HomeBiographyArtworksSealsArticlesPublicationsReviewsConversationColumnNewsChinese PaintingContact



click to see the scan copy  


Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine 《三联生活周刊》

April 24 2006 二零零六年四月二十四日刊


Sanlian Lifeweek      Issue No.15, 4/24/2006 Page 66 

Pictures on page 1:

1. Oil painting by Zhang Xiaogang: <Bloodline Series: Comrade No.120> (sold at the highest price in the auctions, $979,200) (190´150cm)

2. Oil painting by Zhang Xiaogang: <Sailor (Girl)> (sold at the third highest price in the auctions, $486,400) (129.5´109.25cm)

3. Oil painting by Zhang Xiaogang: <Bloodline Series: Comrade No.4> (131´100cm)

4. Oil painting by Ye Minjun: <Lion> (sold at the second highest price in the auctions, $564,800) (219.7´280cm) 

Pictures on page 2:

Installation work by Xu Bing: <Birds That Can Fly>

Colored glass fibre reinforced plastic sculpture: <Virgin in Menarche> (165´45´40cm)

Pictures on page 3:

1. Color on paper by Zhu Wei: <Utopia No.57> (141´120cm)

2. Oil painting by Liu Xiaodong: <Private Room> (200´159cm)

3. Color on paper by Xu Lei: <Flower on Sea> (115´63.5cm)

International Auctions: the New 'Language of Power' for Chinese Contemporary Art 

According to the standard of international art market, the 'power platform' of judging art value is structured by three pillars: collection (museum and private), exhibition, and auction. Chinese contemporary art started to catch international collectors’ eyes since the end of 1980s, and were frequently accepted by international exhibitions since the mid and late 90s. Marked by Sotheby’s New York Special Auctions in 2006, Chinese contemporary art finally acquired the language of this 'power platform'. 

By Zeng Yan in New York 

At Sotheby’s’s 'Contemporary Art Asia' special auctions in New York on March 31, in which for the first time Chinese contemporary art works played a major role, Lifeweek reporter had eye witnessed the set of all price records, among them certainly the historical record $979,200 that repeatedly astonished both the Chinese and foreign media, set by Zhang Xiaogang’s <Bloodline Series: Comrade No.120>. This was the first time an international auction house auctioned Chinese contemporary art works outside of China. The atmosphere on the scene and records of numbers all announced the success of this experimental special auctions. The predicted between six to eight million dollar sales volume had eventually reached 13 million, the auction rate reached 89%, and most of the works that weren’t sold were Japanese and South Korean art. Sotheby’s interest is far from this. In the global art market, as the first one who has put Chinese contemporary art on the same value platform with the western contemporary art, Sotheby’s has actually preempted the 'language of power' in this market. No matter how people from the art circles criticize whether the price records set in the auctions match the artistic value of the works or not, it is going to be the original coordinate of Chinese contemporary art formally enters the international market system.

The form and release of consumption power

The special auctions of New York 'Asian Art Week' was arranged at the time when collectors and dealers of Asian art from around the globe came to New York for the spring auctions of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, plus the famous exhibition in the 'Armory' Building, these had all created a warm bed for the new special auctions. The audiences were about half oriental and half western, the atmosphere on the scene was persistently hot and tense. Sotheby’s had 25 employees serve 150 buyers who bid over telephone. The first climax appeared at bidding for No.10 work - Zhang Xiaogang’s <Bloodline Series: Comrade No.4> that was estimated at $50,000 to $60,000, bid price reached $419,200 only after few rounds. The auctioneer decided to raise the starting price for Zhang’s next work <Sailor (Girl)> from $110,000 to $150,000, the work was sold at $486,400. Bidding quickly moved on from warm up to fervency, new records were born one after another, until Zhang’s <Bloodline Series: Comrade No.120>, which everybody had expected to set the highest bid price, climbed the price ladder by $100,000 each bid, and finally fetched $979,200 by an undisclosed Singaporean collector.

Zhang Xiaoming, director of Sotheby’s Chinese Contemporary Art department and the major executer of the special auction, told the reporters that Sotheby’s had prepared for this special auction for several years, including market research and three successful auctions in HK. Chinese contemporary art had caught Sotheby’s attention since the late 80s and early 90s. Loong Meeseen, vice president of Sotheby’s New York, recalled that she had focused on Chinese ceramics and craftworks before she was made the executive supervisor of Sotheby’s HK in 1989. After she came to HK, introduced by friends, she had great interest in a bunch of Chinese contemporary artists just emerging. She had eye witnessed the shaping of the market for Chinese contemporary art. 'The foreign specialists worked in Beijing and businessmen in Shanghai were the first group supported Chinese contemporary art, who helped establish an awareness of earliest contemporary works abroad with private collections and exhibitions,' says Loong. The other international market promoter for Chinese contemporary art, who had been repeatedly mentioned by Loong, was director of HK Hanart TZ Gallery, Johnson Chang. The 'China’s New Art Post-1989' exhibition staged by Chang in 1993 is considered a historical landmark. The first batch of Chinese avant-guard artists who were recognized by the international market, such as Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, and Wang Guangyi, were all hard cores of the show. At the time there were two other groups of artists that were followed with interest by international auction houses and galleries, and their prices were even higher, says Loong Meeseen. One was realistic oil painters Chen Yifei, Wang Yidong and Ai Xuan; the other was new ink and wash painters Li Huayi and Yu Peng from Taiwan, and Liu Dan and Zhu Wei from the Mainland. Loong remembers that between 1989 and 1996, Zhang Hong, who was the director of Sotheby’s Chinese Art Department, always tried to put a few contemporary ink and wash works in Chinese modern art auctions. But they were too few to form any influence. 'I always expected that some day the works of these contemporary artists could be auctioned together, and I always believed that this day would come. We all encouraged the company to do it. When our New York headquarters had this 10th floor exhibition hall, I thought, it would happen soon,' says Loong.

In Loong’s impression the year 2000 was another turning point after 1993. There were more and more exhibitions and activities related to Chinese contemporary art in 2000, and not only in the Mainland, HK, and Taiwan. In October 2004, during Sotheby’s HK Autumn Auctions, the first special auction for Chinese contemporary works was staged. And several special auctions in 2005 had brought Chinese contemporary art to its peak. The 72 works sold at Sotheby’s HK’s 'Chinese and South Korean contemporary art special auction' fetched HK$ 43.55 million, far exceeded estimation. Soon after, Christie’s HK held the '20th Century Chinese and Asian Contemporary Art' special auction, the total 168 pieces of works, which were mainly early oil paintings by Chinese artists and contemporary Chinese art, were estimated at HK$ 60 million. But the actual transaction value exceeded HK$144 million. At the same time the transaction value of the Mainland auction house Guardian’s Autumn Auctions 'Chinese Oil Painting and Sculpture' special auction also for the first time doubled to almost RMB 80 million. Sotheby’s headquarters thus was determined to start planning for the special auctions in New York. They invited Zhang Xiaoming from the Guggenheim Museum in New York to be in charge of selecting works, and this had taken six months.

According to the standard of international art market, the 'power platform' of judging art value is structured by three pillars: collection (museum and private), exhibition, and auction. Chinese contemporary art started to catch international collectors’ eyes since the end of 1980s, and were frequently accepted by international exhibitions since the mid and late 90s. Marked by Sotheby’s’ New York Special Auctions in 2006, Chinese contemporary art finally acquired the language of this 'power platform'.

Looking at the difference between domestic and international markets through selection of works

Zhang Xiaoming tells the reporter that before selection of works they had repeated discussions over how to define 'Chinese contemporary art'. This is critical to the orientation and structure of the auctions. Eventually they drew two time lines: for the Mainland artists the definition was post 1976; for overseas artists it was defined according to western art history: post the Second World War. Thus, the 'Red Age' that played a major role in Mainland market was totally peeled off. Zhang Xiaoming explained that after she and her colleagues conducted a whole set of business analysis, they decided that the international collection circles didn’t have enough understanding of the 'Red Age' art, it didn’t have a strong selling point. Besides, in the 21st century, both the political imprint and the ideological label of contemporary art were fading. The result of the auction and the outstanding performances of Zhang Xiaogang’s works had proved that the two major labels of 'political pop' and 'cynicism' had been put to an end. For overseas collectors, the background 'China' is much more symbolic than 'Chinese politics'.

The other significant change was, in selection of works, the special auctions in HK and the Mainland more focused on the older generation artists - those studied in Paris before the Cultural Revolution, such as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, and Wu Guanzhong, and their works usually supported the sales volume of the auctions. Sotheby’s record price for Zao Wou-Ki’s work was $730,000, and Christie’s record was $2.3 million. Wu Guanzhong also had works sold at more than a million dollars. But this time, Sotheby’s selection of works didn’t focus on this group of artists. Only one small piece of etching by Zao Wou-Ki <Seaway> (14.6´24.5cm) was selected, and sold at $5,000. Chu Teh-Chun’s oil painting <Firth> was sold at $174,000, and wasn’t a major role of the auctions either. Lorenz, director of ShanghART gallery, made the comments when talking to media about his feelings of the special auction: 'Zao Wou-Ki may have a bigger rallying point than Zhang Xiaogang in HK, Taiwan and Asia. But when talking about internationalism, Sotheby’s New York special auction showed that Zhang Xiaogang and others were more influential. Their painting language and contents of their works were more appreciated by the international collectors.' Among the realistic oil paintings that are pursued by the Mainland auction market collectors, only one piece by Chen Yifei and one by Chen Danqing were selected. Ai Xuan and Wang Yidong were all absent. A director of oil painting of a domestic auction house said to the reporters after watching the special auctions that the domestic auction market and international auction market are two parallels, no competition, because their market functions are different. But in the long term, the value trend in the international market will never influence the domestic market? Too absolute.

The market plate yet to grow in China

Lifeweek reporter watched the preview with Sotheby’s vice president Ingrid Lam, who had successfully staged three special auctions of contemporary art in HK. When talking about the specialties of the New York special auction, she thought that the importance attached to installation art and conceptual photography works was never so high.

Installation art is considered started by French artist Duchamp and the most explosive in the avant-guard art creations: destroys and subverts art orders. All of the modern art sections of the world known museums would have installation art works shown. But the art form was introduced into China only at the end of 1980s. Since installation works need to interact with the show spaces intensively, some of the works would even terminate once they leave the show ground, so the requirement for exhibition space is rather high. The dual restrictions of time and space made installation, especially large-scale installation works not cognized and accepted in the domestic art market. This time Xu Bing’s large-scale installation work <Birds That Can Fly> was put at the most striking position in the preview hall, and eventually bought by the boss of the New York Goedhuls gallery, which is famous for collecting Chinese art, at $408,000. Zhang Huan’s installation <Peace> was sold at the same price range; Ai Weiwei’s <China Map>, which is made of ferrous mesua taken from a destroyed Qing Dynasty temple, was sold at $228,000, the buyers are all foreign collectors. Zhang Huan’s several conceptual photography works had set some surprising records in the auctions: <Family Tree>, a set of nine color photos fetched $168,000; <Bubble> fetched $78,000.

Zhang Xiaoming talked about the other new viewpoint of the special auction in the interview: Chinese contemporary ink and wash painting. Simply look from sales volume this section wasn’t so impressive, can’t compare with oil painting. But Sotheby’s has great anticipation in its potentials in the future international market. The new ink and wash artists are also divided into several groups: overseas older generation artists such as Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong; middle age and young artists who immigrated to foreign countries in the 1980s, such as Liu Dan and Zeng Xiaojun; and youth artists who were born in the second half of the 60s, the so-called mainland’s new ink and wash artists represented by Xu Lei and Zhu Wei. Using traditional media to carry reality, and often attacked by both traditional and avant-guard, which makes them more lonely and independent individuals. They use the 'mother language' to express, but there is no 'family' back them up; their styles and characters have rare intersection. Liu Dan’s <Old Man Stone> and Zeng Xiaojun’s <Elegant and Quaint> both inherited traditional Yuan Dynasty meticulous landscape, but they only take a part and infinitely enlarge it into a self universal world. Xu Lei has found his own symbol: white horse and blue flower, the mood of his art is noble but passive. He 'has always tried to combine the three-dimension of oil painting, Brecht’s stage alienation effect and Magritte’s style of freely placing image in virtual space with the image aesthetics of literati paintings before the 19th century'. Zhu Wei is more favor of traditional meticulous figure painting, his pictures are pure but rich in visual tensility. The Renowned art critic Li Xiaoshan commented on his several series of ink and color on paper, including the auctioned <Utopia No.57>, that the techniques, such as line, color, and texture, etc. 'all have relations with the continuity of the traditional modes'. But on formation of figures Zhu has made unique contributions that transcend the ancients. The vision is often painful, alienated and personal, 'has become a symbol of time'. The transaction prices of the works stated here were only between $45,000 and $120,000, but they were one of the collection hotspots pursued by galleries in the international market.




记者 曾焱(纽约报道) 



1.  张晓刚油画作品:《血缘:同志120号》(全场成交价第一,97.92万美元)(190 X 150cm

2.  张晓刚油画作品:《航海员(女孩)》(全场成交价第三,48.64万美元)(129.5 X 109.25cm

3.  张晓刚油画作品:《血缘:同志第四号》(131 X 100cm

4.  岳敏君油画作品:《狮子》(全场成交价第二,56.48万美元)(219.7 X 280cm


左: 徐冰装置作品:《会飞的鸟》

右: 向京着色玻璃钢雕塑:《初潮的处女》(165 X 45 X 40cm


1.  朱伟设色作品:《乌托邦57号》(141 X 120cm

2.  刘晓东油画:《私房》(200 X 159cm

3.  徐累设色作品:《海上花》(115 X 63.5cm 










另一个重要差异在于作品两大组成部分的比例完全颠倒了。中国内地及香港地区的当代艺术专场,老辈海外艺术家——主要指“文革”前在巴黎接受绘画教育的画家如赵无极、朱德群、吴冠中等,他们的作品是征集重点,也往往成为一个当代专场成交额的支撑。赵无极作品在苏富比的纪录为73万美元,在克里斯蒂的纪录为230万美元,吴冠中也有成交价格上百万美元的作品。而这次苏富比的征集重点却不在这些老画家身上,如赵无极作品只征集了一小幅蚀刻画(14.6 X 24.5cm)《海路》,最终成交价5000美元。朱德群的油画《河口湾》以17.4万美元成交,也不是该场主角。上海著名画廊香格纳的主持人劳伦斯在向中国媒体谈对这次拍卖的观感时这样评价这种差异:“在港台或亚洲地区,也许赵无极比张晓刚更有号召力。但就作品的国际性而言,苏富比纽约专场的拍卖告诉我们,张晓刚等人的作品更具国际性。他们的绘画语言、关注内容更能受国际收藏者推崇。”而内地拍卖市场收藏家追捧的写实主义油画,此次只有陈逸飞和陈丹青各有一幅作品上拍,艾轩、王东等人都缺席了。国内一家大型拍卖公司的油画部负责人看完这场拍卖结果后对媒体记者说,国内外拍卖市场是两条并行线,不需要竞争,因为它们的市场功能不同。但如果从长远看,国际市场的价值走向真的不影响国内市场吗?未免绝对。


记者和苏富比副总裁Ingrid Lam一起参观预展,她曾成功策划香港三个当代专场的拍卖,说到纽约专场的特点,她认为装置艺术和观念摄影作品受到的重视是从未有过的。