signed in Chinese and pinyin and dated 2005
Beijing, Cheng Xin Dong Space for Contemporary Art, Dream Producers (IV/VI)-The Imaginary Museum of Chinese Contemporary Art, 2006
"The absurd thing is that one day in 1982, Andy arrived by happenstance in this unfamiliar nation. The people here were still drowsy under the artifice of a communist government, every face wore the same simple shyness. At these geographical coordinates, not a single person expressed interest in the artist. No one recognized that mask-like face infamous throughout the rest of the world."
-Ai Weiwei, preface to Andy Warhol China 1982, 2008
Andy Warhol's visit to China is a founding moment for the idea of a Chinese contemporary. Warhol's portraits of Mao of course connected him retrospectively to the situation inside the Middle Kingdom, but it was his visit a decade later, and the images of his personal photographer Christopher Makos in which it is commemorated, that put the defining critic of mass culture into dialogue with the defining mass society of the late twentieth century. The moment at which the world-famous Warhol, then nearing the end of his life and work, plunged into a society of unfathomable depth in which not a soul knew his face or name is nothing short of a watershed: the last possible instance of East/West incomprehension on such a scale, a time warp in which he appears akin to a prophet from the future, looking out on a population that would soon undergo the endless rounds of capitalist spectacle out of which his art had grown.
This moment cannot but resonate for a viewer of Zeng Fanzhi's monumental After the Long March Andy Warhol Arrived in China, (Lot 37), an epic 2005 canvas which envisions the king of Pop wearily pushing a bicycle down a country path. The bicycle is a Shanghai Forever. Its rider, dressed in blazer, blue jeans, and bluchers carries a simple knapsack as on his China travels, his hair evoking shades of the "fright wig" in which he would paint his last self-portrait in 1986.
After the Long March dates to an similarly special moment in the work of Zeng Fanzhi, an artist now enjoying a Warholian level of celebrity in China owing to the recent stunning rise in the market values of his work. A classic example of Zeng's current style—dubbed "chaotic brushwork" in a recent monograph edited by the Chinese critic Lü Peng—it is typical of the years immediately after his 2003 solo show at the Shanghai Art Museum. By that point, what Karen Smith has called Zeng's "seven-year infatuation with the mask" (1994-2000) was an increasingly distant memory. A grouping of transitional works featured in the Shanghai show—including, appropriately, a cycle of nine portraits of Mao offered by Sotheby's Hong Kong in April 2007—moved Zeng further in the direction of expressionism, their swirling brushstrokes created by his technique of painting with two brushes in the same hand.
Starting in 2003 and 2004, Zeng began to develop an increasingly abstract style by working in two distinct veins—portraiture and landscape. In the former category, he toyed with likenesses of historical figures including Marx, as well as images of himself and other "ordinary" individuals. In the latter category, Zeng produced a series of abstract scenes evocative in their brushwork of weeds and grasses. One particularly mature example was titled simply Long March, and paired with a rare text painting by the same title in Zeng simply apes Mao's manifesto for that historic retreat in the Chairman's own calligraphic style.
After the Long March Andy Warhol Arrived in China is typical of paintings from the moment in 2005 and 2006 when Zeng finally worked out the expressive possibilities of his new style. Like This Land is So Rich in Beauty No. 1, which features Mao standing on a bank of reeds and looking out over a river, After the Long March combines portraiture and landscape, situating its subject in an environment more compelling for the painterly reveries of its composition than the mimesis of its referential presentation. Here, Andy walks down a path vaguely evocative of other walkways cut through fertile fields in the Socialist Realist works of an earlier era. He stands looking into the camera, coy and tentative and amused. The title adds an element of linguistic ambiguity to the imagistic play: Is the Long March that of Warhol's life and career, nearing its final phase? And if it is that of the Red Army, why make the point when a 45-year interval separates the end of that military action in 1937 and Warhol's visit in 1982?
Painted in 2005, just as the market for contemporary Chinese art was beginning its astonishing ascent, and just as China began shifting into its pre-Olympic mode of acceleration, this work betrays the pathos of its maker's encounter with his own society. As Ai Weiwei concluded his recent brief essay on the Andy Warhol China photographs, "The world today and the world in Andy's time are essentially the same, as astonishingly beautiful, elegant or suave, and similarly consummate. But what is different is that an Andy Warhol could never exist here, a megastar from an average, conventional family harboring democratic and humanistic values. Even though he eternally tells his indifferent story, we face a world that becomes stranger everyday...Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it."
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