The Art World’s Newest Love: Contemporary Chinese Works

KAREN MAZURKEWICH – The Wall Street Journal

The Art World’s Newest Love: Contemporary Chinese Works
By KAREN MAZURKEWICH
Copyright THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 8, 2005; Page W1
Patricia Tang has been an avid collector of master drawings for more than 30 years, and can quickly tick off 18th- and 19th-century favorites like Edgar Degas and John Constable.
But collecting drawings by these European masters simply lost its edge over time. “The artists at auction were the same over and over again,” she says.
The artists Ms. Tang is most excited about these days are of a more recent vintage — from late 20th-century China. “These people are alive, there’s a lot of energy there,” says Ms. Tang, a New Yorker who has invested just under $100,000 in works by conceptual artist Gu Wenda and multimediaist Xu Bing.
[‘The Sun,’ by Yue Minjun, was painted in 2002 and recently sold for $185,000 at auction.]

‘The Sun,’ by Yue Minjun, was painted in 2002 and recently sold for $185,000 at auction.
The art world’s latest discovery is modern China. In Beijing and Shanghai, more than 30 galleries dealing primarily in contemporary Chinese artists have opened in less than a decade, selling to local and international clientele. In New York, Sotheby’s auction house recently opened a contemporary Chinese art department. And the city’s Max Protetch Gallery, traditionally associated with big-name architects, has added four edgy Chinese artists to its roster, including Hai Bo, a 43-year-old artist known for re-staged photos, and Zhang Xiaogang, 46, who paints wide-eyed portraits.
Recent sales at Christie’s auction in Hong Kong also signal the shift in the market. In late May, the auction house sold $60 million worth of contemporary and modern Asian, predominantly Chinese, art — almost triple the amount sold last year. The top lot, a triptych by China’s East-West fusion specialist Zhao Wuji, sold for $2.3 million, setting a world record for a Chinese oil painting.
Just a few years ago, only a handful of China’s artists were registered on the secondary international art market, according to Josh Eldred, vice president for marketing of online auction database Artfact. Today, he says, collectors around the world have discovered the works of some of China’s most well-respected artists. In just five years, prices of canvases by modernists such as Zhu Dequn and Fu Baoshi have shot up as much as 500%. “This represents a dramatic growth over a short period of time,” says Mr. Eldred. “It’s growing faster than traditional [art] markets.”
EYE ON CHINA
[Eye on China]

See a list of some of the best-known contemporary Chinese artists0 and how their works did at some recent sales.
While prices for many artists are rising steeply, one of the reasons for the interest is that much of the art is still relatively affordable compared with Western art. Works from 1980s U.S.-based artists such as Richard Prince and Eric Fischl sell in the $300,000 to $2 million range, but a painting or sculpture from a Chinese artist of the same era, such as Li Shan, can go for as little as $5,000. Another selling point: The images are pretty easy for art lovers outside China to relate to — Mr. Li, one of the pioneers of the so-called “Mao Goes Pop” movement, is famous for depictions of the former Chinese chairman on Mark Rothko-like colorfields.
While there has long been an active market for antique Chinese furniture, the country’s traditional art market — notably delicate ink-brush paintings using techniques dating back thousands of years — has had less appeal to foreign art buyers. But in the 1980s, as China began opening up and artists were publicly allowed to experiment for the first time, international collectors began taking note: Xu Bing distorted traditional calligraphy and inserted it into landscapes (he now does multimedia installations and is a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner); Wang Guangyi played on images of American consumer brands (becoming another of the “Mao goes pop” artists), while ink brush artist Li Jin turned out humorous, unflattering self-portraits.
Now, however, some gallery owners and collectors wonder if speculation is outpacing reality. When he moved to the U.S. from China in 1998, photographer and performance artist Zhang Huan could rarely find a buyer willing to pay more than $100 for one of his photos, which depict scenes like male bathers standing waist-deep in water. In May, Mr. Zhang’s “Family Tree” series (showing the artist’s face covered with Chinese characters) sold for $96,000 at Christie’s contemporary auction in Hong Kong. Prices for such pieces at the spring auctions were high both for top-of-the-line works and “mediocre” ones, says Henry Au-yeung, director of Grotto Fine Art in Hong Kong. “There are some lesser artists who are getting triple their high estimate,” he says.
[Gu Wenda’s ‘United Nations-China Monument: Temple of Heaven’]

Gu Wenda’s ‘United Nations-China Monument: Temple of Heaven’
Those kinds of hikes are making collectors such as New Jersey-based John Fernandez a little nervous. In the past three years, Mr. Fernandez and his wife Carmen have spent about $1 million on contemporary Chinese works, buying directly from galleries in China via the Internet or through galleries in New York and London. To finance the purchases, they sold off works in their collection by ’80s artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But at Christie’s spring auction in Hong Kong, the couple lost out in bidding on every Chinese painting they were interested in, even though they often bid twice the high estimate. The owner of a commercial poster and printing company, Mr. Fernandez says it is like betting on a runaway train. “Keith Haring and Basquiat [were] moving at 50 miles per hour and I flipped it for something moving at 100 miles per hour.”
Dozens of those artists are surfacing in auction catalogs in Hong Kong and China. China Guardian, the nation’s largest auction house, says sales of Chinese paintings have almost tripled since 2003, with spring sales hitting a record high of $44.5 million. (More than 60% of these artworks are from artists who worked in the 20th century). In the past year in Shanghai, two new private museums and one public museum opened solely for contemporary art — generally works produced after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 — while Beijing’s art districts, which didn’t exist a decade ago, now include about 22 registered galleries. Many are betting that newly-flush Chinese will soon move on from buying luxury items like designer handbags and fancy cars to collecting works of art.
Beijing entrepreneur and collector Zhang Haoming has been so active snapping up works by local artists, local curators refer to him as “the Chinese Saatchi,” after Charles Saatchi, one of the United Kingdom’s leading contemporary art collectors. Mr. Zhang recently opened “Beijing Art Now,” a gallery and restaurant, next to the Workers’ Stadium, which is aimed at attracting a crowd of hipsters. To get his hands on two paintings by artists Guo Wei, 45, and Guo Jin, 41, Mr. Zhang recently bought out an entire gallery — 21 works — in Chengdu in Sichuan Province. It was worth it, says Mr. Zhang. “These are important artists.”
Undervalued Art
Collector Christopher Tsai also thinks that the Chinese art market is still worth pursuing. A hedge fund manager in New York, he has spent over $250,000 on Chinese artists since 2002, and believes the investment already has appreciated. He points to the $19,500 he spent last year on a series of photos by Zhang Yuan. A similar, though larger, series sold at Christie’s in June for $100,000. “I’m trying to build a portfolio of Chinese art like I manage my clients,” says Mr. Tsai, 30, who believes Chinese art is undervalued — especially compared with markets such as Mexico. “Some contemporary Mexican artists sell for $1 million,” he says. “Yet the GDP of Mexico is half of that of China.”
[One of Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Bloodlines series’]

One of Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Bloodlines series’
Such interest has helped transform the Chinese cultural landscape. Today, the flow of talent has reversed: Rather than fleeing China in search of freedom of expression, many Chinese artists are heading back to the mainland in search of commercial recognition.
In China in the 1980s, for example, conceptual artist Gu Wenda’s bold ink paintings playing on the slogans of the Cultural Revolution landed him on the government’s blacklist. Fearing the young artist was trying to push a political message, propaganda officials closed down several of his shows. Tired of the persecution, Mr. Gu following the path of many oppressed artists — he emigrated.
Since then Mr. Gu’s fortunes have changed along with that of China’s modern-art market. In 1998, Mr. Gu sold a panel, featuring calligraphic work constructed from hair, at auction for $16,000. Today, collectors from New York to Shanghai pay upward of $50,000 for similar pieces. “I can’t keep up with commissions from collectors,” says 50-year-old Mr. Gu. The artist divides his time between a comfortable brownstone in Brooklyn that he shares with his wife, interior designer Kathryn Scott, and studios in Shanghai and Xian.
“From the early 1980s to the early ’90s many artists immigrated to the U.S. but now I don’t see many,” says Mr. Gu, who spends at least two to three months a year in China. “That’s because so many curators, critics and buyers go to China to buy art and visit artists, it makes [no sense] for them to move to the U.S. or other countries.”
Next Wave
The hype around the ’80s pop artists also is inspiring a younger generation of Chinese artists like Zhang Xiaotao, 35, and Zhang Fazhi, 29, to try their hand, too — though many are addressing issues of urban decay rather than politics in their work. The 35-year old Mr. Zhang, for example, is known for colorful canvases of rotting strawberries or discarded condoms — and is already getting $20,000 a painting. The younger Mr. Zhang, who graduated from university three years ago, paints garish pictures against the backdrop of opera model sets, and sells the largest pieces for $10,000. These artists are now being featured in galleries from Oakland, California, to Beijing.
These emerging talents are likely to get support from collectors such as Howard Farber. With Western heavy weights like Georgia O’Keefe and Max Weber forming the bulk of his collection, Mr. Farber, 67, switched tracks in 1997 while wandering through a gallery in Hong Kong. He not only decided to collect Chinese (selling off Americans to finance the move) he started a business advising companies on purchasing Chinese works.
It’s “another way to play China,” says Mr. Farber, a New Yorker, who is still amazed at the turn of events. “I never thought my Georgia O’Keefe would be replaced by a Gu Wenda.”


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