Mas­ters of Rein­ven­tion

On the eve of a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of his Hong Kong gallery, in­flu­en­tial art dealer Larry Gagosian joins cel­e­brated Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary artist Zeng Fanzhi to dis­cuss their re­la­tion­ship and the fu­ture of Asia’s art ecosys­tem with Wil­liam Zhao

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features - In­tro­duc­tion madeleine ross Photography Chris sorensen


they are two of the big­gest names in the art world: Zeng Fanzhi and Larry Gagosian. Hailed by the New York Times as “China’s hottest artist,” 52-year-old Zeng holds the record for the most ex­pen­sive Asian con­tem­po­rary work sold at auc­tion (The Last Sup­per drew US$23.3 mil­lion when it went un­der the ham­mer at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in Oc­to­ber 2013). The straight-talk­ing Gagosian is widely con­sid­ered the world’s most pow­er­ful art dealer, with 16 com­mer­cial gal­leries across the US, Europe, the UK and Asia.

Zeng is the only liv­ing Chi­nese artist rep­re­sented by Gagosian, whose sta­ble of con­tem­po­rary artists in­cludes Jeff Koons, Takashi Mu­rakami and Anselm Kiefer. He has also ex­hib­ited the work of leg­endary fig­ures such as Fran­cis Ba­con, Claude Monet, Jack­son Pol­lock, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. When Gagosian set up a Hong Kong gallery in 2011, one of the first ex­hi­bi­tions was a solo show of Zeng’s work. Since then the two have fos­tered a lu­cra­tive re­la­tion­ship. The fa­mously pro­lific artist has been de­scribed as a master of rein­ven­tion, the gal­lerist re­lent­less in his pur­suit of a deal.

The son of print­ing fac­tory work­ers from Wuhan, Zeng dropped out of school at 16 to join his par­ents at work. Draw­ing pro­vided a re­lease from the daily drudgery, and a few years later he ap­plied to study at art school. He failed the en­trance ex­ams five times but was fi­nally ac­cepted in 1987 into the Hubei In­sti­tute of Fine Arts, where he de­vel­oped a par­tic­u­lar ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Ger­man ex­pres­sion­ism. Af­ter a stint at an ad­ver­tis­ing agency, he moved to Bei­jing in 1993 and com­mit­ted him­self to art full-time. His 30-year ca­reer has been marked by di­ver­sity, from fig­u­ra­tive re­al­ism to ab­stract land­scapes. His most fa­mous se­ries is Mask, which ex­presses the alien­ation he felt upon mov­ing to Bei­jing and wit­ness­ing the rapid changes tak­ing place in the newly rich so­ci­ety, and the Ul­lens Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bei­jing re­cently staged a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of his work.

While Zeng was in school, Gagosian, a grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, was work­ing as the man­ager of a car park in LA. He no­ticed a man sell­ing posters nearby and, with his keen eye for busi­ness, re­alised that he him­self could sell posters at higher prices if he sold them in frames. Soon he had his own poster shop and then be­gan ex­hibit­ing the work of pho­tog­ra­phers, build­ing a net­work of col­lec­tors and in­flu­en­tial friends. It wasn’t long be­fore he moved into the world of fine art and his em­pire grew from there.

Asia con­tin­ues to be a cru­cial mar­ket for Gagosian. This year he will greatly en­large his Hong Kong gallery, tak­ing another floor in the Ped­der Build­ing. He also in­tends to take on other Asian con­tem­po­rary artists.

Wil­liam Zhao (WZ): Larry, why did you choose to take on Zeng Fanzhi as the gallery’s first Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary artist?

Larry Gagosian (LG): Friends of mine, col­lec­tors I re­spect and mu­se­ums were col­lect­ing his work and, since we were open­ing a gallery in Asia, I felt it was im­por­tant that we rep­re­sent a great Chi­nese artist. Look­ing at his work pri­mar­ily through cat­a­logues and on­line re­pro­duc­tions, I was im­pressed with his abil­ity. He is a very tal­ented painter and I found his tal­ent very ac­ces­si­ble. There is other work that is more em­bed­ded in Asian cul­ture—and maybe in time I will ap­pre­ci­ate that more—but com­ing from my tra­di­tion, I found his tech­ni­cal abil­ity and his de­vel­op­ment stylis­ti­cally ex­tremely im­pres­sive. It was also clear he had al­ready de­vel­oped a good mar­ket and that there were strong prices at auc­tion. And my good friend François Pin­ault [a vet­eran art col­lec­tor and ma­jor share­holder in re­tail con­glom­er­ate Ker­ing] had been a great sup­porter of Fanzhi’s art for many years. I re­spect his judg­ment and I felt this was the right artist for our gallery.

WZ: And Fanzhi, why did you choose to col­lab­o­rate with Gagosian Gallery?

Zeng Fanzhi (ZF): Gagosian is a good dis­play brand. For me, their space is very good for set­ting up my large-scale works. I de­sign ev­ery ex­hibit my­self, and I al­ways mock up the room to scale to see the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the size of the wall and my work. Many el­e­ments are care­fully se­lected and spe­cially tai­lor­made. This gallery is al­ways able to meet my high stan­dards and many re­quire­ments. Gagosian has given me a plat­form to ex­per­i­ment, and to grow and de­velop as an artist. Ev­ery time I set up an ex­hi­bi­tion, I will study and ex­plore the dif­fer­ent lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion, back­grounds and men­tal­ity of the view­ers to see what their re­ac­tions are. I think it makes sense for an ex­hi­bi­tion to have this mu­tual ex­change. I can­not just draw at home not car­ing about any­thing. Artists usu­ally have a good strong self, a per­sonal ideal, but in do­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion you still want to cre­ate an in­ter­est­ing ex­change with ev­ery­one.

WZ: And how would you char­ac­terise your re­la­tion­ship with Larry Gagosian?

ZF: We have a lot of re­spect for each other. In col­lab­o­rat­ing with Larry I meet many dif­fer­ent, very in­ter­est­ing peo­ple. He has

a good at­ti­tude as a gallery owner. He is sin­cere and we have es­tab­lished a good long-term part­ner­ship. Ba­si­cally, he gives me a lot of free­dom and his team is very pro­fes­sional. Ev­ery time I cre­ate and de­sign ex­hi­bi­tions, he be­lieves in me and gives me am­ple sup­port.

WZ: What does Gagosian have in com­mon with other gal­leries who’ve fea­tured your work?

ZF: The ben­e­fit of work­ing with gal­leries like Gagosian is the qual­ity of ex­hi­bi­tions they pro­duce. I’ve ab­sorbed and learned a lot from these ex­hi­bi­tions, get­ting dif­fer­ent view­points from guests and other artists who visit. Even within the same ex­hi­bi­tion, one can gain dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, ex­plore dif­fer­ent pre­sen­ta­tion meth­ods—how artists are in­tro­duced to au­di­ences—and how to set up works of art. Large or­gan­i­sa­tions will take the time to do their re­search be­fore launch­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion. For ex­am­ple, when I saw an ex­hi­bi­tion on Monet by one such gallery, I was so im­pressed by how the var­i­ous works were dis­played, em­pha­sis­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the colours the artist chose in each work. I thought it was very pow­er­ful—and this is the kind of re­la­tion­ship I’d like to have with gal­leries I work with, es­tab­lish­ments that con­sider how and where to tell my story, and what kind of story I want to tell.

WZ: Larry, when you part­nered with Zeng Fanzhi, the artist al­ready had a lot of sup­port­ers in China. No doubt this helped your busi­ness flour­ish in Asia. On the other hand, the gallery in­tro­duced Fanzhi’s work to a lot of in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tors. It seems like a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial part­ner­ship.

LG: To a de­gree we took on Zeng Fanzhi to show good­will to China’s art-col­lect­ing public. It was a po­lit­i­cal state­ment. But I wouldn’t have taken the artist on if I didn’t like or wasn’t im­pressed by the work. I think our re­la­tion­ship also ben­e­fits Fanzhi be­cause

hav­ing a top-level in­ter­na­tional gallery like ours rep­re­sent­ing him gives Asian col­lec­tors more con­fi­dence in col­lect­ing his work.

WZ: Do you think Fanzhi’s works are eas­ily un­der­stood by West­ern view­ers?

LG: I think that is one of the strengths of this artist; even if the West­ern au­di­ence doesn’t un­der­stand how the cul­ture is re­flected in his work, the sheer beauty and tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency is very se­duc­tive and com­pelling.

WZ: Ten years ago Hong Kong was not the art cap­i­tal it is to­day, yet you de­cided to set up a gallery here. How did you know Asia would be­come such a big mar­ket?

LG: It had a lot to do with wealth cre­ation in Asia, which has been amaz­ing—new bil­lion­aires, new mu­se­ums. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors. It’s the same rea­son any mar­ket be­comes stronger. There is a strong col­lect­ing base and there is a cer­tain amount of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween Asian col­lec­tors. They go to some­body’s house and see a Pi­casso, then they want a Pi­casso, which is nor­mal. So I think it’s a com­bi­na­tion of more ex­po­sure and hav­ing the fi­nan­cial ca­pac­ity to pur­sue it.

WZ: China’s art mar­ket is still emerg­ing and the col­lec­tors are still in need of ed­u­ca­tion. As a lead­ing in­ter­na­tional gallery, do you think you should play an ed­u­ca­tional role in China to en­sure a healthy and sus­tain­able art ecosys­tem?

LG: I don’t re­ally think so. I think do­ing ex­hi­bi­tions is a form of ed­u­ca­tion. We don’t do sem­i­nars or panel dis­cus­sions, which could be some­thing to think about in the fu­ture, but my role is not that of an ed­u­ca­tor. We ex­hibit art, we try to sell the art. I think that be­cause of our rep­u­ta­tion world­wide, col­lec­tors have con­fi­dence in what we are do­ing. It’s not like we’re a gallery that opened six months ago, and that makes peo­ple more com­fort­able col­lect­ing the artists that we rep­re­sent. I think they feel what­ever they buy is more likely to be­come part of art his­tory.

WZ: To­day Gagosian Gallery has 16 premises around the world. Why did you choose Hong Kong for your first gallery in Asia in­stead of Bei­jing or Shang­hai?

LG: I thought we would have the best chance of suc­cess in Hong Kong. I just felt more com­fort­able with Hong Kong’s le­gal struc­ture and tax struc­ture. I’m not say­ing a gallery couldn’t be suc­cess­ful in Main­land China, but I thought there would be fewer sur­prises in Hong Kong. There’s a more pre­dictable eco­nomic struc­ture and it seemed to me that, in terms of wealth cre­ation and life­style, Hong Kong was ahead of the main­land.

WZ: Fanzhi, con­sid­er­ing that Gagosian has been ex­pand­ing around the world, and you’ve said that new spa­ces give you a lot of ideas, have you thought about or­gan­is­ing ex­hi­bi­tions in places you haven’t been yet?

ZF: Since I’ve just done a big one, it will take some time be­fore I am able to gen­er­ate ideas for the next. It takes a lot of cre­ativ­ity to pre­pare for an ex­hi­bi­tion, and I want to take the time to study and hone new ideas. There are many as­pects to an ex­hi­bi­tion, and a con­cept or an idea will only suc­ceed if your work is ma­ture enough and you are ready to com­mu­ni­cate it to oth­ers.

WZ: The Ul­lens Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bei­jing re­cently did a ret­ro­spec­tive on you. Do you think you’ve come to a point where you’ve achieved what you’ve set out to do as an artist?

ZF: Not yet. As an artist I can­not rely solely on ex­hi­bi­tions and gal­leries to achieve my goals. For more peo­ple to recog­nise my work, I need to go slowly, and I need time. That ret­ro­spec­tive was about a walk that took 30 years.

WZ: Many Chi­nese col­lec­tors who started by col­lect­ing Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary art are now col­lect­ing more Euro­pean and Amer­i­can art. Why the change?

LG: In my ex­pe­ri­ence, when a col­lec­tor starts col­lect­ing they very of­ten col­lect lo­cal artists. Even­tu­ally you start to look be­yond artists from your own cul­ture. There is a great his­tory of art in Europe and Amer­ica, so for some­body in­vest­ing a lot of money in art, that his­tory gives them con­fi­dence. Peo­ple have con­fi­dence in names. Andy Warhol is like a brand, just like Monet and Pi­casso.

WZ: Do you worry that the Chi­nese art mar­ket is in a bub­ble, like the bub­ble of the 1980s in Ja­pan dur­ing which record prices were paid for pieces of West­ern art?

LG: To me the Asian mar­ket looks very healthy. I don’t think about dan­ger be­cause if you be­come too cau­tious, you lose the mo­men­tum in the mar­ket. The mar­ket now is re­ally pretty strong and I don’t think it’s highly spec­u­la­tive. We are meet­ing more and more col­lec­tors, there’s a great mu­seum be­ing built in Bei­jing and other mu­se­ums in and out­side of Hong Kong, so I think it looks good.

WZ: Do you have your eye on any young or emerg­ing artists right now?

LG: I think now is not the best mo­ment for young artists. It goes in cy­cles a bit and we are now in a pe­riod of con­sol­i­dat­ing. I think emerg­ing artists were a hot­ter topic maybe six or seven years ago. Now peo­ple are de­cid­ing what re­ally has value and what is not go­ing to be around for­ever. I’ve seen this cy­cle ever since I’ve been in busi­ness. There are pe­ri­ods where there are all these new gal­leries and new artists, and then it gets to a point where there are just too many artists and peo­ple go, ‘Hey, slow down, there can’t be a ge­nius ev­ery month.’ Peo­ple don’t want to re­spond to the flavour of the month con­stantly. They say, ‘I want to see who’s go­ing to make it to the next step,’ and I think that’s the phase we’re in right now.

WZ: Now you have 16 gal­leries. Are you plan­ning to launch any new gal­leries in Asia?

LG: I love Shang­hai. I love Tokyo. We are very ag­gres­sive but we have to be care­ful and do a good deal of re­search for gallery ex­pan­sion. I re­mem­ber there were gal­leries that were go­ing to open in Brazil be­cause ev­ery­one made in­cred­i­ble sales there the first year of the [Ar­trio] art fair. Then all of a sud­den the econ­omy got slammed. If the Chi­nese stock mar­ket col­lapses, or if the Hong Kong stock mar­ket col­lapses, it will af­fect ev­ery­thing: art, Cartier wrist watches, etc. I try to fol­low what’s go­ing on in the world with economies; I’m not a ge­nius but I try to keep an eye on it and try to make smart de­ci­sions. Gagosian Gallery will be ex­hibit­ing at Art Basel in Hong Kong, which runs from March 23 to 25 at the Hong Kong Con­ven­tion and Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre. Gagosian is part of the Gal­leries sec­tor, which presents art from 187 of the world’s lead­ing mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries, dis­play­ing paint­ings, sculp­tures, draw­ings, in­stal­la­tions, pho­to­graphs, film, and video and dig­i­tal art­works from the 20th and 21st cen­turies. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit art­

WALL OF EMO­TION Works by Zeng Fanzhi on dis­play at Gagosian Gallery in New York

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