Lot 1189
  • 1189

Liu Dan

1,600,000 - 2,300,000 HKD
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  • Liu Dan
  • Untitled
  • ink on paper

signed and dated 2005 in Chinese


Denmark, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Made in China: Works from the Estella Collection, March - August 2007, fig. 46
Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Israel Museum, September 2007 - March 2008


A few scattered creases to the background. Otherwise generally in good condition.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Liu Dan's Untitled (Lot 1189) portrays a particular rock he named Universal Sound Stone (Tianlai shi). When Liu first encountered the rock, he recognized it as the subject of his dreams and was overwhelmed with longing for it. Hugh Moss, who had collected it, respected the affinity between artist and rock and immediately presented it to the artist, in 1991. Liu Dan has painted Universal Sound Stone more than once: such is the nature of the rock that from every angle it presents a fresh, aesthetically pleasing vision.


An eminent ink painter, Liu Dan is known for his idiosyncratic, highly detailed images primarily of rocks and uninhabited landscapes, but also of books, flowers, and other subjects. They project such an air of ineffable purity, fastidiously rendered with an avoidance of any overt drama, that they could be compared to the work of the Yuan dynasty master Ni Zan (1306-1374). However, while Ni Zan advanced the notion of self-expression via the calligraphic brushstroke, Liu Dan eschews even the most restrained of such display. Instead, he refers back to the Song dynasty (960-1279), before the calligraphic line achieved preeminence in Chinese painting, to a time when form was the primary consideration. Conceptualizing his emphasis on structure over brushwork in terms of traditional Chinese art history, he nevertheless has broken with the past, producing a highly personal approach to painting that is informed by a deep familiarity with modern and post-modern Western art. His personal history provides a background to an understanding of his oeuvre.


Born to a long-established family of literati and officials, Liu Dan enjoyed a comfortable life of privilege through the advent of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He and his siblings learned calligraphy and received a basic traditional Confucian education from their grandfather, until their home was confiscated, the family broken up, and the children sent to the countryside near Nanjing along with other urban youth. He endured years of rice farming and factory work, but realized during that time that he aspired to become an artist, with a goal of personal cultivation. Eventually he came to the attention of the noted ink painter Ya Ming (1924-2002), who took him on as a student and subsequently admitted him to the Jiangsu Traditional Painting Institute when it reopened at the close of the Cultural Revolution. After a few years of benefiting from formal artistic training, Liu Dan's life took another dramatic turn: in 1981 he married an American woman and moved to Hawaii. Eleven years later he moved to New York where he stayed until returning to China in 2006 to live in Beijing. While without a doubt his paintings have a profound connection to the great Chinese brush and ink painting tradition, Liu Dan's extended years of living in the United States catalyzed a redirection of his oeuvre. First, to leave behind the political pressures and general uncertainties associated with life in China afforded him the mental space necessary for seeking his true personal direction as an artist. In addition, direct exposure to contemporary Western art broadened his understanding and opened up new possibilities. This combination of Liu Dan's years of training with the brush in the traditional arts of calligraphy and painting, with his subsequent quarter century sojourn in the West, resulted in a fresh and personal idiom situated between—or beyond—East and West.


Just as Liu Dan seems to analyze the rocks he paints with crystalline accuracy, so has he lucidly evaluated his position with respect to the eminent tradition of ink painting from which he has emerged. With great clarity he has isolated two essential divergences. First, he has observed that, "[The Ming dynasty painter Wu Bin] maintained a dialogue between the artist and nature. Dong Qichang [the great Ming painter and theorist] reoriented the discourse away from nature to other artists before him. I have gone even further, having established a dialogue with myself."[i] In addition, his focus on the microcosmic view of the universe rather than the macrocosmic that had prevailed throughout China's past sets him apart. He attributes his ability to shift from a macrocosmic to a microcosmic focus to recent scientific and technological advances such as digital technology and the discovery of DNA. Both observations regarding his divergence from tradition involve a shift from the large to the small, but then within the small we may also perceive the large. Indeed, this is the fascination of collectible rocks such as Universal Sound Stone, known in the West as scholars' rocks or garden rocks: they are in essence mountains on a small scale. For centuries literati adhered to the notion that one could refresh one's spirit by connecting with nature; when they were confined to the city by administrative posts or other concerns, suitable rocks could stand as substitute for the mountains as a place for the mind to wander.


Liu Dan describes rocks as the "stem cells" of landscape, a starting place with infinite possibilities for development, as well as the basis for Chinese people's understanding of space and time. When he portrays particular rocks, such as Universal Sound Stone, he adheres to the form before him. His landscapes, however, seem to unfold organically in an almost inevitable progression that resonates with the artist's "stem cell" concept. As we examine his rock or landscape paintings, seeking to grasp the details of the vast cosmos within, we find them elusive: the gentle touch of the brush is so reserved that not only does it resist revealing the artist's hand, it also stops short of precisely delimiting the rocky form. There is endless latitude for exploration.


[i] Xu Lei, "Twelve Views of Little Openwork: Interview with Liu Dan," Classics Magazine (Beijing, 2004), translated by Hue Wang Mokotoff.