Zeng Fanzhi: A global superstar

Zeng Fanzhi is a name you should really know by now, although you would have been forgiven for saying “who” some 15 years ago. There wasn’t, for example, a market as such for contemporary Chinese art and the expressionist painter was just outside everyone’s radar. In that sense, Chinese art and Zeng didn’t really exist either commercially or critically.
All that changed around a decade later. You can point to, perhaps, the financial crisis of 2008 as a key moment. Having been seduced by an era of extravagance and speculation within the industry, the western world finally realised that it had completely missed the beauty and brilliance of contemporary Chinese (and Asian) art.
Before that awakening, the sale of Zeng’s Mask Series No.6 (1996) in May 2008 for $9.7 million (approximately £6.1 million) represented a landmark moment. The auction of the oil-on-canvas diptych at Christie’s in Hong Kong was the most anyone had ever paid for a living contemporary Chinese artist.
While that figure has now been overtaken – Zhang Xiaogang’s oil-on-painting triptych Forever Lasting Love (1988) sold for $10.1 million (£6.3 million) – Zeng is, at auction at least, only starting. If the art market’s record-breaking successes of late are anything to go by, things can only get better.
Add to that the fact that there is an appetite for contemporary Asian art, it is reasonable to assert that in the next few years, the work being produced by the former high-school dropout from Wuhan (capital of the Hubei province in China) will be much sought after.
What makes him particularly unique is that he has no specific style to speak of, constantly reinventing himself much in the same way as David Bowie, which is to say specific works of art from specific periods of time are defined by a discernable aesthetic.
While he has consistently been committed to expressionism – he has revealed that he has been influenced by German expressionists, Pablo Picasso and even pop artists – the way in which he articulates this sentiment is stylistically more complex.
For example, his latest work is suggestive of symbolism and a more relaxed unease; his earlier works are a lot harsher. It could easily be argued that this is a natural by-product of his now very comfortable life, one that he has embraced like many of his fellow nouveau riche. It hasn’t affected the quality though.
“We consider Fanzhi to be the greatest living artist in China, in part because his visual imagery has changed over and over again,” Nick Simunovic, director of the Hong Kong branch of the Gagosian Gallery, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying.
“He’s never satisfied with a single identity and in many respects he’s getting better and better; his art really maps the development of China.”
Where he perhaps falters is his reserve about getting into political matters, unlike his relative neighbour the outspoken and revered artist Ai Weiwei (he lives roughly two blocks away from Zeng in Beijing).
He is more diplomatic about what he thinks, arguing that while he is interested in politics, his work is somewhat independent of this. At the core of his burgeoning oeuvre is existential despair. For that then, he can be forgiven. Not everyone needs to be political in their art for there are much more important things in life to ruminate on. Who we are and why we’re here, well, isn’t that the ultimate question?
Cadogan Tate specialises in art transportation, fine art storage and art logistics, helping galleries, museums and collectors manage their collections.