Business Week, May 25, 2006
China: Cultural Evolution
By Frederik Balfour in Shanghai
When the auctioneer's gavel went down at a Sotheby's sale in Hong Kong
in April, an anonymous Asian collector had bid more than $3.6 million
for an oil painting entitled Pink Lotus by Chinese artist Chang Yu, a
record for modern Chinese art. That sale -- at more than four times the
expected price -- was no freak occurrence. Prices for contemporary works
by Chinese artists have been skyrocketing as connoisseurs both
domestically and abroad have been snapping them up.
Such sums might seem modest next to the $95.2 million paid for Picasso's
Dora Maar au Chat in New York this spring. But there's no denying that
collectors worldwide are getting excited about China. "The art is
approachable for the Western eye and has an immediacy to the Westerner
with an interest in China," says Henry Howard-Sneyd, managing director
for Asia at Sotheby's. "It's an exciting, hip, and cool place to be
China's new contemporary works aren't just adorning the walls of
Manhattan apartments. Newly minted mainland millionaires are loading up,
too, helping to double or triple prices in the past 18 months. Gu
Wenda's 12-ft.-by-4-ft. ink paintings, which sold for $35,000 18 months
ago, now fetch as much as $150,000, while paintings by Paris-based Yang
Jie Chang have zoomed up to $100,000 from $30,000 or so.
Some of the most popular pieces are by the first generation of
avant-garde artists to emerge after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Yue Minjun, who paints laughing figures with oddly uniform teeth, and
cynical realist painter Fang Lijun, whose trademark bald-headed
portraits are widely imitated, have garnered a huge following. Feng
Zhengjie's Andy Warhol-inspired portraits of Mao now sell for as much as
$62,000, more than triple the price 18 months ago.
Some argue that commercial success has discouraged artists from taking
risks and trying new styles. "A tremendous number of artists find a
formula and stick to it," says Elisabeth de Brabant, co-director of Art
Scene Warehouse gallery in Shanghai. But other strong selling artists,
such as Zeng Fanzhi (whose influences include Francis Bacon) and Zhang
Xiaogang (best known for his ethereal portraits based on old
photographs), continue to stake out new ground.
Is the market getting overheated? Not yet, say experts, who point out
that Chinese artists still look cheap when compared with their Western
counterparts. But that gap will steadily narrow as increasingly affluent
Chinese collectors buy works by their compatriots. "In 10 years the most
expensive work of art [in the world] will be Chinese," says New York
dealer Michael Goedhuis. "It's a matter of national pride."
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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