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Zhang Xiaogang, “Forever Lasting Love (Triptych)” (1989) (all images from

Belgian industrialist Guy Ullens is the most important international collector of Chinese contemporary art, amassing an encyclopedic collection and opening a contemporary art museum in Beijing. Now he’s selling off a part of that collection at Sotheby’s. Here’s why the sale is important.

The Sotheby’s sale, to be held on April 3 in Hong Kong, encompasses the earlier part of Ullens’ collection, including early works from many of the most recognized artists of the Chinese contemporary art scene today, including Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and Zeng Fanzhi. Called “The Ullens Collection – The Nascence of Avant Garde China,” the sale is a watershed moment in the historicizing and market adoption of the full sweep of Chinese contemporary art production, rather than just its past decade.

Wang Guangyi, “Mao Zedong: P2” (1988)

The works included in this auction are largely drawn from the mid 1980s to mid 1990s, the single most formative period of the Chinese contemporary art explosion we have seen develop over the past 20 years. From the ’85 New Wave to the later Beijing East Village artists neighborhood of the early 1990s, this was Chinese contemporary art before the bubble-driven marketing of the 2000s, and before many of the biggest names in Chinese art developed their mature (or fully branded), iconic styles.

In the Sotheby’s sale, it’s possible to see these artists experimenting and pushing boundaries in a vital way that’s missing in their more recent work. Most viewers won’t connect the Zhang Xiaogang masterwork included in the Ullens sale, “Forever Lasting Love (Triptych)” (1989) (seen above), to the artist’s popular “Bloodlines” series, which is dominated by brushy, ethereal faces appropriated from revolution-era family photos. The earlier work is powerful in its own right though, a surreal narrative sequence part Frida Kahlo and part Max Beckmann.

Geng Jianyi, “Two People Under a Light” (1985)

Likewise, Wang Guangyi’s “Mao Zedong: P2” (1988) (above) lacks the bright colors and pop punch of the artist’s later work, but it gains from an austere composition, whittled down to a precise iconography. Geng Jianyi’s “Two People Under a Light” (1985) is the most surprising. The artist uses an Edward Hopper-like sense of color and ambiance to represent the disconnection of the urban intelligentsia; the two fashionable figures don’t touch.

This Sotheby’s sale shows the gradual consolidation and packaging of a wholly Chinese artistic avant garde, much like the adoption of early works of Abstract Expressionism into the market as the mania for the style hit its peak. It is important because it shows that mainstream dialogue over Chinese art is starting to expand beyond the blatantly commercialized work of the past decade. This is the real historical meat of the Chinese avant garde, and Western audiences would do well to pay better attention.

Though exhibitions of the works included in the sale will be on view in New York and London, this is a sale for Asian collectors. With a burgeoning collector culture developing throughout Asia, it’s a chance for new art patrons to own a piece of their own art history. I doubt that the market is actually well established enough in the US for these works to be recognized for what they are: important milestones in the early development of a Chinese contemporary art culture.

The sale is expected to bring in $12-16 million USD. Hopefully some of the funds will go towards helping Ullen’s oft-foundering Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators Project,...

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