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Asia Week March 2008


Contemporary Art Asia: China, Japan, Korea, March 17, 2008

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, March 18, 2008

Indian Art, March 19, 2008

Indian and Southeast Works of Art, Including Miniatures, March 19, 2008

"Peeli Dhoop" by Hussain

Lot 14, "Peeli Dhoop," Maqbool Fida Hussain, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 35 1/2 inches, 1964

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.

"Mask Series No. 11 (triptych)" by Fanzhi

Lot 11, "Mask Series No. 11 (Triptych)," by Zeng Fanzhi, 1996, oil on canvas, 1996

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.

"The Second Condition" by Jianyi

Lot 20, "The Second Condition," by Geng Jianyi, oil on canvas, 39 x 31 1/2 inches, 1989

Figuration, caricature and intense emotional 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 No.11 (Triptych)," 1996, by Zeng Fanzhi, (estimate $800,000 to $1 million - it sold for $1,127,000) part of his "Mask 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 youth.

"My Brother and I on a Bench" by Tianbing

Lot 12 , My Brother and I On a Bench," by Li Tianbing, oil on canvas, 78 1/2 x 78 1/2 inches, 2007

Lot 20, "The Second Condition," 1989, by one of China's leading conceptual artists, Geng Jianyi (estimate $300,000 to $500,000 - it sold for $361,000), is excruciatingly 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 below, 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 era novels.

"2001 No. 8" by Xiaogang

Lot 154, "2001 No. 8," by Jhang Xiaogang, oil on canvas, 79 3/4 x102 3/8 inches, 2001

Zhang Xiaogang's haunting "Bloodline" 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 Contemporary 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 the 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 last decade 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 inner experience."

"Legacy Mantle" by Jianguo

Lot 51, "Legacy Mantle (Group of Five Works)," by Sui Jianguo, each 25 by 20 1/2 by 10 inches, 2006

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).

"Divina Proportion" by Weiwei

Lot 67, "Divina Proportion," by Ai Weiwei, Huanghuali wood, diameter 109 1/2 inches, 2007

Modern and contemporary Indian painting has 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 time; now these paintings are not so easily found because that supply is running out," said Ms. Porter Hill.

"Menhdii" by Hussain

Lot 10, "Menhdi," by Maqbool Fida Hussain, oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 25 1/2, 1951

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 $169,000), 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.

"Head of a man" by Sousa

Lot 18, "Head of a Man," by Francis Newton Sousa, oil on board, 48 x 24 inches, 1955

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 appealing 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.

"Amina Kidwai with her dead husband" by Singh

Lot 72, "Amina Kidwai With Her Dead Husband," by Arpita Singh, oil on canvas, 68 1/4 x 62 1/2 inches, 1992

Arpita Singh's paintings are deceptively simple, 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 often 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 is a rare self-portrait in which the eyes are obscured by heavy rimmed glasses.

"Untitled" by Brootha

Lot 62, "Untitled," by Rameshwar Brootha, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 1/2 inches

Asia's ancient past is well represented at 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) is 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.

"Buddha Vajrasana""Buddha Vajrasana"

Lot 308, "Buddha Vajrasana," circa 15th century, gilt copper with painted details, 30 3/4 inches high

The catalog offers further insights of the Bauphon Male Deity:

"The androgynous and idealized manner 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."

"torso of male deity" Khmer

Lot 241, "Torso of a Male Deity," 11th century, gray sandstone, Khmer, Angkor Period, Bauphon Style

Sotheby’s four sales of Asian art this 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).

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