Zeng Fanzhi, twenty years after his debut in Beijing


Zeng Fanzhi, twenty years after his debut in Beijing

Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art has opened a retrospective show for one of the most country’s most famous Contemporary artists, ZENG Fanzhi. The exhibition will run until 19 November 2016 and covers around 25 years of work, including his Hospital and Masks series that made him a global celebrity.

Beijing springboard…

Fanzhi studied at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in the city of Wuhan (Hubei Province) about 800 kilometers west of Shanghai. After graduation, the young artist moved to Beijing in 1993 where he began his famous Masks series, whose Pop Art influences were well received in the West. In the early 1990s Beijing enjoyed an exceptionally dynamic level of artistic creativity, in a period of rapid economic, ideological and social transformation. The city’s energy attracted Westerners who bought works by artists who had not yet been noticed by their compatriots. So Fanzhi began his career straight onto the international scene. In 1993 and 1994, the powerful Marlborough Gallery included his work in two London exhibitions. From the start, Zeng Fanzhi was perceived as the spearhead of “new Chinese painting”. In Beijing, he sold a first painting to Myriam and Guy Ullens at the beginning of the couple’s pioneering role in Contemporary Chinese art. In 2007, the Ullens opened the first private art center in China, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), at the 798 Art Zone in Beijing. The Ullens later acquired many other paintings, including The Last Supper, a work created in 2001 in the Masks series, which elicited intense bidding when offered for sale in Hong Kong (October 2013), fetching over $23 million, a record that has remained unbroken ever since.

China’s most expensive Contemporary artist

Zeng Fanzhi’s auction debut took place in London in 1998 when Christie’s took the risk of offering two of his paintings. But despite his exhibitions at the Marlborough London and despite the asking price of less than $ 8,000 each (the current price for a very limited edition lithograph), both paintings failed to sell.

However, come the 2000s, with the spectacular emergence of Asia on the global art market (led by China), Chinese artists were suddenly much in demand and the market for Chinese Contemporary art literally exploded between 2004 and 2007. Zeng Fanzhi scored his first 7-digit results in May and June 2007 (Hong Kong and Beijing). In the autumn of the same year, his work generated million-plus results in both London and New York… instant international success. Zeng Fanzhi was quickly presented as the leading light of Chinese artistic creation in the latter half of the 20th century with collectors falling over each other to acquire this ultra-hot signature and a series of new auction records. Within just a few years Fanzhi emerged as the most expensive Contemporary Chinese artist. In 2008, his diptych Mask series 1996 No.6 fetched $8.6 million, five times its estimate (at Christie’s Hong Kong) and in October 2013 his The Last Supper stepped onto an even higher price range when it sold for $23.2 million (at Sotheby’s Hong Kong). At the time, that record made Zeng Fanzhi the fourth most expensive living artist in the world after Gerhard RICHTERJeff KOONS and Jasper JOHNS, and the world’s most expensive artist under 50.

Although that kind of price ascension is alien to the current market climate, Fanzhi’s notoriety is now well established. A number of prestigious exhibitions, including at the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2013-2014, have contributed to anchoring Zeng Fanzhi firmly into the contemporary cultural landscape. Even if his market has contracted, Zeng Fanzhi remains an unavoidable figure in the emergence of new Chinese Contemporary art.

In recent years, Fanzhi has produced more introspective work, oriented towards more traditional Chinese art forms, the observation of nature and the work of Chinese old masters. His painting technique has radically changed with visible and strident brush strokes that some have likened to Expressionism but which the artist says reflect a fundamental link with traditional calligraphy that is a structural element of his sub-conscience.

Nowadays, Zeng Fanzhi discusses his fame and his career with a new maturity. He has engaged his art in the vital field of environmental protection, hoping to raise his compatriots’ awareness of issues that are particularly urgent in China. His best auction result over the last 12 months also reflects this commitment, rewarding a painting of our blue planet called Paradise (4 October 2015, Sotheby’s Hong Kong) to the tune of $5.4 million. The canvas, measuring just 80 cm, was particularly well-received because it was created in collaboration with another leading Chinese figure, Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba website (and China’s most popular billionaire) and, above all, because the proceeds were attributed to an environment protection fund raising project. The high media profile collaboration between Zeng Fanzhi and Jack Ma around a noble cause was in itself a highly successful operation with Paradise fetching 17 times its high estimate.