• Market
  • Oct 08, 2020

Chinese Contemporary Art Makes a Comeback

ZHANG XIAOGANG’s The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow (1989

After a long decade of stagnation, is the market for Chinese contemporary art of the 1990s and 2000s ready for a rebound? At the Sotheby’s Hong Kong Contemporary Art Evening Sale on October 6, there were flashbacks to the superheated years of 2006–08 when Beijing-based painters of the ’85 New Wave generation dominated the market’s attention.   

Several works from The First Avant-Garde: Masterworks from the Johnson Chang Collection led the resurgence. The canvases hailed from the warehouse of the influential Hong Kong art dealer Johnson Tsong-zung Chang, an early proponent of the first postmodern generation in mainland China and co-organizer of related international touring exhibitions, such as “Mao Goes Pop: China Post-1989.” From Chang’s collection, Zhang Xiaogang’s post-Tiananmen triptych of mournful faces and severed limbs, The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow (1989–90), was the sale’s top-selling lot by an artist from Asia at HKD 54.9 million (USD 7.1 million), exceeding its high estimate of HKD 45 million (USD 5.8 million). A distant second, from Zeng Fanzhi, another iconic artist of the Cynical Realists, was his portrayal of a screaming man in a suit along with a canine companion in The Mask Series, No. 11 (1994), which hit HKD 23.8 million (USD 3.1 million), above a high estimate of HKD 22 million (USD 2.8 million). Liu Wei’s suggestively fleshy Banana (1995) raked in HKD 21.4 million (USD 2.8 million), more than double its high estimate. However, Chang’s 1998 canvas from Zhang Xiaogang’s iconic Bloodline series, with estimates between HKD 10–20 million (USD 1.3–2.6 million), went unsold. 

Several Chinese contemporary paintings from other collections also did well. From an artist who has been rediscovered in recent seasons, Liu Ye’s Florence (1994), depicting the screaming face of a girl seen in a mirror amid a cityscape, topped HKD 11 million (USD 1.4 million). The artist’s more cartoonish figure in Specially for you (Olympic 2008) (2008) attracted a winning bid at HKD 9.9 million (USD 1.3 million). Liu Wei’s untitled (2012) color-bar abstraction just pushed over HKD 4 million (USD 516,000). 

Not all the excesses of the market seem entirely proportional to the artists’ stature. The floral print abstraction 2016.06 (2016) by Liang Yuanwei, shown once at the K11 Art Foundation’s exhibition coinciding with the 2017 Venice Biennale, surpassed its high estimate by 50 percent, reaching HKD 3 million (USD 390,180). And despite a similarly scant exhibition history, Huang Yuxing’s dream-pop painting River (2015)—which was sold shortly after its initial purchase via Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2016—went for HKD 2.1 million (USD 271,000), doubling its high estimate. 

GERHARD RICHTER’s Abstraktes Bild (649-2) (1987) on the block at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Buoyed by the strong numbers for Chinese artists, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art evening and day sales on October 6 and 7, respectively, totaled HKD 778 million (USD 100 million). The overall top-selling lot was one of Gerhard Richter’s numerous squeegee-roller abstractions bearing the cynically generic title, Abstraktes Bild (649-2) [Abstract Picture] (1987) from the collection of cosmetics magnate Ronald Perelman. It was purchased by the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, for the endowment-busting price of HKD 214.6 million (USD 27.7 million), making it the most expensive work of Western art sold via an auction in Asia.

Several recent trends in the art market were in evidence. Leading the commercialization of street art is Banksy, whose acrylic painting Forgive Us Our Trespassing (2011), of a hoodie-wearing figure praying in front of a tagged-up gothic church window, doubled its high estimate to reach HKD 64 million (USD 8.3 million). Flower Boy (2019), the barely dry portrait by the Ghanaian Gen-Z artist, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, topped HKD 1 million (USD 129,000), at more than triple its high estimate. Meanwhile, Hong Kong artists of the millennial generation continued to experience unexpected auction success this year, with Firenze Lai joining the ranks with her painting The Colleagues (2017), which hammered home for HKD 3 million (USD 387,000), nearly three times its high estimate. 

Works by artists of the postwar Japanese avant-garde offered more in the way of art-historical track records. Takeo Yamaguchi, born in Japanese-occupied Korea, topped HKD 4.4 million (USD 568,000) for his golden yellow cutout form on a black ground, Kusegata (Arc) (1960). A lilac-gray mess of foot-swirled paint Deishaku (1987) by Kazuo Shiraga, a later, post-Gutai work, topped its high estimate at HKD 8.65 million (USD 1.1 million). A rare sight from a perennial auction favorite, Yayoi Kusama’s paired canvas and sculpture, Venus Nets ( R ) and Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets ( R ) (1998), more than doubled its high estimate to reach HKD 14.7 million (USD 1.9 million), suggesting that the big waves for Chinese modern and contemporary art are buoying prices for artists around the region.

HG Masters is deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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