By Michele Leight
Asia Week at Sotheby's, September 18- 21, 2007
was a dazzling spectacle of the not-so-old and ancient keeping
pace with the cutting edge as luscious thankas, bronzes and serene
Buddha's from India, China, Tibet and Nepal shared the stage with
modern and contemporary Asian paintings, video installations,
film, traditional and digital photography, and sculpture, with
a noticeable emphasis on contemporary art from India and China,
all very much in the limelight nowadays.
Sotheby's five auctions totalled $61,931,226,
highlighted by a record sale of Contemporary Asian Art which realized
$38,448,575, far exceeding expectations. Indian Art totaled $9,514,038,
exceeding its high estimate, and Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works
of Art totaled $7,652,438 and Arts of the Buddha totaled $6,317,775.
It was also noticeable that representational
- especially figurative - oil painting is a strong focus of contemporary
Chinese artists, while sculpture from both continents was highly
imaginative in the Contemporary Art South Asia auction.
Contemporary Indian artists are breaking exciting
new ground, with correspondingly rising price tags for their work
at auction as collectors of all ages snap up their work. Lot 27,
"New Indians," by Chintan Upadhyay (b. 1972) is a marvellous
installation of 33 glittering gold clones, and is illustrated
at the top of this article. Created in 2007, it is a reflection
of "unreal realness," and the ability of mankind to
subject everything to the process of simulation, an entirely current
preoccupation." It has an estimate of $400,000 to $500,000.
It sold for $529,000 including the buyer's premium as do all
results mentioned in this article.
Lot 25 in the same sale is an untitled work
by Subodh Gupta (b. 1964), showing a lifesize Indian family on
a scooter. It has an estimate of $200,000 to $250,000. It sold
for $277,000, setting a record for the artist.
A contemporary work by Atul Dodiya (b. 1959),
"Father," painted in 2002, Lot 33, brilliantly references
ancient and modern western art, religious paintings, and populist
iconography like Bollywood movie posters and calendar art, common
subject matter for Dodhya, who is revered by the younger generation
of Indian artists. It has an estimate of $230,000 to $280,000.
"Father" sold for $601,000, setting an auction record
for the artist.
A contemporary installation by Surekha (b.
1964), entitled "The Fragrance of Jasmine," brings the
viewer face to face with 83 framed, colored photographs taken
by three generations of male photographers from the 1960s onwards
that show young South Indian girls or women wearing an elaborate
jasmine braid to highlight an important rite of passage in their
lives, like puberty, marriage or pregnancy. The mirrors behind
each photograph serve to show the viewer the braid, but as we
move from frame to frame, noticing the expressions of joy, excitement
or unease of each sitter, we feel like voyeurs.The lot has an
estimate of $15,000 to $24,000. It sold for $27,000.
Lot 29 is an untitled oil on canvas, by T.
V. Santhosh (b. 1968), illustrated in the background of the photograph
at the top of this article. Santhosh deploys digital imagery,
but subjects its photographic qualities to traditional oil paint,
often garishly colored, while also solarizing and reversing the
image, like an x-ray or film negative. Santosh also highlights
issues of contemporary and historic injustice and violence, with
a special emphasis of the media's questionable role in disseminating
information to the masses. His "Untitled" is estimated
at $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $205,000.
Women artists are well represented, with works
like Shibu Nateshan's (b.1966) atmospheric "Oriental Lady,"
Lot 55, pointing at herself in surreal seashell pink light straight
out of CSI Miami. The 47 1/4 by 59 7/8 inch acrylic on canvas,
which was executed 1999-2000, has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000
and sold for $85,000, setting an auction record for the artist.
The tenth floor at Sotheby's was awash with
contemporary art from India and China, and upon entering the beautifully
light and airy space, "The Little Mermaid," by Liu Ye,
(b. 1984), one of the highlights of the sale, commanded attention
because of her diminutive size and girl-woman demeanor - set in
an expanse of blue water. Lot 8, it was the back-cover illustration
of the Contemporary Art Asia catalogue and has an estimate of
$1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,385,000, setting an
auction record for the artist.
Around the corner from the little mermaid was
a widely smiling, teeth exposing "Infanta, (The Princess),
"1977, by Yue Minjun (b. 1962), a leading artist in the Cynical
Realism movement. Exaggerated smiles are his hallmark, and particularly
bizarre and effective when imposed upon the "Infanta,"
from an iconic western painting. Lot 27, it is a witty "send-up"
of Diego Velaszuez's famous "Las Meninas" of 1656, featuring
a pouty Donna Margarita. It has an estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000.
It sold for $1,945,000. If this seems like a high price
tag, Minjun's "The Pope" sold for a whopping $4.2 million
at Sotheby's London this year, setting a world auction record
for a Cinese contemporary artist.
Another oil painting from one of founders of
the Cynical Realist movement, Fang Lijun (b. 1963), entitled "98.10.01"
features fluorescent lyrical roses and bald-headed thugs whose
latent aggression and meanness is barely concealed, symbolizing
the artist's - and his generation's - disillusionment with China's
flagrant consumerism and "each-man-for-himself materialism.
This is an ongoing theme for the artist, who is hugely popular
in China. The painting, which measues 98 by 141 inches, is estimated
at $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $1,721,000.
Currently the subject of a one-man show, Zhang
Huan (b. 1963), at The Asia Society in New York, and well known
across the world for his provocative photographs, is represented
in the auction by Lot 257, "1/2," a typical example
of his signature self-portraits in which he is covered in Chinese
script, a mild "performance," compared with others in
which he is covered in bees, wrapped in raw meat, or laying on
a bed of ice. Moving away from performance, he has recently created
superb gigantic sculptures in ash and copper, and traditionally
inspired murals featuring exquisite drawings and fine woodcarving.
The estimate for this lot, which is numbered 6/15, is $18,000
to $23,000. It sold for $49,000.
Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958) is widely recognized
today for his somber, stylized portraits of unsmiling, uniformed
men, women and children that stem from the cultural revolution.
Most often they morph into the same face, based on photographs
of the artist's family and ancestors. "Bloodline Series:
Comrade," Lot 10, a 1995 oil on canvas that measures 51 by
39 3.8 inches, is a typical example. It has an estimate of $400,000
to $600,000. It sold for $2,305,000.
However, Xiaogang's "Chapter of a New
Century - Birth of the People's Republic of China," Lot 11,
dated 1992, features a lurid red baby, with a backdrop of familiarly
nostalgic photographs of family and ancestors, who, despite efforts
at homogenization by government and state, retain their individuality.
Zhang has the historic perspective that tends to prove the impossibility
of imposing Mao's dream of an equal society on the Chinese people,
evidenced by today's expressive clothing, and rampant upward mobility
of an ascendant middle and upper class based on wealth. This painting
has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,500,000. It sold for $3,065,000.
Two other artists Wang Guangyi (b. 1957) and
Huang Yong Ping (b. 1954) were also born in the 50s and have a
similarly disillusioned but more humorous response to homogenization.
While "Great Criticism, No Pop Art," Lot 22, a 2005
painting by Guangyi, takes on the "forbidden" western
subject matter of the Chinese cultural revolution, Huang Yong
Ping's gigantic Dada-esque fiberglass bowls are an interrogation
of history. "The Doomsday - Da Xian" was conceived as
an installation to commemorate Hong Kong's return to Chinese jurisdiction
by the British in 1997, with British flag, government buildings
and stylized Chinese patterns decorating traditional Chinese bowls
filled with expired food products. Lot 22 has an estimate of $400,000
to $500,000. It sold for $481,000. Lot 197 has an estimate
of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $349,000.
Several modern Chinese artists offer a romantic
counterpoint to the engaging grins, caricatures and glitter with
two romantic paintings by Chen Yiffei (1946-2005). Lot 13, "The
Cellist,"a lush oil on canvas that measures 53 1/8 by 37
1.4 inches and is in the tradition of John Singer Sargeant. It
has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,000,000. It sold for $2,281,000.
A blue toned waterscape, "Out of Darkness (Suzhow),"
Lot 16, which recalls the atmospheric noctures of Whistler. "Out
of Darkness" has an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. It
sold for $181,000.
A nostalgic "Yellow Wall," Lot 107,
by Wei Luan (b. 1957), was exhibited at the landmark exhibition
"Beyond the Open Door: Contemporary Paintings from The People's
Republic of China, 1987," organized by David Kaminsky. Henry
Kissinger wrote the forward of the catalog of this exhibition. It has an estimate of $35,000
to $45,000. It sold for $63,400.
Fleshing out the theme of disillusion and cynicism
- literally - is a gigantic "Chandelier" by Ai Weiwei
(b. 1957), a dramatic contemporary sculpture symbolizing the competitiveness
of Beijing's 21st century master-builders, vying for greater ostentation
and opulence intended to lure China's new found wealth and power
- and conspicuous consumption. "Chandelier," Lot 63,
epitomizes the excesses of the nouveaux riches anywhere in the
world, but is hard to imagine such a glittering, over-the-top
sculpture in a Communist state, an irony that Wei brilliantly
conveys. The 2002 work measures 216 by 159 inches and is from
an edition of two. It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000.
It sold for $657,000.
Another super-sized depiction is "Dictionary,"
Lot 36, by Liu Dan (b. 1953), which is the artist's expression
of aggregating and organizing individual units to form a meaningful
whole. A dictionary catalogues units of language, the foundation
of human culture: on their own, catalogued words are dry and devoid
of life, but used together they are meaningful. The ink and color
on paper 1991 work measures 81 1/8 by 120 inches and resembles
an open dictionary. It has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,00.
It sold for $713,000.
Lot 81 is an amusing pair of
bronze sculptures by Jiang Shuo (b. 1958). The lot is entitled
"Red Guards, Going Forward" and each of the two sculptures
measures 64 by 53 by 27.5 centimeters. The work was executed in
2007 and has an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000. It sold for
Lot 2, "Children in Meeting," is
an amusing oil on canvas by Tang Zhigang (b. 1959) that was executed
in 2000 and measures 44 7/8 by 57 1/2 inches. The catalogue entry
by Johnathan Goodman notes that the engaging humor of the artist's
works is interesting as he grew up in an army family and pursued
a career in the army, adding that "His scenarios reveal more
than a passing familiarity with both the wiles of children and
the seriousness of adult activities. And in his absurd juxtaposition
of the two, one has the feeling Tang finds the state mechanisms
of today's China a bit ridiculous, communicating a gap between
reality and the sharply honed niceties of public presentation."
The lot has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for
Rewinding the tape far back in time, there
are beautiful artifacts representing the ancient masters of India,
China, Nepal and Tibet, including Lot 38, "A Highly Important
Gilt Copper Maitreya Inset With Silver and Semi-Precious Stones,"
Tibet, 13th Century , 21 11/16 inches high. It has an estimate
on request. It failed to sell.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"This exceptional statue of Maitryea,
the Buddha of the Future, is the quintessential example of Nepalese
artistic influence in Tibet at this time, and is evidence of the
absolute mastery of the Newar artists. The image is among the
very finest Buddhist sculptures to have surived from the period,
and to have survived in such pristine condition....The Newar sculpture
aesthetics of grace and sensuous modeling imbue the statue with
serentiy, while the Tibetan love for opulence is seen in the depth
and variety of color in the jewels and the sumptuous silver beading
of the necklace and crown."
Lot 39 is a Tibetan 14th Century
gilt sculpture of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi that is described
in the catalogue as "spectacular" and "dramatic
and powerful." "The statue," the entry continues,
"serves as a device for the visualization of the Chakrasamvara
tantra, literally Circle of Bliss. The tantra is
a secret treatise with its origin in medieval eastern India, and
is used by practitioners to increase their ability to attain the
ultimate goal of Enlightenment." The statue is 12 9/16 inches
high and has an estimate of $100,000 to $120,000. It sold for
Lot 31 is an impressive painted
wood Chinese sculpture of Avalokitesvara from the Yuan Dynasty.
It is 31 1/4 inches high and was once in the collection of C.
T. Loo and has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold
for $541,000. The catalogue entry notes that "it is likely
that the iconography of the present figure resembling a noble
lady serenely reclined, is derived from the picture of the Water-Moon
Guanyin created by the Tang painter Zhou Fang, and later made
popular among sculpture during the Song period."
Lot 13 is an impressive sandstone head and
torso of a Bodhisattva from Tianlongshan, China, probably slightly
earlier Sui/Early Tang Period, early 7th/early 8th Century. The
work has been restored and is 44 inches high. It has an estimate
of $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $145,000. The catalogue
suggests that the torso may be about 80 years earlier than the
head, which the catalogue describes as "clearly a masterwork
of High Tang production of the mid-eighth century." "Such
improper and historically anachronistic association of Tianlongshan
fragments was typical of their emergence onto the open market
during the first quarter of the twentieth century," according
to the catalogue.
A fine accompaniment to large sculptures and
Buddhas are drop dead gorgeous paintings, thankas and bronzes
in wonderful condition from China and Tibet, including Lot 36,
an exquisite Tibetan thanka, "A Fine and Rare Painting on
Cloth Depicting the Mandala of Manjuvajra," created in the
15th century. It has an estimate of $100,00 to $150,000. It
sold for $241,000. Another memorable thanka is Lot 37, "A
Fine and Rare Sakya Order Vajravali Painting," also from
the 15th century in Tibet. It has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.
It sold for $277,000. It is wonderful to see such quality
come to auction.
Lot 35 is a rare and important Early Ming thanka
depicting Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi. It measures 26 3/4 by
22 inches. It has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It
sold for $1,161,000.
Lot 33 is a "rare and highly important"
Chinese Imperial painting on silk of the Lohan Chudapanthaka.
It is dated 1402-1434 and measures 31 1/4 by 22 1/4 inches. It
has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. According to the
catalogue, this painting is one of only two commissioned by the
Yongle emperior and the other is in the Robert Rosenkranz Collection.
The pair,"defined by a mastery of restrained elegance and
formality, survives form a set of sixteen, or possibly eighteen,
the remaining paintings now lost or unrecorded." It sold
Works by legendary Indian artist Maqbool Fida
Husain (b. 1915) features prominently in the sale of Indian Art
while a younger generation of artists like Atul Dodhya, Chintan
Upadyay, Rashid Rana, Ravinder Reddy, Subodh Gupta, and T.V. Santhosh
are also commanding serious attention in India and internationally.
Husain is the most recognized artist in India
today, most commonly for his horses, but "Pagan Mother,"
Lot 12, steals the show for sheer monumentality and gorgeous coloring.A
1956 oil on canvas, it measures 70 1/4 by 47 inches and has an
estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $658,600.
Richard Batholomew and Shiv S. Kapur described the "Pagan
Mother" as "an earthly creature with a terracotta off-spring
between her thighs, but she is as warm and as blue as the high
sky of a clear Himalayan day." The catalogue entry notes
that "it is clear that his first-hand encounters with the
paintings of Klee, Matisse and Picasso during his travels to Europe
in 1953 had a decisive impact on his art."
Lot 11 "Horse," by Husain is an oil
on canvas that measures 50 by 80 inches. It has an estimate of
$200,000 to $250,000. It sold for $313,000.
Tyeb Mehta currently holds the record for the
highest price for an Indian painting sold at auction, (Christie's,
September 2005, $1,584,000), while Anish Kapoor holds the record
for the highest price paid for an Indian sculpture sold at auction
when his "Untitled" sold for a staggering $2,256,000
at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Sale in November, 2006.
Ravinder Reddy's super-sized heads of South
Indian goddesses, with one "Untitled," Lot 10, included
in this sale, are equally compelling as are Rashid Rana's gargantuan
digital prints, like "The World is Not Enough," Lot
20, that borrows its title from popular culture, the movies. Lot
10 has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $70,000.
Lot 20, which measures 90 by 120 inches, has an estimate of $40,000
to $60,000. It sold for $91,000.
A luscious abstract painting by another leading
modern Indian painter, Syed Haider Raza (b. 1922), is untitled
and it is a personal favorite because it explodes with the life,
light, colors and beauty of India. An acrylic on canvas, it measures
48 inches square and was executed in 1976. It has an estimate
of $280,000 to $380,000. It sold for $409,000.
A buoyant recent work by yet another great
veteran Indian artist, Ram Kumar (born 1924), Lot 69, "Untitled,"
is one of several very fine abstractions by the artist in the
auction. It is a 2004 oil on canvas that measures 32 by 37 inches
and has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It failed to sell.
It contrasts with an earlier work, Lot 24,
"Spring," an oil on canvas that measures 35 by 51 inches.
Executed in 1966, it has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.
It sold for $181,000. The catalogue entry notes that the
artist's "bleak cityscapes of the 1950s convey his deep disillusionment
with the unfolding complexities of India's post-independence polity."
The catalogue also includes the following quote from Lait Kala
Adademi: "Paintings from the mid-1960s onwards document the
artist's steady progression towards completion abstraction....The
artist addressed himself to the formal aberrations of mismatched
planes, jamming the horizontal perspective against top views inspired
by site mapping and aerial photography, and locking the muddy,
impasto-built riverbank constructions into Cubist geometric analysis."
Lot 64, "Untitled" by Bikash Bhattacharjee,
(1940-2006), features the buildings and rooftops of his native
city, Calcutta, a constant inspiration for the artist. An oil
on canvas, it measures 34 3/4 by 46 3/4 inches and was executed
in 1976. It has an estimate $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for