Mar

30

 The Asian Art Auction held at Sotheby's in March was notable for several reasons.

As recognized by the art crowd, it is a baby market. As such, the prices are still short of the stratospheric heights attained by the likes of the Impressionists and their kin.

Still, the prices were not the bargains of five years ago, when a few thousand could fetch you a now-prime Huang Yan, whose multiple face images feature handsome young Chinese men with calligraphy, fernery or landscapes "creeping" or growing across their faces, hands or torsos. Still, for his intensely mesmerizing "Face Painting: Plum, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum," lot 247, the hammer struck sold for a bargain $20,000. One can hypothesize a rapidly ascending price trajectory for Huang.

A fellow in the art field, British, living currently in Shanghai, murmured to this reporter that such prices as were common at the auction are "hype." Asked for follow-up clarification on this capsule review, the Brit, call him Trevor, said that hammer prices are not reflective of the actual prices for these paintings. Of the 308 lots auctioned on Wednesday, 21 March, three went to the mat for over $1 million. Highest price, for lot 21, "Bloodline: Three Comrades," by the stunning Zhang Xiaogang (one of my favorites), sold for $1.85m. The aggregate sum (commission plus taxes) totaled an impressive $2.11m. His painting adorned the inside cover of the Sotheby's catalog.

The front of the catalog featured a descending series of four Chinese brushstrokes ideograms. I puzzled over them awhile, trying to discern stroke formations I learnt while I lived there. Finally, after much effort, I realized what they 'said.' Art For The People — in English! — cunningly worked into traditional calligraphic formats. This lot 153, by Xu Bing, "Square Word Calligraphy," drew $190,000 on the hammer.

"Goldfish," lot 53, by the significant and escalating painter, Yue Minjun, now 45, went for $1.2m. It is a strong canvas, with a repeating Chinese Kuomintang figure, smiling broadly in profile, receding endlessly into the distance, curving around a balustrade suggestive of the Great Wall. All the identical figures grinned broadly as they peered down into a dark strand of water where a lone goldfish swam, indifferent to his onlookers.

An exceptional formulation of the traditional Chinese five-pointed star was captured in chilling detail, with rivets and nails and metal cobbling together the symbol of the State, in "Five-Pointed Star," by Leng Jun, which went for $1.05m, minus aggregate fees and commission.

Another of my favorites, Wang Guangyi, sold one of his less-glorious canvasses, "Eternal Halo #1," for a mere $310,000, lot 170. At 50, Wang is one of the elders of these powerful artists. His canvasses often sport two unrelated series of file numbers "stenciled'' in black over entire canvases in regular intervals, like flocking; his colors are often primary red, yellow and black, and the overall feel is that of ambitious patriotic revolutionary posters of the sort that still abound in the hamlets and byways of the Peoples Republic.

A striking Chinese red sculpture standing some 10' tall marched strong black dots ascending and descending invisible longitude lines from its topmost twig end on a "pumpkin" of brilliant Styrofoam and acrylic sold for $220,000 ($264,000 in aggregate). Created by one of the older artists represented: Yayoi Kusama, at 78, is several decades older than the run of artists at the center of attention. To my eyes, it more resembled a giant red bosque pear than a pumpkin. Other sculptures, in green bronze, rosewood, iron, bronze, painted wood, and, especially, aluminum, were very strong examples of the form. In particular, Sui Jianguo drew plaudits, and $240,000, for his 5-foot-tall aluminum pompous, empty Mao's jacket, "Legacy Mantle." It spoke voluminously as it stood commandingly — massy, gray, fearsome — at the head of the auction hall.

Two well-received names sold for from half a million to one million. More than 50 works sold for from $100,000 to half a million. Several, of course, seemed like bargains for under $10,000, with the biggest bargain three lots that went for a mere $2,000, with a puny $400 for fees and taxes.

The morning session, with 125 lots, sold far more expensively than the second session after 2 pm, with another 125 lots. Most of the heavy draws were sold in the morning; all three $million+ canvasses were auctioned in the early session. One canvas in the afternoon session did top half a million. Wang Yidong's "Yi River," a deceptively 'easy' representational painting with immaculate brushstrokes of a young peasant woman on a round stone in a fabric-seeming river, in front of a sleeping contemporary man on a black rock ledge, went for $680,000. Aggregated, the total price topped $800,000. Not bad for a market of such tender years.

Many of favorites were on sale, and some, as one would expect, were to be had at bargain pricings, as well as the obverse. Subject matter that was less conventionally 'pretty,' or that had a deeper subtext that required more time to suss out, such as the agonized self-portrait of a harsh nude, "Dreaming," by Liu Xiaodong, were purchased for well below what should be their correct market rates. Axiomatically, while unconventional paintings might not grab the 'sofa-conscious' buyer, they are often the canvasses that linger in the assessments of the elite and discerning, far down the road. Their value often accretes with successive press and acclaim.

Coming into the picture are questions of living with the artwork –some paint is just easier on the eyes, and living spaces, than others.

The crowd was considerably thinner than last year, despite the strong representatives of exceptional Chinese painting and sculpture, indicating perhaps that the non-gathered were aware that the prices were no bargain. Being at the Sotheby auction is in my opinion one of the iconographic IT experiences one can experience in NYC. The excitement at lifting a bat and having the auctioneer recognize one's bid with a nod, then being overbid by a telephone bidder (a slew of telephone assistants on a raised dais lined both sides of the hall, on the phone constantly taking bids from those stationed elsewhere but unwilling to let a favored art-piece go without a pertinent offer).

My bat was a favorite number: 807. I carefully keep my yawning and waving to friends at a minimum, ever since, some years ago, I mistakenly "purchased" a $5,000 item at an Israeli auction of memorabilia from Entebbe and other high-notes of Israeli history. Another time, excited by the aura of excitement at a furniture and household auction, I bid on a killim I neither wanted nor needed –and got it. Now, I keep myself in check, do not drink before or during such events, and sit on my paddle. Why go, if that is the case? Endorphinic rush, that's why.

It is a truism that if the current escalation in valuation continues, next year's prices will be at a premium to this year's, so those not sitting in this week may have forgone a buying opportunity, much as the nose-bleed tags seem to belie that possibility. Few storied subprime lenders hang out in these precincts, and fewer still, those who can't shell out the shekel.

My art dealer from Shanghai also voiced the mantra of all art auctions: "Of course, don't buy on the expectation of appreciation. Don't buy unless you love the artwork. There is no guarantee these works will scale upwards in the future." No telling how many of the hundreds of purchases were from ardor and not dancing-dollar dreams.

The artwork, costly or not, was among the most pristine and enjoyable I have seen in years, and especially so when compared to nonpolitically stressed oeuvres. It is obvious that countries where the polity may not voice their opinions overtly often excel in exceptionally vivid and vocal productions in the plastic arts. A gander at Russian work from the war years, as well as at Nazi-era productions, reinforces this postulate to squelched freedom of speech.

Art can do what tongues cannot.

China, though hardly the mirror of the brutal "Thousand Year Reich," manages to blank out some emails, overt public dissent, workers' strikes or protests and the like. It has produced, evidently, a bumper crop of striking and eminently collectible works of canvas and wood, marble and metal, works that speak profoundly to the emerging culture, to the voice of silence, and to the rebirth of expression by another name.


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