China’s $10 Million Artist Pursues Spartan Life in NYC

“Every morning I wake up between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., have a cup of coffee, read the news and head to the studio,” says artist Zhang Xiaogang, “where I stay until 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.”

It’s a Spartan routine for China’s priciest living artist, who achieved that status when his triptych titled “Forever Lasting Love” sold for $10.2 million at a Hong Kong auction in 2011.

His latest works, a mix of paintings and sculptures, are now on view at the Pace Gallery in New York’s Chelsea area where the opening last week attracted several hundred guests.

Four new canvases of parents and children and dreary rooms hang in one wing of the 8,000-square-foot gallery. In the main area, pedestals display 17 sculptures, including a 6-inch-tall head of a young girl and a bust of a bespectacled young man measuring 5 feet and weighing 600 pounds. Each sculpture was hand- or spray-painted, with some textures recalling clay or marble.

Zhang still lives in China where his works were banned until 1997, he said. The series that attracted Chinese censors and Western patrons was called “Bloodline: Big Family” and was inspired by a trove of family photographs from the days of the Cultural Revolution.

The paintings depicted stiff, vacant-eyed children and adults, wearing Communist garb and linked by thin, red lines.

In 2006, a “Bloodline” canvas fetched $979,200 at Sotheby’s in New York. At Pace, the prices are $50,000 to $250,000 for sculptures and $550,000 to $1.2 million for paintings. Most works sold within the show’s first week.

Moving Forward

“Since 2006, I am trying to move forward as an artist,” said Zhang, 56, through a translator during an interview at Pace. “But whenever people come to my studio, they always ask about the work I did 20 years ago.”

Bald and bespectacled, Zhang looks like an older incarnation of the children in his new paintings and sculptures. We spoke on the eve of the opening, as a forklift moved heavy sculptures around and assistants measured and hung the paintings.

The sculptures were cast at the Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry in upstate New York, which has produced works for artists including Jeff Koons and Claes Oldenburg.

Zhang spent the past month in New York, painting the sculptures by hand in a temporary studio on West 18th Street. They look like three-dimensional versions of his “Bloodline” characters: a girl with pigtails, a boy in sailor cap, naked infants.

Another Idea

Overall, preparations for the show took three years, Zhang said, and came down to the wire. The last bronze was completed at 10 p.m. on Tuesday before the Thursday opening.

“It’s hard to get the work away from him,” said Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace. “He paints it, then he gets another idea and he adds to it.”

In new paintings, the adults and children occupy sparsely furnished rooms, with walls painted green and gray and bonsai on side tables.

“It’s a typical Chinese setting from the 1970s,” said Zhang. “My parents kept this color until the 1990s.”

“The Position of Father” depicts a toddler leaning back in an armchair as if he were an adult and wearing blue pajamas with a big hole in the front.

“That’s a typical Chinese onesie,” said Zhang. “We didn’t have diapers. It was very convenient.”

In one painting, a neatly folded white shirt and blue trousers are laid out on a bed.

“It’s the outfit I wanted the most as a child,” said Zhang. “We could not afford it and I was very envious of the boys who had it.”

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater, Alec McCabe on books.

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