TEXT : Selina Ting [Editor-in-Chief, COBO Social]
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists
Original Text published on COBO Social on 1 Dec 2016. Courtesy of COBO Social
“Wonderful picture! Congratulations Cecily, this picture will remain in a major home in Hong Kong. Very exciting”
“Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this painting. Thanks! Still remember painting it.”
These are a few of the exchanges on social media between Brett Gorvy, Christie’s Chairman and International Head of the Post-War & Contemporary Art division, and artist Cecily Brown (b.1969) which confirmed our belief that her stunning Can Can painting would be sold to an important Hong Kong-based Asian collector at the private sale show, The Loaded Brush (Hong Kong, 24 – 28 November 2016). Rumour has it that the 1998 oil painting was sold for a significant sum.
The sale caught our attention, not only for how much the painting sold, but also for what it revealed to the market about the fast-evolving buying habits of Asian collectors.
We have learnt with amazement how, in the last few years, Asian collectors have snapped up masterpieces of modern and contemporary Western for astronomical amounts of money at auction. Asian collectors are announcing their débuts in the international art market and buying themselves entrance tickets to be among the big boys through high-profile acquisitions, such as the US$170.4 million with fees that was paid for Modigliani’s Nu Chouché (1917-1918) by the flamboyant Chinese collector Liu Yiqian last year, the record-breaking US$57.2 million paid for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) that Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa took home with him, or the US$17.4 million that the Hong Kong collector Joseph Lau paid a decade ago for the Mao painting, which was a record price for an Andy Warhol. The painting was on display at the Loaded Brush show.
While buying big names has proved to be an effective way of claiming territories in the fierce battle of egos, most Asian private collections end up with less desirable pieces and a collection that lacks personality and sophistication.
However, such a catch-22 situation may no longer be valid, and it is the Cecily Brown sale that gives us hope.
The London-born, New York-based artist painted Can Can in 1998 and exhibited the canvas at her solo show, High Society, at Deith Projects (NY) in the same year. The work was subsequently sold to the previous owner after the show and finally brought to Asia by Christie’s for private sale, where it shared the walls with an array of masters, like Picasso, Andy Warhol, De Kooning, Gerhard Richter, Richard Prince, etc. Named after the famous music hall dance repertoire, Can Can is a striking example of Brown’s powerful expressionistic body of work that successfully brought her to the forefront of contemporary painting in the late 1990s. Its chaotic mixture of multiple layers of nude Can Can dancers, fragmented body parts, suggestive musical instruments, torn costumes and ornaments, are all tightly entangled in a dynamic composition that includes traceable gestural brushwork, dipped deep in lurid yellows, pinks and greens. The painting depicts a lavish dance performance that has been turned into a frenetic sexual scene, where the dancers and the viewers (both of the performance and of the painting) wallow in an opulent feast of flesh and ecstasy. Equally baroque and grotesquely erotic, this piece is typical of Brown’s early work in terms of its subject matter and painterly style. Blurring the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, Brown entrenches her artistic practices in the history of painting. Though she is often compared to De Kooning and Francis Bacon in her overtly sexualised depiction of women, Brown gives the painting a humorous twist by overturning the male objectification of female figures in painting history and instead provides a feminist redux – transforming sexuality, violence and opulence into an unflagging examination of human nature.
Now, if a Cecily Brown artwork seems to be an obvious choice for most Western collectors, this is not the case for their Asian counterparts. First of all, Brown’s meteoric rise to art world fame has remained an Anglo-Saxon business, as she’s relatively unknown in Asia compared to her contemporaries, such as the YBAs. Secondly, the historical significance of her work, both in terms of painting language and feminist debate, simply eludes most Asian collectors as they don’t have the context to encompass it. Thirdly, Brown’s style and subject matter have little or zero resemblance to anything in Asian culture that would appeal to either the collectors’ aesthetics or sentiments. Fourthly, there is uncertainty in the region’s reselling market. Last but not least, it would not provide any gloss to your list of glamorous artists if you already have a Christopher Wool, a Damien Hirst, a Jeff Koons, or an Adrian Ghenie on it.
So it is very encouraging for the art market that, under these circumstances, an Asian collector has decided to bring the piece home at a significant price. This signifies a new and far more globalised perspective on art than we had imagined existed; and proves to us that a new generation of Asian collectors is coming to the scene much earlier than we had expected, with more confidence in their taste and choice of artwork than we realised. It is now clear that they too can be risk-takers and participate in the defining process of the global art market.
We do not know exactly who the buyer of the Cecily Brown painting is, but this is not the first “atypical-Asian-friendly” work that’s been sold to an Asian collector. We have been impressed by certain pieces among the Asian collections, such as the multimedia installation work, My Epidemic, by the unapologetically intellectual French artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar at the K11 Art Foundation earlier this year, as well as an early video work of the art collective Granular Synthesis in the Jakarta-based collector Wiyu Wahono’s collection, a Ceal Floyer sound piece ‘Til I Get It Right at the Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani’s house in Bangladesh, a Thomas Houseago’s monumental plaster and plywood white man sculpture at the Qiao Zhibing collection, and several Sterling Ruby artworks in different collections across Asia. This trend has been highlighted by the Cecily Brown acquisition and the auction houses are among the first to detect and respond to this new demand.
While auction houses are competing hard in the private sales battleground, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have sought new strategies in recent years, by holding well-researched and curated private sale shows. Take the Loaded Brush, Christie’s first curated private sale show in Asia, for example. It comprises of three parts: Impressionism, modern and contemporary art, and loans from private Asian collections. The loan pieces work particularly well as an anchor for other Asian collectors, as they immediately create a connection and a context, unconsciously giving new ideas and opening up possibilities for the hungry viewers. Brett Gorvy was testing the water with the sale of the Cecily Brown painting and has proved himself right.
Confronting new forms of art can be disconcerting, as big names are akin to big brands that succeed in reassuring buyers they are dealing with the epitome of human creation and their investments are, therefore, secure and smart. With confidence and sophistication, Asian collectors are now taking bold steps to build a collection with personal imprints. Hence, it’s important for the multinational mega-galleries to take note that Asian collectors are becoming pickier and want only first-grade pieces by artists, whether they are established or emerging. So, next time you pack up an unsold piece that has toured your European and American spaces by a blue chip artist for your next opening in Hong Kong, think twice!