanka.

Participated in NKF Art Exhibition, Empress Place Museum, Singapore.



Solo exhibition, C-line Gallery, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia.

Solo exhibition, C-line Gallery, Jakarta, Indonesia.

Participated in 7th Asian International Art Exhibition, Fukuoka and Tagawa, Japan.


Participated in Strategies, An Exhibition of Artworks by 7 Outstanding Contemporary Singapore Artists, Takashimaya Gallery, Singapore.


Participated in 10th Asian International Art Exhibition, Southern Artist Group, Bangkok and Hat Yai, Thailand; Penang, Malaysia; and Singapore.


Participated in Modernity and Beyond, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore.


Judge, 15th UOB Painting of the Year Competition.

Participated in Asia Artists' Group, Artfolio Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Participated in 12th Asian International Art Exhibition, City Council, Macau, China


Participated in Six-Men Exhibition by Local Artists – Opening of Eagle’s Dream, Singapore.


Participated in An Ode to Joyful Living in the Art of the Elite Painters 2000, Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery, Singapore.


Participated in Painters of Praise – An International Artistic Assemblage of 12 Asian Artists from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Chiang Mai University Art Museum, National Gallery, Bangkok; The Southern Thai Art Centre, The Institute for Southern Thai Studies, Thaksin University, Songkhla, and The Siam Art Museum, Hat Yai; The Art Centre, University Sains Malaysia, Penang, Central Academy of Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery, Palais Renaissance, Singapore

Participated in Passages in Art, Raffles Marina, Singapore.

Participated in Diversity, Telok Kurau Studios, Singapore.

Participated in Pulp Friction, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore.


Participated in Singapore Modern Art in the 1970s, Singapore Art Museum.

Participated in New Expression of Asian Exhibition, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Participated in The Power of Art on the Mekong River, Bangkok, Thailand.


Solo exhibition The Elite Painter’s Quantum Leap, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore.

Artwork Water, Landscape and Future unveiled in Art in Transit, Punggol MRT/LRT Station.


Participated in ASEAN – Japan Art Exhibition, Bangkok, Thailand.

Participated in Art on the Beach, Burapa University Thailand, Chonburi, Thailand.

Participated in Crossroads, NUS Museum, Singapore.


Solo exhibition Journeys Revisited, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Organised by UOB.

Participated in Lantern of the East, Burapa University Thailand, Chonburi, Thailand.


Judge, 25th UOB Painting of the Year Competition.

Oct 2006

Artist-in-residence, Singapore Tyler Print Institute.


Solo exhibition Journey to the East, CJ Gallery, San Diego, USA.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

You have 3 out of 3 articles left this month. Create a free Esplanade&Me account or sign in to continue. SIGN UP / LOG IN