Sotheby’s is going to auction one of the most important and comprehensive private collections of contemporary Chinese artworks on 3 April, which is expected to yield US$12.7 to 16.7 million in total. Art Radar attended the auction preview on Thursday 17 February to bring you the highlighted works and prices.

The Ullens Collection – The Nascence of Avant-Garde China, which belongs to the renowned Belgian art collector Baron Guy Ullens, includes works which have rarely been seen since their creation and acquisition in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. It encapsulates the emergence and evolution of creative ideologies and artistic dialogues among some of the greatest artists in the most fertile period in contemporary Chinese art history.

Mao Xuhui’s 'Paternalism Series No. 3' has been named as one of the auction highlights.

Mao Xuhui’s 'Paternalism Series No. 3' has been named as one of the Ullens auction highlights.

Highlighted works in the sale include Zhang Xiaogang’s Forever Lasting Love, Geng Jianyi’s Two People Under a Light and Wang Guangyi’s President, part of his “Great Criticism Series”. Said Evelyn Lin, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Asian Art, “The essence of The Ullens Collection is the visualisation of the Chinese nation’s history through works of art.”

I have reached the stage of my collecting journey where it is time to share some of the wealth of my collection with other collectors.  This will enable me to continue to work with new and emerging artists, as has been my passion since I began this collection over twenty years ago.  I am particularly excited at the group selected for this sale, as most of these works have rarely been seen publicly, and this sale will provide a unique opportunity for people to experience an extraordinary moment in the development of contemporary Chinese art.

-Baron Guy Ullens, Belgian art collector

Highlighted Works, in the order of Estimated Price (in US dollars)

1 Forever Lasting Love 1988 Zhang Xiaogang 3.2 – 3.8 million
2 Mask Series No.4 1994 Zeng Fanzhi 1 – 1.3 million
3 Mao ZeDong:P2 1988 Wang Guangyi 190,000 – 320,000
4 Born in 1989 1995 Liu Wei 190,000 – 260,000
5 Series “X?” No. 3 1986 Zhang Peili 190,000 – 320,000
6 Two People Under a Light 1985 Geng Jianyi 130,000 – 190,000
7 Great Criticism Series: President 1993 Wang Guangyi 130,000 – 190,000
8 Identity Voice – A Post Avant Garde Series (19 Pieces) 1992-4 Shu Qun 100,000 – 130,000
9 Paternalism Series No. 3 Mao Xuhui 51,000 – 64,000

Selected artwork histories

Zhang Xiaogang, 'Forever Lasting Love,' 1988, triptych. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zhang Xiaogang, 'Forever Lasting Love,' 1988, triptych. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

One of the most representative and recognised pieces by Zhang Xiaogang, Forever Lasting Love shows the influence of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism on Zhang’s earlier artistic career. The depiction of primitive couples with exposed upper bodies posing in nature brims show the artist’s optimism with his marriage and his praise for life. Since the 1989 Chinese Avant-Garde Exhibition, the three pieces of this work have never been exhibited together.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Mask Series No.4', 1994. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Mask Series No.4', 1994. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Among the earliest works from Zeng Fanzhi’s “Behind Mask Series”, later known as the “Mask Series”, Mask Series No.4 portrays two men seated, perhaps in conversation. Early works from the “Mask Series” are scarce in quantity and notably different in the treatment of colour. While more vivid colours are used in later works, thicker and rougher brushstrokes are set against a pale earthy yellow background in the present early work. The early “Mask Series” probes deeply into the impact of modernisation on society.

Wang Guangyi, 'Mao ZeDong: P2', 1988. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Wang Guangyi, 'Mao Zedong: P2', 1988. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Mao Ze Dong: P2 shows the influence of “rational painting”, a technique born in the 85 New Wave Movement. In response to the sensationalism and over-zealous personality cults of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Guangyi advocated “the liquidation of the enthusiasm of humanity”, applying rational, almost logical analysis to painting. One of the earliest works of Wang’s “Mao Zedong” series, Wang superimposed bold lines in red and provocative English symbols onto the silhouette of Mao Zedong. Solid and dotted lines representing rational thinking seemingly deconstruct the Mao image, ridding it of excessive adulation. The “Mao Zedong” series established the artist’s position in the history of contemporary Chinese art and was a precursor to his critically-acclaimed “Great Criticism” series.

Liu Wei, 'Born in 1989', 1995. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Liu Wei, 'Born in 1989', 1995. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Born in 1989 is a rare and exceptional work by Liu Wei. In portraying three babies in pink stepping forward into an unknown future, Liu used uncharacteristically bold and gallant brushstrokes to create humorous distortions. The title of the work can be seen as a reference to politics and society, something that is also rarely found in Liu’s body of work.

Zhang Peili, 'Series "X?" No.3, 1986. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Zhang Peili, 'Series "X?" No.3, 1986. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

The largest specimen of the series, Zhang Peili‘s Series “X?” No. 3 portrays a pair of rubber surgical gloves with light brown realistic brushstrokes, bringing out a cruel and inhuman ambience. Used as cover art for Issue 45 of Zhongguo Meishubao (1987), the most influential Chinese art magazine of the time, the work poses questions and provokes thought through its ambiguous symbolisation. The series was a precursor to his subsequent series of oil paintings and installations.

Geng Jianyi, Two People Under a Light, 1985. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Geng Jianyi, Two People Under a Light, 1985. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Two People Under a Light is Geng Jianyi’s Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Art) graduation project. Adopting a grave and stern style which was markedly different from the mainstream Chinese art at the time, the work created controversy at its unveiling and was one of the most talked-about works at the time. A man and a woman, completely deprived of interaction and emotion, are seated in the foreground and background respectively while looking at the viewer, with the man’s eyes being further obstructed by his glasses. The stark colour contrasts accentuate the alienation born from the increasing urbanisation of China as well as estrangement between human beings. This is among the first works of contemporary Chinese art that tackles the issue of urbanity.

Wang Guangyi, 'Great-Criticism-Series: President', 1993. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Wang Guangyi, 'Great-Criticism-Series: President', 1993. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Previously shown at one of the Venice Biennales, President is one of the earlier pieces in Wang Guangyi‘s “Great Criticism Series”. Characteristics of the piece include the use of techniques such as dripping and incomplete lines, which are commonly seen in pop art works, as well as the imitation of propaganda posters and commercials being shown at the time.

Shu Qun, 'Identity Voice', 1992-4. Image courtesy Soth

Shu Qun, 'Identity Voice – A Post Avant Garde Series', 1992-4. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

A core member of the Northern Art Group, Shu Qun created his “Absolute Principles” series in the 1980s. Set against a background of the universe, the series emphasises perspectives in composition and uses polygonal architectural structures as its imagery. Sterile shapes such as the cross are extended ad infinitum, conveying a sense of eternity and limitlessness within the confines of the canvas. This work on paper by the same title, Identity Voice – A Post Avant Garde Series, portrays arches in an infinite-point perspective. Although varied in design, the nineteen arches contribute to a unified sense of emptiness, bleakness, inhumanity and rationality.

Click here to view the event details on the Sotheby’s website.

Click here to download the auction preview press release (PDF download).


Related Topics: Chinese artists, market watch – auctions, business of art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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