By Michele Leight
The galleries at Sotheby's Asia
Week 2008 were
dominated by large scale Contemporary Chinese artworks and sculpture,
however Indian Contemporary and Modern paintings on a smaller
scale held their own with masterpieces by Ram Kumar, Sayed Hyder
Raza, Francis Newton Souza, and Maqbool Fida Hussain, like the
beautiful and rare yellow/gold landscape illustrated at the top
of the story. Exquisite Mughal Miniatures in superb condition
offered a historical perspective, and the ancients arts of Asia
were well represented by a beautiful gilt copper Buddha Shakyamuni
from Tibet, and a rare archaic bronze wine vessel, Western Zhou
Dynasty. Selections from The Estrella Collection, the largest
and most important collection of Chinese Contemporary Art ever
to appear at auction that will be offered in Hong Kong this spring
were also showcased, including Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline:
The Big Family No 3," estimated at $2.5-3.5 million.
Almost one entire wall of the
entrance of Sotheby's
light filled 10th floor galleries was occupied by an epically
proportioned abstract on paper by Cai Guo-Quiang, Lot 56, "Escalator:
Explosion Project for Centre Pompidou," that was commissioned
for the Centre Pompidou in 2003 for the exhibition "Alors,
la Chine." (Estimate $500,000 to $700,000 - it passed).
Cai is one of the conceptual masters of the 1980s, leaving his
native China for Japan to find greater creative freedom, eventually
moving to New York. Now highly regarded as a conceptual/spiritual
universalist, he is invited to "perform" all over the
world. The Escalator Explosion Project from which this work derives
is the result of one of his site-specific projects in Paris' quirkiest
and beloved museums, Centre Pompidou, where he initially hoped
to set off fireworks (that quintessentially Chinese invention,
as was gunpowder) along the entire length of Renzo Piano's exterior
escalator perched on the facade of the building, , but fire regulations
got in the way. Undaunted, Cai created his explosion on two monumental
sheets of paper in the plaza in front of Centre Pompidou, laying
the gunpowder down in the shape of the zig-zag-ing escalator.
When the fuse was ignited, the area that was blown away left an
impression of the snake like escalator: essentially a gigantic
gunpowder drawing. Cai has achieved fame and notoriety for similar
"performances" involving cars, boats and animal forms,
intended as magical and emotionally charged social critiques.
The Chinese have always identified with pyrotechnics as a celebratory
medium, as the project for Centre Pompidou was intended to commemorate
a year of exchange between France and China.
Figuration, caricature and
expression are often portrayed in Chinese Contemporary art, whether
it is Yue Minjun's humorous, grimacing pink men with pearly white
teeth, Lot 10, "Untitled," (estimate $650,000 to $850,000
- it sold for $769,000), or Lot 11, "Mask Series
(Triptych)," 1996, by Zeng Fanzhi, (estimate $800,000 to
$1 million - it sold for $1,127,000) part of his
Series," (illustrated), which shows a young man - wearing
a mask - in a white shirt and red scarf, identifying him as of
Chairman Mao's "Young Pioneers." As with many important
contemporary Chinese artists, Fanzhi 's subject matter refers
to the persistence of individualism - and who is more individualistic
than an artist? - surrounded by the communist collective, that
was still in evidence during the Cultural Revolution of the artist's
Lot 20, "The Second Condition,"
by one of China's leading conceptual artists, Geng Jianyi (estimate
$300,000 to $500,000 - it sold for $361,000), is
expressive. The color and light of this meticulously executed
portrait (illustrated above) enhances the actual moment of emotional
release after a period of repression, perhaps alluding to social
conditioning and the constraints placed upon artistic freedom
and license in China in the 1980s, when this iconic and impressive
work was painted. It is so fake "joyous" it is painful
to behold. More subdued, even sad, are the monochromatic portrayals
of "infants" by Li Tianbing at this sale, including
Lot 12, "My Brother and I On a Bench," (estimate $100,000
to $150,000 - it sold for $217,000), illustrated
which mimic weathered black and white photographs. Li Tianbing
was born in 1974, and his best known series "Beizitou- One
Hundred Children,"refers to China's "one child per family
policy" that was prevalent in his youth. The children of
Li's images are not the affluent youth of present day China. Instead,
"My Brother and I On a Bench" is a nostalgic reminder
of Li's past, in which he imagines himself as a young child the
age of his portrait subjects, sitting with a brother he did not
have - could not have- because it was forbidden. His portraits
also reference the hardships of the past, with children as impish,
unkempt and scruffy as any street urchins in Dicken's Victorian
Zhang Xiaogang's haunting
series commemorating family ties in the "apartness"
necessary for the success of the Cultural Revolution are now instantly
recognizable. Xiaogang was born two decades earlier thatnthe
artists mentioned above, and therefore witnessed and experienced
far more deprivation than they could imagine. However, politics
and social criticism are not his "oeuvre," despite the
fact that he is hotly debated in avante garde Chinese art circles,
and he was the artist that attracted the attention of the first
round of international curators to become interested in Chinese
contemporary after the tragic events of Tianamen Square in 1989
- the year that changed China forever. If eyes are windows of
the soul, then cryptically titled "2001 No. 8" (Estimate
$1.9 million to $2.5 million - it passed) expresses
artists internal, private, longing in his now iconic style. In
the catalog accompanying the sale, Xiaogang explains his creative
outlook in a letter to curator Wang Lin in 1993:
"Looking back on my work in the
or so, I am clear on the fact that I am an 'internal monologue'
artist. I made a trip around Europe, and now back in my tiny studio,
this feeling is stronger than ever. I could never become a 'cultural'
artist, even less an experimental artist. My art comes from my
Sculpture in China is
provocative, and often
large scale. Lot 51, "Legacy Mantle (Group of Five Works)"
by Sui Jianguo utilizes cutting edge material like fibreglass
and luscious car paint to create his intensely colored "Chairman
Mao" military jackets, (estimate $150,000 to $200,000 - it
sold for $157,000), while Ai Weiwei's "Divina Proportion,"
created in 2007, is a sculptural form over 9 ft in diameter crafted
from Huanghuali wood using a time honored "nail free"
joinery technique perfected in the Ming Dynasty. The proportions
of this beautifully complex form are founded in the golden ratio.
(Estimate $250,000 to $350,000 - it sold for $241,000).
Modern and contemporary Indian
established an enthusiastic following in the last few years, with
a corresponding rise in prices, although artists like Maqbool
Fida Hussain, Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Sousa have been
earnestly collected for decades. Zara Porter Hill, Head of Department
Indian tand Southeast Asian Art, said that until now the market
for Indian art was driven by westerners that lived - and bought
paintings - in India during the 1950s-1970s, and those paintings
have come to auction regularly:
However, this lucky streak for
buyers is not
destined to continue:
"We have been spoiled for some
these paintings are not so easily found because that supply is
running out," said Ms. Porter Hill.
Maqbool Fida Hussain's
beautiful yellow landscape,
Lot 14, "Peeli Dhoop," (illustrated at the top of this
story, estimate $100,000 to $150,000 - it sold for $229,000),
"is extremely rare, because there are no figures in it,"
continued Ms. Porter Hill. Husain is perhaps most famous for his
depictions of horses and figures - several stunning examples of
which are on offer at this sale - that never entirely hand over
the reins to abstraction, unlike his contemporary Sayed Hyder
Raza. A charming early work, Lot 10, called "Mendhi,"
illustrated, (estimate $80,000 to $120,000 - it sold for
was exhibited at the Bombay Art Society in 1951, where it won
a silver medal. Unlike many other Indian artists, Husain has always
lived in India, continuously drawing on its diversity for subject
matter in his art.
Several important Francis
Newton Sousa's occupied
one wall, lead by "Head of Man" in beautiful jewel tones,
alluding to his love of church music and stained glass windows
(estimate $280,000 to $380,000 - it sold for $313,000).
A more disturbing work, Lot 21, called "Oedipus Rex"
- typically angry and aggressive - of a man with large hands and
bandaged eyes, prompted Ms. Porter Hill to say the artist had
an unusual relationship with his father and mother.(Estimate $200,000
to $300,000 - it passed). This painting has an
vulnerability, perhaps because of Oedipus' self inflicted punishment
- poking his own eyes out - when he discovers he has not only
killed his father, but married his own mother, unknowingly. Greek
tragedy in the hands of Sophocles puts up no barriers, and neither
does Newton Sousa in his art.
Arpita Singh's paintings are
humorous and disturbing, as she incorporates every day objects
and sweet or bright coloring - and death - into a single canvas,
"Amina Kidway With Her Dead Husband." (estimate $200,000
to $300,000 - it passed). Born in 1937, Ms. Sing
references her own personal vision of th role of the female in
contemporary Indian society. Another unsettling but powerful image
is Rameshwar Broota's "Untitled," (Lot 62, estimate
$50,000 to $70,000 - it sold for $169,000), which
rare self-portrait in which the eyes are obscured by heavy rimmed
Asia's ancient past is well
this sale, in the glowing gilt copper (with painted details) "Buddha
Vajrasana" from Tibet illustrated here, that was cast in
the 15th century, when such techniques were incredibly innovative.
This statue is one of the largest in existence outside 'Tibet
and was created using the "lost wax" method; it has
a clay core. The beautiful Shakyamuni Buddha (with an estimate
of $1,500,000 to $2,500,000 - it sold for $1,385,000)
400 years "newer" than the exquisitely graceful "Torso
of a Male Deity," carved from gray sandstone in the 11th
century in Khmer, Cambodia, in the Bauphon style (estimate $400,000
to $600,000). It sold for $421,000.
The catalog offers further
insights of the
Bauphon Male Deity:
"The androgynous and idealized
of depicting the male form in the Bauphon period has resulted
in some of the most sensuous and beautiful sculpture of the Angkor
Period. The elongated body and steep curve at the front of the
sampot is characteristic of sculpture from this period....The
hint of movement in an otherwise iconic pose is created by the
right leg being positioned slightly forward alluding to a shift
of weight onto the left leg, and with the stone lightly polished
to give it a luminesence the sculpture, despite its fragmentary
nature, exudes power and grace."
Sotheby’s four sales of Asian
spring in New York totaled $46,435,414. Contemporary Art Asia:
China Korea Japan brought a total $23,210,525 (estimate $23.1
million to $33.4 million). Indian and Southeast Asian Art, including
241 lots of Modern Paintings, Works of Art and Miniatures, brought
a total of $12,133,626 (estimate $10,576,200 to $15,575,800).
The Indian Art sale, which included Modern Paintings, achieved
$5,106,875 (estimate $4.8 million to $6.8 million). Works by M.F.
Husain dominated the top prices achieved in this sale, which was
led by his "Untitled" from 1953, which sold for $409,000
(lot 13, estimate $200,000 to $300,000). The Indian and Southeast
Asian Art sale, which included Works of Art and Miniatures, realized
$7,026,751 (estimate $5.7 million to $8.5 million).