Saturday, September 22, 2007

Asian Art Standing Apart

Asian Art Standing Apart

September 20, 2007

"Everywhere I go, dinner parties, benefits, the Hamptons, people only ask me about Chinese contemporary art," an art adviser, Kim Heirston, said. In what feels like a blink of an eye, Chinese painters have become a focal point in the art world: Just last year, Sotheby's started holding its main sale of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese contemporary art in New York. Today, Sotheby's will sell 275 works estimated at between $19 million and nearly $28 million. Two weeks ago, Pierre Huber, the influential Geneva-based dealer and Lorenzo Rudolf, the former director of Art Basel, held their inaugural Contemporary art fair in Shanghai, which was widely judged to be a whopping success. And next month, Phillips will sell the Farber collection of Chinese contemporary art in a single sale of 44 works of contemporary Chinese art that were acquired from the seminal exhibitions and gallery shows mounted since 1986 that introduced these painters to the West.

What is so fascinating about Chinese contemporary art is that much of it was produced under the radar in the past 20 years — and it is now bursting into view as a newly rich society supports its own artists with high prices and museums. Over the summer, it was announced that Sichuan province offered personal museums to eight of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art — including Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, and Wang Guangyi. The Chinese contemporary collector, Baron Ullens, announced his own art space in Beijing that would house Chinese and foreign art.

Though these developments point to the emergence of a domestic market for living Chinese painters, until now the bulk of the sales have been overseas. Last year, Sotheby's sold $70 million worth of Asian contemporary art. Also, 2006 was the first year the auction house brought Chinese contemporary painting to New York as its own sale. They broke 20 artists' records in the process. Sotheby's and the houses haven't suffered for including Chinese painters in their Contemporary art sales here in New York and London. In June, Yue Minjun's "The Pope" (1997), a clever allusion to both Francis Bacon and Velázquez, was sold for an astonishing $4.2 million.

This week's sale also features a Yue Minjun after Velázquez. "Infanta" (1997) is estimated at between $1.8 million and $2.5 million. The other Chinese superstar Zhang Xiaogang is represented by several works, but the most significant is "Chapter of a New Century — Birth of the People's Republic of China" (1992), which is estimated at between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

"It's so exciting to see great works," Sotheby's expert Xiaoming Zhang, who put the sale together, said. Working in the Chinese contemporary field is still a journey of discovery because so many of the painters were previously working in obscurity to avoid the interference of censors. Others were simply overlooked until increasing value brought the work to market. "You don't know these paintings existed," Ms. Zhang said.

Chen Yifei is a prime example of the kind of painter and painting that one never knew existed. His numerous landscapes and city scenes painted in a misty realism are incomparable. But "The Cellist" (1983), estimated at between $800,000 and $1 million will be the star of his lots.

Other works not to be missed include Liu Dan's monumental "Dictionary" (1991), estimated at between $250,000 and $350,000, which depicts in massive photorealist splendor the open pages of a dictionary. Ai Weiwei's "Chandelier (2002)," estimated at between $400,000 and $600,000, is just that — a massive crystal and metal chandelier that seems suited in size, scale and opulence to a European opera house. A more whimsical work comes from Liu Ye: "The Little Mermaid" (2004), estimated at between $1 million and $1.5 million, is childlike in the way that Yoshitomo Nara's work represents children with wide eyes and expansive foreheads.

Don't let the bigger names distract you from the depth of the show. There is something in almost every style of contemporary painting from abstraction to graffiti-inspired work such as Wu Shanzhuan's "Today No Water–Chapter 29" (2007), estimated at between $30,000 and $50,000. There's even the Mark Tansey-like paintings of Shi Xinning, especially "Pride and Prejudice" (2004), estimated at between $40,000 and $60,000.

This sale makes a very good case that contemporary Chinese painting is better seen separately from the marquee sales in November where the biggest names jostle with their European and American counterparts. If nothing else, this sale will impress you with the variety and vibrancy of Chinese painters and surely justify the accelerating prices.

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