Meet the New Titans of Contemporary Chinese Art

Zhang Huan's "1/2." Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Huan

Chinese contemporary art has been an up-and-coming market the past few years, and the heady Christie’s International auction that happened earlier this week in Hong Kong underscored that, bringing in $108.3 million in one day — four times the top estimate. Several of the artists are becoming hot names in the New York art world. Here’s a primer. —Andrew M. Goldstein

Pyrotechnical installation, Warsaw 2005. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Cai Guo-Qiang
Born 1957, Fujian Province; lives in New York.

Think: Christo + Anselm Kiefer + George Plimpton

Bio: Cai has been incorporating gunpowder into his work for twenty years, creating “explosion events” like last summer's “Clear Sky Black Cloud” at the Met — a daily puff of smoke made with a firework launched from the rooftop — as well as artfully scorched, blown-up works on paper. He also makes massive pieces that incorporate themes from Chinese history and philosophy. Currently he’s the art director for the Beijing Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies.

Valuation: “Cai has for a long time been at the forefront of his generation, and now his international reputation and his ability to work with the Chinese government has propelled him to another level,” a highly placed expert on the contemporary Chinese market tells us. “He's certainly one of the handful of artists that any collector should be looking at.” Because there are very few of his works on the market, they should remain in high demand.

Big sale: Last week an anonymous bidder purchased a set of fourteen gunpowder-on-paper works at Christie's for $9.5 million, a record for Chinese contemporary art.

Coming to a museum near you? The Guggenheim will exhibit a major retrospective of Cai's work in February; his art is also in MoMA's permanent collection.

"Fighting"Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Yue Minjun
Born 1962, Heilongjiang Province; lives in Beijing.

Think: Francis Bacon + Lucas Samaras + The Joker

Bio: The contemporary Chinese scene's most recognizable artist, Yue paints and sculpts larger-than-life absurdist self-portraits with flushed pink skin and grotesque, distended smiles. His style originated in the early nineties as a critique of growing consumerism in post–Tiananmen Square China, and his paintings occasionally reference works of Western art, including those of Picasso and Manet.

Valuation: “It's an icon market, so Yue's work has the same kind of recognition value as a Warhol,” says our expert. “I think his early work is certainly of art-historical value and importance. At its worst, it's repetition.”

Big sale: A fifteen-painting set of Yue's self-portraits sold for $2.78 million at Christie's last week. Another of his works, Execution, went for $5.9 million at Sotheby's last month, then the record for contemporary Chinese painting.

Coming to a museum near you? “Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile,” the artist's first U.S. museum show, is on view at the Queens Museum of Art through January 6. “I Love Laughing” is showing at the Asia Society, also through January 6.

"Family Tree"Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan
Born 1965, Henan Province; lives in Shanghai.

Think: Marina Abramovic + Damien Hirst + David Blaine

Bio: A conceptual artist best known for taking performance works to masochistic extremes, Zhang came to prominence with 12 Square Meters, a 1994 piece for which he covered himself in fish oil and honey and sat naked in a Beijing public toilet, allowing himself to be enveloped by flies; other times he has had himself locked in a box or suspended from a ceiling in chains, naked and bleeding. Recently Zhang abandoned performance art for painting and sculpture, using ashes from Buddhist temples to form monumental heads and making wood carvings and metal works; his huge studio complex employs dozens of artists.

Valuation: While Zhang hasn't fetched impressive sums at auction so far, his best work — the paintings and sculpture he's been making for the past two years — has not yet appeared on the secondary market. Our expert: “He might be considered undervalued.”

Big sale: A fifteen-work photographic “Foam” series sold for $101,174 at this week’s Christie's auction.

Coming to a museum near you? “Zhang Huan: Altered States,” his first museum retrospective, is on view at the Asia Society until January 20.

"Template"Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ai Weiwei
Born 1957, Beijing; lives in Beijing.

Think: Marcel Duchamp + Jeff Koons + the Sex Pistols

Bio: The son of a famous poet who fell out of Mao's favor during the Cultural Revolution, Ai spent his youth in a reeducation camp near the Gobi Desert before joining the dissident cultural scene in Beijing. After studying art in New York for much of the eighties, Ai returned to China and began curating punkish avant-garde shows and creating controversial works that involved the defacement or destruction of Chinese artifacts, including a Han-dynasty vase he famously let drop while a camera rolled. He most famously co-curated a Shanghai show called “Fuck Off” in 1999. Recently he has turned to large-scale sculpture and installations, assembled in a sprawling Beijing workshop, and collaborated with Herzog & de Meuron to design the distinctive “bird's nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics.

Valuation: "While he's really an impresario now — he does a lot of things, and he has an important social role to play — in terms of the type of work that he produces, we haven't seen a signature style from him yet," says our expert. “So I think the jury's still out on him in terms of his market value.”

Big sale: A two-ton crystal-and-steel work, Chandelier, sold for $657,000 at Sotheby's in New York this September.

Coming to a museum near you? A major new installation by Ai will be on view at Mary Boone's Chelsea gallery from March 8 to April 26.

"La Vie Continue-Love"Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Zhang Xiaogang
Born 1958, Yunnan Province; lives in Beijing.

Think: Early Picasso + Magritte + Pixar

Bio: After being separated from his parents when they were sent to a camp during the Cultural Revolution, Zhang himself underwent reeducation and then studied at the renowned Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, graduating into China's artistic counterculture. Zhang is best known for his much-in-demand “Bloodline” series paintings, which combine the motifs of traditional Chinese portrait photography with a surrealist approach to create unsettling, almost cartoonish images that evoke the family photos destroyed under Mao's regime.

Valuation: Until recently Zhang was the market leader in contemporary Chinese art, and his iconic style is attractive to collectors. “But he's kind of like Yue Minjun,” our expert says. “His works from the early nineties were really fantastic, but he has had a tendency to repeat his composition. And if you look at the early works, they're much better painted than the later ones.” Lately he has increasingly farmed out his paintings to assistants.

Big sale: This week at Christie's Xiaogang's Portrait in Yellow sold for $2,919,921. At a November 14 Sotheby's auction in New York, the artist's Family Portrait went for $4,969,000.

Coming to a museum near you? He's been represented by PaceWildenstein since April.