The New Face of Chinese Art

Courtesy of Sothebys

A painter of portraits that tap into the psychology of his homeland, Zhang Xiaogang has risen from Cynical Realist to global art celebrity.

Smiles don’t come easily to Zhang Xiaogang. Visiting his pristine, sprawling studio in Beijing’s hip Liquor Factory art district, we are surrounded by two dozen of his signature paintings of faces—stoic, unemotional, even solemn. "I once made a painting with a smiling face, but it was really ugly," the 49-year-old artist tells me, letting just a bit of humor slip.

By any measure, Zhang should be beaming. In the last few years his international profile has soared, propelled by the exploding critical and market interest in Chinese contemporary art. His works, avidly sought after by collectors, now routinely top the $2 mil­lion mark at auction. Charles Saatchi owns several, as does David Tang, the Shanghai Tang entrepreneur who was one of his earliest collectors. And Zhang recently joined the powerhouse New York gallery PaceWildenstein, where he will have a solo show this spring. His paintings are so often reproduced on the covers of auction and exhibition catalogues, they have practically become the very face of Chinese art.

The canvases in his studio are huge, one stretching more than 20 feet across. Each is nearly monochrome, like the old black-and-white studio portraits that inspired them. They are strikingly similar to one another, with only subtle var­i­ations in the faces, most accented by small patches of color. "I want to describe how people change psychologically after dra­matic changes take place in a society," Zhang says, via a translator, lighting yet an­­other cigarette. "I share the feel­ings of the subjects in my paintings."

Born in 1958 in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southern China, Zhang grew up during the Cultural Revolution, the period between 1966 and 1976 when intellectual activity was tantamount to treason. At 18, he was sent to labor alongside peasants as part of the "reeducation" program required for all teenagers at the time. But when the art schools reopened in 1977, Zhang was one of the first students to enroll at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chongqing.

After graduating he returned to Kunming and eventually became associated with the Cynical Realists, a group of Beijing painters whose work expressed the country’s collective disenchantment and despair in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. They were the first artists to deal with the psychological conditions of life in China. Because of restrictions imposed by the authorities, many had their initial exhibitions in Hong Kong or Europe.

Zhang’s big debut came when he showed paintings from his signature "Bloodline: Big Family" series at the 1995 Venice Biennale. These portraits of Chinese families— parents with their one permitted child, all dressed identically in Mao suits—remain his best-known works. They are, essentially, a distillation of the Chi­nese experience. "I subtracted from my past and concentrated on memories," he explains. "After a while the past began to look like a dream, like a fantasy." Describing the overall philosophy behind the series, he adds, "Families can fall apart, but bloodlines can never be broken."

With his career shifting into high gear, the artist moved to Beijing in 1999. The paintings in his studio now are mostly of single figures caught in reverie, less tied to a specific period, less concerned about family or society. But there remains a sense of loss, of hopelessness.

"I think there is the same kind of relationship between painting and photography that you find in the early work of Chuck Close, almost like passport pictures with no personality," says Arne Glimcher, chairman of PaceWildenstein, who met Zhang in Bei­jing last May. "You see a connection to classical Mandarin portraiture in this lack of personal identity, but the mood reflects that of China right now."

Joining Pace’s stable, which shows artists such as Close, Robert Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, and James Turrell, takes Zhang’s career to a new level. Like many Chinese artists, he has avoided exclusive representation throughout his career, doing exhibitions with the Max Protetch Gallery in New York and Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery but without formal commitments. For his first outing at Pace, paintings are expected to be priced around $500,000.

In China, where artists are treated like movie stars, Zhang is almost as famous for his round face and round glasses as he is for his paintings. He speaks with authority but not arrogance, and unlike some of his colleagues enriched by the Chinese art boom, he has avoided flaunting a millionaire’s lifestyle. Though he has an assistant, Zhang finishes all his works himself, logging long hours in the studio while listening to American rock music. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from becoming something of a one-man production line, churning out pictures and occasionally filling custom or­­ders for the right collector.

Despite pressure to keep doing "Bloodline" paintings, Zhang has experimented with different subjects. Some works are more personal, such as the photos and paintings of his home and studio that were shown at Protetch in 2005 and 2006. Others are monumentally public, like his paintings of Tiananmen Square, one of which made $2.3 million at Christie’s Hong Kong last year. (A record at the time, that price was eclipsed in September when Sotheby’s New York sold a 1992 canvas for $3.1 million.) "More than any other Chinese artist," says Christie’s specialist Ingrid Dudek, "Zhang captures a romantic, tragic expression that allows viewers to immediately connect with the work on an emotional level."

Zhang, for his part, insists his works have never been calculated to appeal to buyers. When asked why so many people respond to his paintings, he replies, "I don’t know, myself—I always follow my heart."