Zeng Fanzhi’s studio is situated in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing, in Caochangdi, where he has a small and quiet courtyard of his own. The studio is luxuriously spacious. Adorning one wall is a 4 × 4m oil painting, Praying Hands (2012), that was shown as part of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Britannia Street branch of Gagosian Gallery London in 2012.
Another canvas, recently finished, has been crated up for shipment to Paris, where Zeng’s next solo show, at the Musée d’Art Moderne opened in mid-October. And while this is by no means his first solo museum show, it is his first midcareer retrospective and will present, in reverse chronological order as you walk through the exhibition, more than 40 of his paintings and sculptures from 1990 to the present day.
Zeng has always been a media favourite. Over a dozen awards and trophies are lined up under his studio window
Zeng enjoys considerable fame in China as a result of the prodigious numbers his work has managed to realise at auction. In Sotheby’s 2008 Hong Kong spring auction, a 1996 oil painting from his celebrated Mask series was sold for the astronomical price of $9.66 million. According to ArtPrice’s latest tally, of the ten highest-priced contemporary artworks sold at auction in Hong Kong between July 2012 and June 2013, three were by Zeng.
A few days before the writing of this article, Sotheby’s Hong Kong announced that the Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens had put Zeng’s The Last Supper (2001), the largest and best-known painting from the Mask series, up for auction. Most of Zeng’s highest-selling works have come from this series.
Zeng has always been a media favourite. Over a dozen awards and trophies are lined up under his studio window, while photos of his appearances at various commercial events frequently appear in a range of magazines. A year ago, however, Zeng grew tired of the excessive social appearances and media exposure, and has since made a successful effort to keep a lower profile.
Indeed it was only via social media postings that we found out that this May he flew in a cinema magnate’s private jet to Venice, where two large-scale – 2.5 × 10m – oil paintings from his 2010 Landscape series are on show in the central hall of François Pinault’s Punta della Dogana, a showcase for the Frenchman’s private collection of contemporary art.
It’s become widely known that in early 2012 Zeng rented the top floor of one of Beijing’s many highrises, and subsequently converted it into a 1,000sqm art space called Yuan Space. In old Chinese, the word yuan means the origin, the beginning and the source – a concept that one may project the idea of art onto. Several important shows have already been held there. The latest was a group show featuring young, local, experimental artists curated by Chinese contemporary art expert Karen Smith.
The summer slot featured painter Yu Youhan, who, despite having played an integral role in the development of contemporary Chinese art (from his early Expressionist painting in the 1970s and 1980s to his Pop art in the 1990s, as well as his significant abstract painting throughout his career), for political reasons has never had a large-scale retrospective.
At the beginning of 2013, Yuan Space exhibited more than 30 works from Zeng’s private collection. These included drawings on paper by masters such as Balthus, Caspar David Friedrich and Giorgio Morandi. This show, Dancing with Virtuoso, has now toured to the Nanjing University of the Arts.
Indeed, Zeng is a prolific collector, with an interest that spans multiple fields. In addition to paintings, drawings and photographs, he also collects furniture, picture frames (dating from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century) and objects that were popular with ancient Chinese literati for their ludic and relaxing qualities (writing instruments, rocks and ‘natural’ sculptures such as root formations).
While deeply infatuated with traditional Chinese culture, as an oil painter Zeng is profoundly influenced by Western art. Accordingly, he owns three oil paintings by Morandi and over 100 drawings by European artists from various periods. Zeng has a photograph of a small oil painting in his Samsung mobile. It’s a recent purchase – an 1880s painting by Paul Cézanne that was once owned by Paul Gauguin. After several changes in ownership, the little painting is now on its way to China.
The exhibition space and Zeng’s collection are a rehearsal for a larger dream: to build a museum (also to be called Yuan). The seeds of all this were sown over 20 years ago, when the artist, in the company of prominent collector Uli Sigg, visited the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland.
There he saw, for the first time, art lovers entering an open and friendly space in which they could appreciate art at their own leisure. It was “extremely beautiful and very moving”, he tells me. Of course, during the 1990s, Zeng couldn’t, in his wildest dreams, have imagined that he might one day build a museum of his own.
Things are different now. I pick up a copy of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s latest monograph from Zeng’s coffee table; a rendering of the Yuan Museum is on its front cover. It is to be built beside the Liangma River, next to the Embassy District of Beijing, with Ando’s signature plain concrete adorning the riverside facade. The museum differs from Ando’s earlier, more disciplined neomodernist works, however, in that the surface features a curve that is sober, calm, but extremely difficult to construct.
“I had planned to announce the museum project next year, but Ando couldn’t wait to publish his architectural design in his new book. Many people who’ve seen the book have come asking questions,” Zeng says. This single building, situated among high-end hotels in the middle of the city, is currently under construction but due to be structurally complete by 2014 and open a year later.
There is an elaborate scale model of it in Zeng’s studio that can be deconstructed layer by layer like a Lego castle. Zeng holds a red laser pen and excitedly explains the design and future plans for each section of the building.
‘I expect that over the next 20 years, half my income will be invested in this museum’
What’s more surprising to me is that the construction of this 8,400sqm building (with three floors above ground and three below) is being funded in full by Zeng. Ando’s designs are known for their technical complexity and the difficulty of their subsequent construction. Zeng, on the other hand, expects the absolute best in everything he does (when he needs anything, such as security, lighting, or museum-quality elevators, he typically requests quotes from the three top companies in the world).
As a result, and even as the construction progresses, it is no longer possible to estimate the total investment. “I want to invest on my own, I won’t seek sponsorships and additional investments from my friends until they see the building is up. That way I can be more convincing. On the other hand, I expect that over the next 20 years, half of my income will be invested into this museum.”
Finally, he has made mention of his friends. Arguably, in China Zeng is the artist with the largest group of wealthy friends. He consults for art collections of the superrich – both in mainland China and in Hong Kong – and frequently advises them to buy Western classics from auctions. He has influenced a number of the region’s wealthy who have no prior knowledge of art to begin their collections with classics from the canon of Western art-history that are valued well beyond the means of ordinary collectors.
Upon completion, the temperature- and humidity-regulated Yuan Museum would be the perfect place to exhibit the masterpieces he helped others to collect. Indeed, he has made detailed plans for the museum’s long-term operations. He wants it to be home to Chinese, Western and contemporary art (as well as a section dedicated to experimental art), and he wants to accomplish this without state sponsorship.
For any institution in China to hold an exhibition of classical Western oil paintings, the country’s current laws require an astronomical sum in customs bonds alone, which is why the vast majority of such exhibitions are organised by official cultural institutions backed by diplomatic assistance and state guarantees. For Zeng’s dream to come true, he and his friends must create a heretofore nonexistent art sponsorship tradition among the nouveau riche, where wealthy individuals provide sustainable support for expensive but nonprofit museum projects.
Strangely, my conversation with Zeng rarely broaches the subject of his own art. Zeng, like many other painters, is cautious when talking about his own work. When it comes to specific works, he prefers to talk about techniques. People have described different phases in his work with statements such as ‘mixing a contemporary history of China with the artist’s personal history’, ‘signs of Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Balthus and Jackson Pollock may be found on his canvas’, or ‘a combination of Expressionism, abstractionism and traditional Chinese landscapes’.
A constant sense of loneliness and tragedy may be found throughout Zeng’s paintings and sculptures, perhaps reflecting a sliver of his innermost world. And no matter how hard he works to expand China’s collection of Western classics, Zeng prefers to think of his style as an extension of traditional Chinese paintings. People are whispering that he has created a series of paintings on paper, which, while unseen by the world, are a combination of Chinese literary painting traditions and his unique brand of abstractionist language.
Zeng has said in another interview that he ‘[likes to] wander outside of the physical world, to be mired in his own thoughts, while still facing this world with sincerity. When [he] was still a student, life was simple. There was no marketplace or galleries... it was a wonderful time.
To Zeng Fanzhi, it is still a wonderful time, maybe a better one, with the marketplace, the galleries and a midcareer retrospective in an art museum. Zeng, as a sensational individual case study, demonstrates how a Chinese artist, starting with paintings, conquered the modern art marketplace and galleries to become a worldwide influence, and further exerted his personal wealth and authority among the superrich to realise his dream of building a world-class museum.
Zeng proclaims that in the library of the future Yuan Museum, visitors, especially students, will be able to view original paintings, sketches and photographs by Western masters up close (as long as they make an appointment), because to his mind there simply is no replacement for seeing originals up close.
When he talks about the library, just as when he talks about his museum and collection, I can almost imagine the Zeng Fanzhi of his youthful years, when he started to study oil painting with a neighbour in his hometown Wuhan. That young man, full of energy and passion for art that borders on zealotry, is a distant memory. But the same spirit is still very much alive in the middle-aged man, as he sits quietly beside me.
Work by Zeng Fanzhi is on show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris through 16 February.
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.