Sotheby’s is pleased to offer a range of works from the San Francisco based Dan Friedlander Collection. Britta Erickson spoke with Dan Friedlander about his serendipitous first encounter with contemporary Chinese art—before there was much awareness of it in the West—which led to his collection of a group of representative works by major artists. (The interview took place on July 21, 2006.)
Britta Erickson: Good morning Dan! I am looking forward to this opportunity to talk with you about your collection—how you came to build it, and what it means to you. I’d like to start by asking you how you embarked upon your journey of collecting contemporary Chinese art.
Dan Friedlander: At LIMN Furniture Gallery in San Francisco we had organized an international design competition, in 1986 or ‘87. Of the 1700 entries we received, a surprising number came from behind what we used to call the iron curtain. One designer from China didn’t have the money to pay the entrance fee, but instead sent some art books and images as a gift. They really piqued my interest. Years later when we started hearing there were some Chinese artists in the Bay Area, we got in touch. One of the first shows of Chinese art we did at LIMN Gallery was in 1997, East Meets East in the West, with two artists living in the San Francisco Bay Area and two living in China.
BE: So from that first exhibition you decided you wanted to delve deeper into contemporary Chinese art?
DF: Yes. In 1998 we got really serious, with a show including the local artist Zheng Chongbin, and then we did a Liu Xiaodong show. The following year we jumped in with both feet and held our really huge two-part show, with twenty-nine artists—the show you were involved in organizing, 1999 Art China.
BE: That was an important exhibition for San Francisco. Many of those artists had not been shown on the West coast before.
DF: Yes. I think many had not shown before in the United States. Just by coincidence, the major traveling exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, Inside Out, came to San Francisco around the same time and included many of the same artists.
BE: Most of the pieces in the collection going up for sale are from 1999 Art China. Do you have any specific memories of when you first encountered some of those pieces or artists?
DF: I have a very vivid memory of visiting Liu Wei. He didn’t have many works, so we went to his studio twice. The painting in the show is one he was working on when we visited the second time.
We also selected Ai Weiwei’s Double Stool [Lot 113] in the artist’s studio. We thought his work was terrific, and there were actually several pieces we selected, but already he was so popular that it would all be sold before we could get it. When the piece arrived in San Francisco we were thrilled—we had waited for so long and finally we had the work.
BE: I remember your telling me once about Zhou Chunya’s Heigen Playing on the Roof. [Lot 114]
DF: Yes, that depicts Zhou Chunya’s first wife playing with his favorite dog, a large really ferocious animal. Because there was a prohibition against large dogs, they couldn’t walk him. He had to get his exercise on the roof.
BE: Liu Xiaodong’s work, Computer Leader [Lot 125], also has a strong narrative component.
DF: Liu Xiaodong painted the work in Beijing. It captures the epitome of a phenomenon that has become universal. That man, a friend of the artist’s, is part of China’s entry into the high-tech world. He is standing in front of an Apple computer, and his stance and everything about it just reek of that international ethos. Yet he is in an emerging nation at a point in time when there were so few comparable characters—it’s him and his world. I think it’s actually one of Liu Xiaodong’s best paintings.
BE: Yes, it’s a fantastic piece. Liu Xiaodong has perfectly captured that high-tech guru posture of insouciance. Are there any other works in the sale that you would like to comment on?
DF: Yu Hong’s painting of her and Liu Xiaodong’s daughter, Babies [Lot 127], is really wonderful. At that point China was very rigid about the one child per family policy, and she has really tested it with this work. Of course, we don’t always know what artists are thinking, but for me it’s challenging all the ideas about procreation, numbers, and what people are doing with human cells, human embryos. It seems as if she is thinking about what’s restricted by multiplying her daughter. It could mean many things, including the multiplication of how she feels about her daughter. I thought it was one of her best paintings. We had the luxury of living with it for years, and then I was able to buy it. With all the works we collected, in each case there was something about the piece I was very fond of. They were Kazuyo’s and my personal choices.
BE: I know you must have walked by Sui Jianguo’s Legacy Mantle [Lot 122] several times a day for many years, as it sat in the courtyard outside the gallery.
DF: Probably ten to twenty times a day. It was the backdrop to hundreds of events, including several hundred weddings, held in the courtyard. Once in a while there were even a few people who covered it—they objected because of the Mao jacket. In those cases, it was mostly older Chinese who, rather than wonder about the hollowness of the jacket and what it meant, were bothered by the idea that it would be publicly displayed.
BE: That’s testimony to what a powerful work it is.
DF: We had a piece of canvas we would use to cover the box.
BE: Is there a moment when you decided you really wanted to keep some of these pieces for yourself?
DF: What was really nice is that we got to live with all the works, first in the gallery and then in our home. First we chose them in the artist’s studio, and then we got the chance to live with the art. It wasn’t easy to sell Chinese art then. We only had one major sale and a couple minor sales; the museum bought a couple of works, and Kent Logan acquired a couple. So we had the works in our possession for many, many months. I had the chance to mull over what I really wanted to keep, and then we had to return the rest—millions of dollars worth of art in today’s market—because it wasn’t possible to sell it. I wanted many of those pieces but couldn’t afford to buy them all: I was limited by what funds I had available.
BE: It would be interesting if, based on these experiences, you might have some comments for people who are considering starting a collection.
DF: My choices are very personal. I was a painting major in school, and I thought I was going to be an artist. I really love a narrative – that is my personal preference – and I love a painterly style. I appreciate how artists use the brush, how they make the choices they make, including their usage of space. I admire the ease and grace of Zhou Chunya’s brush: it has a Zen-like quality. His works happen very quickly. Liu Xiaodong paints relatively quickly but with such confidence. He never makes mistakes. He’s so sure of what the colors are going to be before he mixes them that he never wastes even one drop of paint. That is both curious and wonderful.
BE: You were talking about how it was financially difficult for you to collect. You felt the passion, you made the stretch, and now you are very glad you did that. Is this something you could recommend to others?
DF: I think there is no other reason to have money than to spend it on the things you care about. The purpose of money is to enhance one’s quality of life—this means so many different things. Money is such an abstraction—to me the point is to turn it into something useful. I continue to collect art, not just Chinese. But still, I have recently collected three more works of Chinese contemporary art.
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