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Work by Zhang Hongtus
Many of China’s premier contemporary artists are in their 50s and 60s. They suffered through the Cultural Revolution flowered in the 70s and 80s withdrew or went abroad after Tiananmen Square and have returned as the art scene in China has opened up.

The Italian art curator wrote in the New York Times: “I haven’t quite figured out how a Chinese artist thinks, creates and produces works of art...In China, you don’t find a painter, and a sculptor, and a video artists but rather find one artist who is working in paintings, sculpture, photography, video and (why not?) performance art all at the same time...European artists often develop different bodies of work. Many Chinese artists seem to develop different bodies of each work. A great chaos under the sky was supposedly an excellent sign for Chairman Mao Zedong, and the same may be true for today’s Chinese artists.”

There is a lot of work for artists and sculptors in China. There are many buildings and projects that are going up that want showcase pieces of art and sculpture, Even small towns want monuments or work of art to show off. In the old days it was not unusual for a prominent artist to have done 150 public monuments, many of them busts of Mao Zedong.

The Long Live Chairman Mao Series 29, by the New York-based painter Zhang Hongtu, took a well-known American cereal box, and turned the famous Quaker Oats man into an image resembling Mao. As art critic Jed Perl observed in The New Republic, it was an American supermarket-meets Cultural-Revolution moment, suggesting that all marketing is equal. According to the New York Times: Zhang, who left his native China for New York in 1982, has painted Mao shirtless, Mao with pigtails, and Mao with one eye and two mouths. He has even built an unplayable Ping-Pong table with Mao-shaped cutouts. Other works include sketch series like “Soy Sauce Calligraphy” and “Remade Landscapes,” paintings that mash up Western modernist and classical Chinese styles." [Source: Randy Kennedy, New York Times, October 14, 2015]

Websites and Sources: Art Scene China Art Scene China ; Artron ; Saatchi Gallery ; Graphic Arts ; Yishu Journal ; Asia Society ; Art in Beijing Factory 798 in Beijing Wikipedia Wikipedia; Communist China Posters Landsberger Posters ; More Posters ; More Posters still Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Collection ; Chinese Modern Artists Cai Guo Guggenheim Show ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Zhang Xiaogang Saatchi Gallery Wikipedia article ; Wikipedia ; Various works ; Yue Minjun Works

Chinese Modern Artists Get Rich

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work by Zhang Xiaogang

In the 2000s, works by Chen Yifei, Zhao Wuji and Wu Guanzhong have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Works by Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong and Yue Minjun have sold for millions (See Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong and Yue Minjun). Artists were often the ones in the flashy Ferragamo suits driving around in Range Rovers. Some had their own trendy restaurants. Wang Guangyi drove a Jaguar, dressed in Gucci suits and lived in 10,000-square foot luxury villa outside of Beijing. Yue Minjun lived in walled compound with a massive studio in suburban Beijing. Fang Lijun owns a chain of restaurants in Beijing and a hotel in Yunnan Province.

A new studio designed by Zeng Fanzhi — whose works are popular in Europe — is a vivid testament to the riches reaped by China’s hottest contemporary artists,” wrote David Barboza, in the New York Times, “The high-ceilinged 2,200-square-foot space is adorned with European and Chinese antiques, museum-quality floors, a small gym and a traditional landscape garden that Zeng said contains authentic Ming and Qing dynasty relics. Hanging on the walls are his massive canvases, which not so long ago could easily fetch $1 million apiece. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, March 10, 2009]

“Globally, the recent rise in Chinese artists’ fortunes was unparalleled. Only one Chinese artist — Zao Wouki, a traditional painter who lives in France — ranked among the Top 10 best-selling living artists in 2004, according to, which tracks auction sales. (He ranked ninth.) But by 2007, 5 of the 10 best-selling living artists at auction were Chinese-born, led by Zhang Xiaogang, who trailed only Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst. That year, Zhang’s auction sales totaled $56 million, according to”

In 1994, bad-boy artist Zhuang Huan covered himself in honey and fish oil in a public toilet and remained motionless for an hour while insects covered his body. Today, Zhuang is a very popular artist who has taken over an entire industrial complex in southern Shanghai. He employs more than 100 craftsmen who live in and adjoining dormitory. They produce billboard-size prints and house-size sculpture. Many of the works are sprinkled with incense ash collected Buddhist temples by the Zhuang himself in his own truck.

Hurun China List of Rich Artists in 2020

In 2020 76-year-old Cui Ruzhuo, topped the Hurun China Art List for the sixth year in a row with a turnover of US$49 million, down 62 percent from US$132 million last year. Between 2014 and 2020 Cui had cumulative sales of US$657 million. A 2019 piece by Cui became the most expensive work by living artists in 2020. It was sold by Beijing Poly for US$20 million. Among the Top 10 most expensive works by living artists in 2020, two were made by Cui Ruzhuo. Cui has been listed in the Hurun China Art List for 11 consecutive years, and has been in the Top 10 for 10 years. [Source: Hurun Report, June 4, 2020]

work by Fang Lijun
Hurun China Art List 2020 (dollars amount is sales in 2020) 1) Cui Ruzhuo, Chinese ink, 76 years old, sales of US$48.8 million; 13; 2) Liu Ye, oil, 56 years old, US$48 million; 3) Huang Jiannan, Oil/Chinese Ink, 68 years old, US$ 29.4 million; 4) Zhou Chunya, 65 years old, oil, US$24 million; 5) Fan Zeng, Chinese ink, 82 years old, US$23 million; 6) Leng Jun, oil, 57 years old, US$17.3 million; 7) Zeng Fanzhi, oil, 56 years old, $15.8 million; 8) Zhang Xiaogang, oil, 63 years old, US13.4 million; 9) Zhu Yaokui, oil and Chinese ink, 88 years old, US$12.5 million; 10) Liu Xiaodong, oil, 57 years old, US$9.9 million.

Cui Ruzhuo, Zeng Fanzhi, and Fan Zeng were the best-selling contemporary Chinese artists in 2015, according to the Hurun Art List 2015. Beijing-born Cui has toppled Zeng, from the top of the list, and become the leader for the first time. According to to Artnews His sales at auction reached $77 million in 2014, with Landscape in Snow (2006) fetching $23.7 million at a Poly Auction sale in April 2014. In the same auction event, Cui’s Snowy Mountain (2012) went missing after the hammer went down on it for $3.7 million. It was later discovered that the painting was accidentally thrown in the trash by cleaners at the Hong Kong auction venue. [Source: Zoe Li, Artnews, March 19, 2015]

Cui Ruzhuo

Cui Ruzhuo (born 1944) is a Chinese painter and calligrapher. Based in Beijing, he has won many awards topped the Huran rich art list from 2014 to 2020 with US$49 million in sales in 2020 and US$77 million in 2014. Between 2014 and 2020 Cui had cumulative sales of US$657 million. In 2016 to he was fourth most successful living artist based on secondary market sales in the world. [Source: Wikipedia]

Cui studied under the painter and calligrapher Li Kuchan. He then taught at the Academy of Arts and Design in Beijing. Cui moved to the United States in 1981, returning to China in the mid-1990s and mentoring doctoral students at the Chinese National Academy of Art.

Cui has been described as one of China's more traditional ink painters, giving a "modern take on" historical Chinese ink paintings. He is best known in China. In 2016, he e had a successful exhibition in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In The Moscow Times, Dudley Baxter said, "Cui’s work is poetic and calming. Standing before one of his scenes is meditative, and it’s easy to forget you’re only meters away from Mokhovaya Street and the relentless traffic outside."

Several of Cui’s paintings have been sold four eight figures, “The Grand Snowing Mountains,” completed in 2013, sold for $39.6 million in 2016, making it the fifth most expensive work by a living artist. “Lotus”, painted in 2011, sold for $15.9 million. “Landscape in Snow” sold for $23.7 million in 2014. The eight-panel painting series “The Grand Snowing Mountainous Jiangnan Landscape”, completed in 2013, sold for $30 million in 2015, a record for living Asian artists. His 2012 painting “Snowy Mountain”, which sold for $3.7 million) at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Hong Kong, was infamously removed by cleaners, taken to a garbage pile by a guard, and taken away by janitors.

Well-Known Chinese Modern Artists

Modern Chinese artists with an international reputation include Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Ai Wei Wei, Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi, and Zhang Xiaogang. Wang is known for his Cultural Revolution-style painting emblazoned with brand names like Gucci, Coke and Swatch. Typical of his work in an image of Mao overlaid by a red grid that make him look like he is behind bars. Fang Lijun is a cynical realist painter who aims at capturing the alienation in modern China.

Yang Zhenzhing produced a piece called "Future" displayed in London that consisted of an image of himself balancing an upside Shanghai on his fingertip. Hong Hao has had his works displayed ta the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Guan Yi has thus far been denied permission to display his sculpture made from a section of a U.S. spy plane shot down in 2001.

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Work by Chen Yifei

Chen Yifei is an internationally recognized artist whose realistic portraits have sold for more than $200,000. He opened up a successful chain of clothing shops, Layefe, in 1998 and had 162 outlets n 35 cities in early 2001. He has ambitions of becoming an internationally-recognized name like Tommy Hilfiger. Chen Zen (1955-2000), a Chinese artist based for many years in New York and Paris, created a work called "Fifty Strokes Each" that is comprised of animals skins stretched against chair- and bed-like frames and hung from a large room-size frame. Observers are invited the beat the animal skin “drums.”

The sculptor Li Zhanyang made a tableaux with a life-size fiberglass Mao figure surrounded by art dealers, artists and critics modeled after famous socialist realist pieces with Mao surrounded by peasants and landlords. Cang Xin's “Communication” is a life-size replica of the artist licking the floor, a still image of something he has performed around the world since 1996. As a shaman, Cang believes that both animate and inanimate objects have a spirit; his three-dimensional self-portrait is so realistic that I could agree.” “Q Confucius No.2" by Chinese artist Zhang Huan is a massive, life-like statue of Confucius. Crafted from steel, silicone, carbon fiber, and acrylic, the statue is animatronic — its chest rises and falls to simulate breathing. The statue is part of Zhang Huan’s “Q Confucius”.

A Chinese sculptor named Lei Yixin, who lives in Changsa in Hunan Province, was selected to do the 10-meter-high granite statue of Martin Luther King for the $100 million Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington D.C. Some African-Americans are upset that a Chinese artist was selected to do the piece not an Afro-American or at least an American. Some have said that Lei was selected in return for a $25 million donation from the Chinese government to finish the memorial The sculpture is being made in a studio in an industrial area of Changsa and was scheduled to be unveiled in 2009. A report on the Marin Luther King statue issued in May 2008 concluded that the models of the statue that existed were too much in like the socialist realist art of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

Xu Bing

Xu Being is a painter and calligrapher. A long time fixture of the Chinese contemporary art scene, he produced work regarded as subversive in the 1980s but later became vice president of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. Xu Bing’s “A Book from the Sky” is one of the most famous works from the 1980s. Attracting a lot of attention when it was shown at the National Art Museum , it consists of a bunch of books and wall scrolls that appear to replicate ancient literary text but up are comprised of intelligible characters. The work was interpreted by many to be criticism of Communist propaganda. Madeleine Boucher wrote in the Art Genome Project: Book Xu "invented, hand-carved and typeset the apocryphal “classical texts” according to traditional Chinese printing methods, a process which took him and his assistants over three years to complete. The result is a powerful experience of the limitations of language for any viewer: while Chinese speakers find their desire to decode the opaque text constantly frustrated, all viewers are immersed in the almost mystical presence of so much unintelligible language. [Source: Madeleine Boucher, Art Genome Project, June 24, 2014]

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A Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing.
On the artist in 2017, Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: Xu Bing, 62, a small wiry figure with long black tangled hair and rimless glasses, is a veteran of China’s conceptual art movement. Early on, he showed that Chinese artists could be at least as provocative as their Western compatriots. “His work, “A Case Study of Transference,” from 1994 illustrates his fascination with the ugly and the primitive versus the beautiful and the classical. The original version of the work featured two live pigs — a boar and a sow — having sex in front of audiences at one of the early informal art spaces in Beijing. The backs of the pigs were stamped with gibberish composed from the Roman alphabet and invented Chinese characters. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, September 20, 2017]

“The Guggenheim drew the line on live pigs in the museum, and settled for a video of the Beijing performance, said Philip Tinari, a guest curator, from the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Mr. Xu, who has lived in New York for nearly 20 years, spent time on pig farms during the Cultural Revolution. Why pigs and calligraphy? “Animals are completely uncivilized and Chinese characters are the expression of supreme civilization,” he said. His second work in the show deals with 9/11. Mr. Xu lives in a townhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and when the planes hit the World Trade Center, he watched from across the river. A few days later, he went to City Hall and scooped up dust and packed it into a plastic bag. On the eve of the Guggenheim show he plans to blow the dust from a leaf-catching machine into a small sealed room. The dust will fall on a stencil of a Zen Buddhist stanza.

“Of all the artists in the show, Mr. Xu perhaps best straddles China and the West. He was a young teacher at the Art Academy in Beijing during the protests at Tiananmen. His students created the green foam and gypsum “Goddess of Democracy” that became the protest’s symbol for freedom. “After June 1989, the cultural world became silent, everything became muted, my pieces were not allowed to be shown,” he said over Italian espresso brewed in his studio kitchen in Beijing. He fled in 1990. In the United States, the art schools welcomed him. He moved to New York in 1992 and in 1999 he won a MacArthur Fellowship. “The relationship between China and the world has changed,” he said. “After 1989, artists stepped out into the world and they worshiped Western culture. Now younger artists want to stay more in China. They get more inspiration from China, there are more problems to explore.”

Wang Guangyi

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Work by Wang Guangyi

Artists have traditionally been required to belong to the China Artists Association. Until fairly recently there were very few art galleries in China. Wang Guangyi (born 1957) is a Chinese artist regarded as a leader of the new art movement that started in China after 1989. He is best known for his Great Criticism series of paintings, which use images of propaganda from the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and contemporary brand names from western advertising. [Source: Wikipedia]

Wang Guangyi was born in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province in 1957. His father was a railway worker. Wang was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution and spent three years in a rural village during the Sent Down Youth phase of the movement. Like his father he became a railway worker. Wang tried for four years to get into a college. Finally he was able to enroll at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. He graduated from the oil painting department there in 1984. He now lives and works in Beijing, China.

Wang Guangyi has been called a “Chinese Andy Warhol” for the way he made a global name for himself with his political pop art. In a review of the book “Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts” by by Xiaobing Tang, Wendy Larson wrote: “Wang’s work, especially his early 1990s series Great Criticisms, has generated an active debate. The question hinges on how to interpret Wang’s pairing of socialist imagery and Western consumer advertising such as Coca-Cola signage: is this combination only facile and derivative, or does it lay claim to a historical memory and cultural identity that demands that the value of the socialist past be recognized and engaged? Tang argues that Wang’s aesthetic is a thoughtful response, and agrees with the artist that the goal of this art is to revive the socialist spirit. Yet as Wang contradictorily explained in 1990, “Cultural elements from two different time periods therein cancel each other’s essential content in a relationship of irony and deconstruction, and an absurd but total emptiness emerges” — a nihilistic reading on which critics quickly pounced. [Source: Wendy Larson, University of Oregon, MCLC Resource Center, August, 2016. Book: “Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts”by Xiaobing Tang. (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

While it is interesting to consider the artist’s interpretations of his own work, the paintings themselves seem to allow many possibilities. Indeed, critics are all over the map, some finding an affirmation of an historical occurrence, some a despicable and kitschy combination of consumer and ideological practices, and yet others a profound pessimism. Tang favors thinking of the socialist images as a “stubborn, unresolved remainder in the contemporary system of meaning or visual order”. Although it is certainly true that, as Tang argues, the Cultural Revolution and socialism in general generated a shared public experience, whether Wang’s paintings bring back images of the anonymous Red Guard artists as “a competing, if also equally significant, universal visual language” with the intent of puncturing the current visual order is arguable.

In a review of the book “Red Legacies in China”, Xing Fan wrote: “In Chapter 4, “Socialist Visual Experience as Cultural Identity,” Xiaobing Tang revisits the work of prominent contemporary artist Wang Guangyi, whose history of identifying, defining, exploring, and constructing socialist visual experience constitutes a legacy transcending ideology. With a careful contextualization of visual artistic practices and experiences in socialist China, in particular those of the Cultural Revolution era, Tang analyzes how Wang’s early series ignited the artist’s interest in socialist visual culture. He explains how Wang’s choices and strategies of juxtaposition in the Great Criticism series allowed remnants of the past to contribute to a contemporary politics of vision. [Source: Book “Red Legacies in China: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution” (Harvard University Asia Center, 2016), edited by Jie Li and Enhua Zhang. Xing Fan, Review, MCLC Resource Center Publication, March, 2017]

Qiu Zhijie

Qui Jie was born in 1961 and is considered one of the pioneers of China’s contemporary art scene. His “Portrait of Mao” depicts Mao as a cat. “Mao” means “cat” in Chinese and is traditionally a blessing in Chinese art, but Jie's drawing is fare from that. The cat has a devious look in its eye. For the 2017 Guggenheim show in New York he created a vast multipaneled ink on paper map. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: Over the years, Mr. Qiu has drawn outsized maps that combine fantasy with politics. The Guggenheim commissioned a map that juxtaposed Chinese and global events with the unfolding contemporary art scene in Beijing and Shanghai. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, September 20, 2017]

“A master calligrapher, Mr. Qiu, learned the discipline of painting characters as a child. His spidery writings, in English and Chinese characters, scrawl across the map that traces the torturous path from Mao to Xi Jinping. Some may see the work’s style as resembling Saul Steinberg’s maps for The New Yorker. A figure who straddles the establishment and the fringes, Mr. Qiu works in a cavernous studio outside Beijing. He was still putting finishing touches to the map just weeks before the show’s opening. “Coca-Cola back to China, Star Wars, Ronald Reagan,” he said, reading out some of the early references.

“The map seems politically safe: The Tiananmen Square crackdown is referred to as an “incident,” buried in small print. One milestone seems unintentionally pointed in its misspelling. “Reunifiction of HK” reads a phrase, a reference to the Chinese government’s plans for reunification of Hong Kong with the mainland. The banner “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is strung across the top of the map, a motif that should please the government.

“Mr. Qiu has been criticized in China’s social media for leading a government-run academy. “A lot of infuriated netizens say I am bribed by the government,” he said. “But if we didn’t teach in the art institutions how are the younger artists going to be trained?” The variety and rebelliousness of the works from the ’90s and the early 2000s were long overdue for exposure at a mainstream Western museum, he said. “The art I see here in Beijing is totally different to what I see in New York,” he said. “The big face school of painting gave a fake image of what Chinese art is. The Guggenheim will correct the image.”

Yue Minjun

Work by Yue Minjun
Yue Minjun (born 1962) is a contemporary Chinese artist based in Beijing, China. He is best known for oil paintings depicting himself in various settings, laughing hysterically in a weird way. He has also reproduced this signature image in sculpture, watercolour and prints. While Yue is often classified as part of the Chinese Cynical Realist art movement developed in 1989, Yue rejects this label, but also "doesn't concern himself about what people call him." [Source: Wikipedia]

Yue was born in 1962 in Daqing, Heilongjiang, China. His family worked on an oil field, and he also taught art in oil school for a short time. He graduated from high school in 1980 and painted while working as an electrician in the 1980s. For a while he was painting and working at the same time, typically painting and working non-stop for 20 days. In the 1980s, he started painting portraits of his co-workers and the sea while working as a deep-sea oil driller. In 1989, he was inspired by a painting by Geng Jianyi at an art show in Beijing, which depicted Geng's own laughing face, and he decided to beome a painter. In 1990, he moved to the artist colony of Hongmiao in the Chaoyang District, Beijing, which was also home to many other Chinese artists. During this period, his style of art developed out of portraits of his bohemian friends from the artists' village.

Yue Minjun produces disconcerting, colorful, smiling, life-size human figures. In October 2007, a painting by Yue called “Execution” was sold for $5.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction. Another work, “The Pope” (1997), sold for $4.28 million at a Sotheby’s contemporary art auction in London in June 2007. A piece that depicts an open head with a pool of water inside and Mao Zedong taking a swim sold for $1.37 million. Yue's works are popular with copy artists. One copy art dealer told Reuters, “Many foreigners who come here know a lot about this guy, but Chinese people don't know him. They just see all the teeth and the smile and think it’s funny.” “Gweong Gweong”, a macabre take on the Tiananmen crackdown by Yue Minjun, was sold for $6.9 million in May 2008. The artist received $14,000 for the work in 1994.

Ai Wei Wei

Ai Weiwei is an internationally known sculptor, filmmaker, architect and performance artist. The son of one China’s greatest modern artists and poets, Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei is regarded as a conceptualist who specializes in works that stir up controversy and confronts viewers and authorities. He has disassembled antique furniture to make them unusable and had himself photographed destroying a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty vase. On the fifth anniversary of Tiananmen Square he photographed a young woman standing in front of the Mao portrait on the square, provocatively slipping up her skirt. That young woman was his wife, the artist Lu Qing.

Ai was leader in the revolutionary Stars Group of the late 1970s and the idea man behind the iconic Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. He helped design the stadium for the 2008 Olympics, then renounced his role after concluding that Chinese leaders had politicized the games. His blog is visited by 10,000 people a day and his architectural firm, Fake Design, is working on 50 projects. Over $4 million was spent on a performance piece in which 1,001 Chinese citizens were placed in the middle of Kassel, Germany, all wearing clothes deigned by Ai.

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Ai Wei Wei was described by The New Yorker as a “fitfully, brilliant conceptualist in many mediums." He is known for creating works of art that refashion old objects and break down conventions. Many of his piece have power and venom and confront the Chinese government. Among these is a work shown at the Shanghai Biennial called “Fuck Off.” A favorite among art collectors who often pay sizeable sums for his works at auction, he has a highest international profile as an artist, dissident and critic of the Chinese government.

“Ai Weiwei is perhaps China’s most famous living artist and its most vociferous domestic critic, titles of a sort this committed iconoclast disdains,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times.---Artistically, he can do almost anything he wishes, like personally shipping16 40-foot containers, including 9,000 custom-made children’s backpacks, from Beijing for his recent exhibition in Munich.” In 2011 Ai was ranked No. 13 in Art Review magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful figures in art. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, November 27, 2009]

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang is well known for his cartoonish figures with expressionless faces. Among those who have bough Zhang paintings are Oliver Stone and the Guggenheim Museum. His “Bloodline Series: Coarse No. 120" sold for just under $1 million at a New York auction in 2006 to a Singaporean of Chinese origin. A few weeks later gallery owner and advertising executive Charles Saatchi bought Zhang’s “A Big Family” for $1.5 million at a Christie’s auction in London and his “Tiananmen Square” was sold for $2.3 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong. In September 2007, “Chapter of a New Century: Birth of the People’s Republic” went for more than $3 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York.

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Work by Zhang Xiaogang
Zhang Xiaogang has short hair and trademark round glasses and often has a cigarette hanging from his lips. He turned 49 in 2008. During the Cultural Revolution his parents were forced to give up their government jobs and were sent to re-education camps while Zhang was brought up by an aunt. When he became a teenager Zhang was sent to a camp. After Mao’s death in 1976 Zhang attended the prestigious Sichuan Academy but didn’t really develop his style until the 1990s.

Zhang has continued to work in China for nearly all of his career. He lives in and keeps a studio in the Liquor Factory area of Beijing and works around the clock to keep up with the demand for his paintings.

“The soulless eyes that gaze out from a series of portraits by Zhang Xiaogang invite a critical look at the culture of family in China. The country's one-child policy, widespread preference for sons and the depressing aura of a Communist upbringing are all conveyed with sinister subtlety.” [Source: Lucy Farmer, More Intelligent Life, November 12, 2008]

Liu Xiaodong

Liu Xiaodong is faculty member and graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China’s top art school. His paintings have fetched eye-popping sums. Oil paintings by Liu that sold for $20,000 in 2004 went for $200,000 in 2006. Liu is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s documentary “Dong” . His 2010 work “Getting Out of Beichuan,” according to Harvard’s Eugene Wang “marks a new stage and possibly a new turning point in the contemporary Chinese art scene.”

In November 2006, “Newly Displaced Population”, a 2004 painting by Liu Xiaodong that offers a critical look at the government’s displacement of people by Three Gorges dam, sold for $2.75 million, the most ever paid for a contemporary Asian work at that time. The It was purchased by Zhang Lan, a female restauranteur, famous for her upscale chain South Beauty. Only a couple of other living artist, among them Damien Hurst and Jee Koons, have had their works sold for more than $2 million. In April 2008, “The Breeding Ground No. 3" — a 10-x-2.8-meter work from Liu Three Gorges series — sold for a record $8.2 million at a Beijing auction. The painting shows men playing cards in their underwear. Of the painting Liu said, “I painted the Three Gorges three times, Every time was a personal improvement for me.”

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Work by Liu Xiaodong
Wang told dGenerate Films, Liu Xiaodong ‘spearheaded the new generation of painters that came of ages in the 1990's. The way they make their impact and distinctions is through not buying into national narratives, choosing to stay on the margins and exploring the marginality. They seem to be interested in the mood and gestures that are normally outside the larger narratives. There are certain received ways of characterizing how within the narrative characters work. Liu Xiaodong is, however, concerned about what is going on outside of the framework. He focuses on the migrants, the outcasts, people who don’t belong anywhere. He portrays these characters with nonchalance and indifference. This apathy inadvertently carries an implicit critique of past generations of artists who he and his contemporaries believe are too driven by larger passions. What sets the “90's generation apart from the “80's is that the “90's generation no longer feel bound to a larger national narrative.

Liu Xiadong himself grew up as a street kid. He never assumes any elitist detachment from the common people. He could easily relate to them. On the other hand, he also kept a diary. From the diary we know in fact there are ugly things going on around him, as the painting production was dragging on. There was heavy drinking and bloodshed between his crew and another newly-arrived documentary film crew when he was in Sichuan. From the diary you could tell he was not making a fuss about this or romanticizing anything. In this sense, there is a detached observation of things around him. Consequently, you could feel that he is trying to internalize this scene to the extent that what he sees outwardly is the staging of his own mental theatre. He never said anything about how he should respond to the conflicts going on around him. You almost get a sense he was becoming too philosophical about it. Yet, he doesn’t make his art in a philosophical gesture. He still clings to a deadpan observational mode. Here and there, he would include little details that are often very suggestive and sometimes even private. For instance, he would paint a little horse in the background. The reason why this was the background was at the time, Liu Xiadong was observing horses mating. He found that very powerful. Nevertheless, the horse appears in the painting as a still life. Again, we see him including the motif of reproduction as a way of overcoming disasters. The most interesting thing about this is he includes this motif very cryptically. Unless you have already read his diaries about the painting, you wouldn’t really know that the horse is significant.

Wang told dGenerate Films,”In 2010 Liu Xiadong went to Sichuan to paint an earthquake scene. He set up this huge canvas and began to paint. Actually, he wasn’t painting the earthquake scene per-se. He invited a group of young woman from other towns to pose as models in front of this earthquake-caused pile of rubble. The sheer set up is mind-boggling. When this work was first shown, I was completely blown away by it. It is a huge canvas. The exhibition did a good job using multi-media to present it. You also have the photograph of him working with the models. You also have a video of him working and directing the models. This case intrigued me because I’m always interested in inter-media. How painting and photography interact with each other. [Source: Michael Chenkin, dGenerate Films]

Cai Guo-Qiang

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Cai Guo Qiang
New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is famous for using gunpowder in his paintings and fireworks in major projects. A native of southeastern China, he is currently the most expensive Chinese contemporary artist. In December 2007, an unnamed Asian paid $9.5 million for “Set of 14 Drawings for Asia-Pacific Cooperation” — 14 abstract paintings made using gunpowder — at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong. Two months earlier one of his works was sold for $2.6 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. Cai told Newsweek that igniting explosives is like making love: the act is simple but there are always surprises. He told The New Yorker that as a child he had a recurrent dream of a fireworks display in Tiananmen square in which no one was present except for him.

Ron Rosenbaum wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Cai Guo-Qiang “may be the only artist in human history who has had some one billion people gaze simultaneously at one of his artworks. His worldwide televised “fireworks sculpture” was created for the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. On the event Cai wrote: “The explosion event consisted of a series of 29 giant footprint fireworks, one for each Olympiad, over the Beijing skyline, leading to the National Olympic Stadium. The 29 footprints were fired in succession, traveling a total distance of 15 kilometers, or 9.3 miles, within a period of 63 seconds.” [Source: Ron Rosenbaum, Smithsonian magazine, April, 2013]

Cai was born in 1957 and raised in the port town of Quanzhou.. His father was a Communist Party member who worked at a bookstore. He provided officials and his son with banned books such as “Waiting for Godot” and “Death of a Salesman” and was a skilled painter who introduced his son to landscape painting and calligraphy. Cai escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution because his father was a Communist Party member and Quanzhou was an out of the way place. Folk holidays and traditions that were banned elsewhere were not banned in Quanzhou and Cai enjoyed his share of fireworks as boy. After studying stage design in university he managed secure a student visa to Japan and lived in Tokyo from 1986 to 1995. He has lived in New York since 1995 and keeps a studio there. He was in Italy during the September 11th terrorist attack but his daughter’ school, which was near ground zero, was evacuated.

Cai grew up with fire and explosions. “My family lived in Quanzhou, across the strait from Taiwan,” he told Smithsonian magazine. where it was routine to hear mainland artillery batteries sending send a loud message to Taiwan. There was also fire in his house. “My father was a collector of rare books and manuscripts” and a master of calligraphy he said. During Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, intellectuals were harassed, beaten and killed and their works were burned in pyres. “My father knew his books, scrolls and calligraphy were a time bomb in his house,” Cai recalls. So he began burning his precious collection in the basement. “He had to do it at night so that no one would know.” Cai told Smithsonian magazine that after burning his beloved manuscripts and calligraphy, his father went into a strange self-exile, afraid that his reputation as a collector of books would lead to his death. He left his family home and sought refuge in a ruined Buddhist nunnery. There “my father would take sticks and write calligraphy in puddles on the ground,” Cai says. “The calligraphy would disappear” when the water evaporated, leaving behind, Cai once wrote, eloquently, “invisible skeins of sorrow.” [Source: Ron Rosenbaum, Smithsonian magazine, April, 2013]

Cai now lives in New York. He has been described as an elegant and pleasant man. He still often uses an interpreter when he is interviewed in English. Cai is in charge of visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He won the International Award the Venice Biennial in 1999 with a socialist-realist sculptural tableau .

See Modern Art, for pictures of his art-making process

Works and Fireworks by Cai Guo-Qiang

Petr Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker, described Cai’s art as ‘strenuously theatrical and weirdly political (with ambiguous stands on Mao Zedong and terrorism), calculated in content (East-West tropes are a specialty).” Cai’s early gunpowder drawings were made by dumping powder on a canvas and lighting it. During his stay in Japan he refined the technique controlled the explosions with panels of fibrous paper, which created textures of burn and “burn shadows.”

Ron Rosenbaum wrote in Smithsonian magazine: In “Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters” “Cai detonated a spectacular six-mile train of explosives, a fiery elongation of the Ming dynasty’s most famous work. Meant to be seen from space: He wants to open “a dialogue with the universe,” he says. Or his blazing “crop circle” in Germany, modeled on those supposed extraterrestrial “signs” carved in wheat fields — a project that called for 90 kilograms of gunpowder, 1,300 meters of fuses, one seismograph, an electroencephalograph and an electro-cardiograph. The two medical devices were there to measure Cai’s physiological and mental reactions as he stood in the center of the explosions, to symbolize, he told me, that the echoes of the birth of the universe can still be felt in every molecule of every human cell. [Source: Ron Rosenbaum, Smithsonian magazine, April, 2013]

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fireworks set off for a Cai Guo-Qiang work

In 2008, Cai became the first Chinese artist to be given a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Among the works on display were “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrow” (1998), a fishing boat flying the Chinese flag, pierced by over 3,000 arrows; “Inopportune: Stage One”, a work made up of nine Chevrolet Metros, six of them suspended in the air, with flashing electric light rods running through them. Of all the astonishing works at Cai’s exhibition...the one I can’t get out of my head is “Head On”,” Cathleen McGuigan wrote in Newsweek, “The piece consists of 99 full-size synthetic wolves stampeding up the museum’s spiral ramp with such force that the front of the pack lifts up into an arc of flight, like Santa’s reindeer — only t crash headlong into a wall of glass...Those wolves are as cuddly as any furry toy, but also as scary as snarling animals.” “Inopportune: Stage Two” features a tiger struck with bamboo arrows. “New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard” is a socialist-realist sculptural tableau. “Head On” has a stream of 99 wolves that start on the ground and fly through the air and crash into a glass wall. “An Arbitrary History: River” (2001) is comprised of a serpentine bamboo trough, in which one viewer at a time can drive a rawhide boat.

Cai has ignited lines of fireworks across the Thames Millennium Bridge, set fire to 100 helium balloon floating in a spiral over Hiroshima. and extending the Great Wall of China six miles into the Gobi desert with a “wall of fire” made of lines of gunpowder fuses. In New York he created a rainbow bridge of fire above the East River; a 1,000-foot-high revolving halo of white titanium fire above Central Park; and an exploding gunpowder-packed pit described by the New York Times as “fiery energy sucked into the earth, a mushroom cloud in reverse.”

Cai likes to use sequences of horizontal explosions, a technique he has used on land and on the sea during the day and at night. His daytime explosions consist of puffs of smoke and clouds. The thrill of fireworks he has said is tied to “connections to the cosmos, nature, society, glory, and heroic sensation.” He has described his fireworks pieces as “contradictions of violence and beauty.”

In 1992 Cai created in piece in Germany in which he sat in a field surrounded by meticulously worked out circles and lines of gunpowder. In an effort to explore the primordial connection between man and earth, Cai employed sensors to measure the shock waves of the explosions and monitor his heartbeat, which showed he remained cool and collected even when everything around him was exploding. In 2006, Cai oversaw the construction of a house in Berlin and then had it blown up.

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a fireworks work

Zeng Fanzhi

According to some reckonings Zeng Fanzhi was the world’s second most successful artist in the 2010s. It is not clear who is first although some have suggested it probably Damien Hirst. In 2008, one of Zeng’s “Mask” paintings sold for $9.7 million. [Source: Andrew Billen, The Times, November, 2012]

Zeng was born in 1964 in Wuhan, China to “ordinary working” parents. His “doodles” drew the attention of friends and parents when he was nine. He attended the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, where he was taught classical painting and social realism and was discouraged from developing his own style. He told The Times, “I was quite rebellious at that time. I tried to get away from the mainstream, which was realism at that time. In classes I still had to follow my teachers’ requirements. It was frustrating.”

Andrew Billen wrote in The Times: “In 1990, while still studying, he painted the magnificently touching study “A Man in Melancholy”. He was a worker, in fact a fellow student, painted in resolutely unheroic terms: an undernourished man in a white tunic slouched miserably on a wicker chair staring into nothingness.” His graduation piece was “a stunning yet dimly painted hospital triptych in which the blank faces of staff and patients emphasized suffering not living...Equally pointed was his “meat” series in which naked workers lay on slabs of dead animals.”

Zheng told The Times: “At that time society appreciated paintings with positive topics and positive values that encouraged people to love and cherish their life. They found here a rather depressing theme.” On hospital paintings he said, “I lived next to the hospital and without a toilet in my own place, so I went to use theirs. I was very impressed by what I saw.

After graduating he worked in adverting as a salesman not a graphic artist. But he liked the job because it gave him time to paint. He was supported by his girlfriend, He Lijun, a fellow student, who he married in 1995 (they have a daughter who born in 2002) . In 1993 the couple moved to Beijing, where his paintings because less crowded and addressed the alienation of affluence and consumerism.

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: In 1998, an art curator in Beijing, Karen Smith, introduced him to Lorenz Helbling, a Swiss citizen, who became the most influential Western dealer in China and has represented Mr. Zeng ever since. In one of his first sales, Mr. Helbling sold a Zeng painting of eight young Chinese men and women wearing masks to an American tourist for $16,000. Ten years later, the painting sold at a Hong Kong auction for $9.7 million, making Mr. Zeng the most expensive contemporary Chinese artist, a position he retains unchallenged. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, November 11, 2016]

Zeng Fanzhi lives and works in Beijing.Today he is known mainly for his bleak and convoluted landscapes. In the early 2000s, he was regarded as an aesthete. Who wears Gucci and Armani suits and wears a Rolex Submariner limited-edition. He doesn’t deny being rich has it advantages but he told The Times, “I think artists should experience all kinds of lives and have all kinds of experiences, but pursing fortune is not my ultimate goal. My dream is to pursue art.

Zeng Fanzhi Works and Exhibitions

In 2013, Zeng’s 2001 tribute to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” sold for $23.3 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, setting what was then a record auction price for a work by a contemporary Chinese artist. In September 2016, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing unveiled “Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours,” a major retrospective of his work. Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times” The exhibition covers nearly three decades and features works central to the artist’s oeuvre, including his early “Hospital” series, which Mr. Zeng painted based on memories of a hospital where he used the toilet because he did not have one at home. It includes his “Masks” series, which depicts well-dressed urbanites wearing white masks, a commentary on China’s rapid social transformation in the mid-1990s, and his haunting, thicket-filled abstract landscapes. And, for the first time in China, the show displays Mr. Zeng’s most recent works — a series of ink on paper — which signal a shift by the artist toward an engagement with ancient Chinese painting. [Source: Amy Qin, Sinosphere, New York Times, September 22, 2016]

Zeng Fanzhi Mask series painting

In 1993, Zeng held his first solo show in Hong Kong. Solo Exhibitions have included: 1) Zeng Fanzhi:The Sublime, Union Temple Zeng Fanzhi, Shanghai Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai in 2010; 2) Zeng Fanzhi, The National Gallery of Foreign Art, Sofia, Bulgaria in 2010; 3) Zeng Fanzhi, Godia Fundation, Barcelona, Spain in 2009; 4) Art Beijing 2009 — Zeng Fanzhi, Art Fairs Agricultural Exhibition Centre of China, Beijing; 5) Narcissus looks for Echo, Zeng Fanzhi Suzhou Exhibition, Suzhou Museum, Jiangsu Province; and 6) Zeng Fanzhi, Acquavella Gallery, New York

“Tiananmen” (2004) by Zeng Fanzhi is an oil on canvas, measuring 215 x 330 centimeters Overlaying the image of Beijing's infamous landmark with an iconic portrait of Mao, Zeng's Tiananmen directly confronts China's tenuous relationship with its recent history. Using bright bold colours, Zeng's painting resolves as a discomforting composite of irony and optimism, fusing the veneration of revolutionary heroicism with the uncertainty of a rapidly developing future. The surface of Zeng?s painting is brought to life with a frenzied network of brush marks, replicating the inarticulate calligraphy of muffled sentiment, or the galvanisation of repressed anxiety. The figure of Mao dominates the scene, a lingering ghost presiding over popular consciousness. [Source: Saatchi Gallery]

“This Land Is So Rich In Beauty” (2006) by Zeng Fanzhi is an oil on canvas, measuring 215 x 330 centimeters Zeng Fanzhi's paintings are immediately recognisable by their signature expressionistic style, an effect that lends provocative sensations of underlying violence, psychological tension, or supernatural aura to his lavishly rendered canvases. With subjects ranging from portraits and rural landscapes to politically charged motifs, Zeng infuses the everyday veneer of shared experience with an ambience of transgression, reflective of both the rapidly changing terrain of contemporary Chinese culture and the negotiation of personal identity within this societal flux.

“Hospital Series” by Zeng Fanzhi (1994) is an oil on canvas measuring 179.1 x 199.4 centimeters Zeng's Hospital Series is of his earliest work, and exemplifies his correlative approach between painting and psychology. His A&E waiting room is portrayed with overwhelming banality and trauma: muted tones replicate the staleness of public space, the milling crowds in the background appear hazy and remote, while rusty washes pour over the canvas replicating blood, sorrowful and repugnant. Sat centre stage are a distraught patient and cavalier doctor, juxtaposed as human anguish and the white-coated horror of bureaucracy. Their heads and hands are aggrandised to painful and clumsy scale in grotesque parody of thought and action.

Female Chinese Modern Artists

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work by Xiao Hong
Female artists in China receive much less attention than their male counterparts. But according to New York Times art critic Holland Carter they are producing ‘some of the most innovative work around.” Foremost among them is Lin Tianmiao, the wife of conceptual artist Wang Gongxin. Early in her career, when she was poor, she made works comprised of teapots, woks, vegetable choppers and scissors wrapped in layers of white cotton. Later when her career took of she produced elegant soft sculptures made of soft silk.

Other female Chinese artists of note include Yin Xuizhen, who makes works from unraveled sweaters and seals them in suitcases; Lu Qing, the wife of the artist Ai Weiwei, who every year fills a 82-foot-long bolt of fine silk with tight grid patterns; Xiong Wenyun, known for photos of Himalayan truck stops; Xing Danwen, who inserts images of domestic violence into tabletop models of Beijing high-rises; Cui Xiuwin, who uses a hidden camera to video prostitutes applying make-up, calling clients and counting cash.

Only nine female artists appeared at the “Art and China After 1989” show at the Guggenheim in New York in 2017 out of more than 70 total artists. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: One of the nine, though, is Xiao Lu, who achieved notoriety when she fired a pellet gun at a sculpture at a Beijing exhibition in 1989. The few works by women is a reflection of the male-dominated government-run art academies of the period. The teachers were mostly men who wielded disproportionate influence with their power to dole out studio spaces, video equipment and paints. Most of the students were men. Alexandra Munroe, a curator at the Guggenheim, told the New York Times: “That source of livelihood was closed to a privileged few, and the few were men exclusively,” Now some classes are evenly split between men and women. " The female artist Peng Yu said "The fuss about too few female artists in the Guggenheim show was unjustified. “Personally I think female artists in China are not as hard-working as male artists and their art is not as good as male artists,” she said. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, September 20, 2017]

Yu Hong is a highly regarded woman artist in China. When she "joined the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1984, she was 18 and the only woman among the dozen students in the entering class. It was after the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and the art schools were coming to life after years in the wilderness. Ms. Yu, now one of China’s most esteemed realist painters, was an instant star. One of the first assignments for her class was to draw Michelangelo’s David. Ms. Yu’s rendition won first prize. It is still shown to students more than 20 years later. Her oil painting in the Guggenheim show is entirely different. A self-portrait, the canvas shows Ms. Yu, a few years out of art school in the early 1990s, scissors in hand, snipping her own hair.

“The back story is intriguing. Ms. Yu, and her husband, Liu Xiaodong, also an artist, were acting in a low budget movie, called “The Days,” about the couple’s true-life story as impoverished art teachers in a backwater province in northeast China. One of the scenes included Ms. Yu cutting her own hair. The movie was too bleak for the government censors and has never been officially released in China. The self-portrait is part of a historical series she began in 1999 called “Witness to Growth,” in which she paints herself at the various stages of China’s economic growth, juxtaposed against a photograph of the period. The curators could have chosen a more dramatic work from Ms. Yu. A black and white self-portrait on the wall of her studio in Beijing shows Ms. Yu among the protesters near Tiananmen Square before the tanks rolled in. Adjacent to the canvas is a photograph of the crackdown’s aftermath. Dark smoke hangs over the square. The demonstrators’ tent city is demolished. Soldiers are on watch. But such photographs are banned in China. A display of the photo overseas would almost certainly draw protests from the Chinese government.

Kan Xuan was one of four female artists at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Here two videos at the Guggenheim show are from 1999, and more personal in style than that of her mentor, Zhang Peili. The first, “Kan Xuan! Ai!” catches glimpses of her as she runs through a subway tunnel, weaving in and out among the commuters In the second piece, “Post-Sense Sensibility,” Ms. Kan surveys an underground art exhibition held in a basement on the outskirts of Beijing. The show was an exuberant, anything-goes outburst of installation art that surfaced after the sullen post-Tiananmen period. Ms. Kan’s hand-held camera captures the outrageous art — pig intestines strung from the ceiling, a stillborn fetus lying next to a human face poking through a bed of ice. Art lovers crowd around the installations, hungry for a new era of unfettered expression. Her more recent video work focuses on the tombs of Chinese emperors and their courtiers.

Image Sources: Saatchi Gallery, Wiki Commons, Christie's, Goedhuis Contemporary Art and the websites of the artists.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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