Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi are among the most significant and best-known artists working in China today. Born within a year of each other in 1958 and 1957 respectively, Zhang and Wang entered two of China's most prestigious art academies just as schools re-opened after the Cultural Revolution. If Zhang stayed rather close to his roots, leaving his native Kunming for the Sichuan Academy in the somewhat nearby city of Chongqing, Wang Guangyi might as well have emigrated from China altogether, so stark was the difference between his hometown in China's far northeast and the verdant, well-heeled confines of what was then the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou.
As early entrants to their academies, both Zhang and Wang completed their undergraduate training before the new trends that they were then being exposed to had yet coalesced into what was later dubbed the " '85 Art New Wave" movement. This movement, essentially a collection of smaller, local artist groups strung together by a few national media such as Fine Arts magazine and catalyzed by a series of symposia at Huangshan, is where these two artists made their names and found their roots. In the years after their training, the paths they followed diverged significantly. Zhang went workless for almost a year, ultimately taking a job as a set-painter with a song-and-dance troupe before working his way back to a professorship at his alma mater. Wang on the other hand was sent directly back to his home province to teach at the Harbin Institute of Building and Architecture, where he would engineer the rise of the pivotal "Northern Art Group."
Wang Guangyi's years in Harbin proved crucial to his artistic development; it was there that he created the "Frozen Northern Wastelands" paintings in which simplified human figures work to subtly deconstruct the realist training of his academic years. His "Post-Classical" series, in which these abstracted human forms are arranged into compositions mimicking canonical Western paintings soon followed. A lively conversation among Wang and fellow artists including Shu Qun and Liu Yan as well as novelists, playwrights, and poets had these creative minds convinced that their native Manchuria was the only logical site for the next global cultural renaissance. The party was cut short when Wang Guangyi was reassigned to a teaching post in Zhuhai, a rapidly developing trading town near the border with Macao. There he began work on the series that would distinguish him: "Rationality," a grouping in which these same figures were placed behind grids of red and black boxes. It was in this series that Wang Guangyi worked out the ideas which would ground his iconic triptych of Mao faces beneath a black grid that would appear at the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in 1989. From these later paintings, it was a short step to the "Great Criticism" works for which the artist is perhaps best known.
Sotheby's is pleased to present Wang's major work Red Rationality: Revision of the Idols (Lot XXX), a 1987 canvas that centers a pieta among two other groupings of figures, all behind a starkly haunting red grid. This painting has acquired considerable fame as a representation of this pivotal moment in Wang Guangyi's style, and has been illustrated in books including Lü Peng's History of Modern Chinese Art 1979-1989. It is seen as exemplary of a trend toward "rationalist" painting, prevalent in the latter part of the mid-1980s as artists moved on from the emotional legacies that underlay most of the major works of the immediate post-Cultural Revolution period. The sense of rationality¿here in the guise of a persistent, analytic logic applied to the painted surface in the very literal form of a grid¿would underlie all of Wang's work throughout the 1990s, from his consciously contradictory juxtapositions of capitalist and socialist imagery in the Great Criticism works to the more pointedly geopolitical explorations of his Visa sculptures.
In a sense, nothing could be farther from the logical drive of Wang Guangyi than the lived sentimentality of Zhang Xiaogang's 1989 canvas Tomorrow Will be Brighter (Lot XXX). Zhang Xiaogang spent the late 1980s engaged in a heated dialogue about the necessity and preferred course of painting with his fellow members of the "New Concrete Realism" school based around the Sichuan Academy. For Zhang, this period represented a similar kind of transition¿away from the rustic depictions of life on the Tibetan plateau that had marked his emergence in the earlier part of the decaded, and ultimately toward the expressive vocabulary that would come to underlie his "Big Family" portraits in the 1990s. Zhang Xiaogang's works from the period 1988-1990 are in fact some of the most interesting in his entire oeuvre, as the generic tropes of the peasant girl and the Tibetan family that mark his earliest work give way to a register of almost tribal figures that seem to draw their inspiration from the explorations of European painters including Gauguin and Picasso. Yet Zhang's dalliance with the forms of European modernism¿then cascading into the academy in book after newly translated book was never quite strong enough to fully obscure a sense of his own creative persona. Indeed it was through this dialogue with such earlier commonplaces in the Western painting tradition that Zhang was able to derive his own powerful register of forms and figures that would soon emerge as his signature.
Seeing these two radically different early works together¿particularly at this moment when Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang have emerged into international repute¿provides a jarring reminder of just how many singular voices and schools contributed to the conversations of the 1980s, ultimately laying the groundwork for the very category we now know as "contemporary Chinese art."
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