Known for surreal scenes drawing on images from modernist art and Old Master paintings, Beijing-based painter Liu Ye has arisen as a market force in Asia, ranking first among contemporary artists for the Hong Kong summer auction series this season.
With a style influenced by state censorship in China during his childhood in the years after the Cultural Revolution, Liu’s autobiographical work documents the sociopolitical transition in China. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Chinese artists who coalesced into schools known as Cynical Realism or Political Pop which were characterized by satire and political dissidence, Liu Ye’s practice developed independently, in part due to a four-year stint in Germany in the early 1990s and an residency in Amsterdam in his early career.
The artist has drawn a strong following among Asian and European collectors. Accordingly, there has been a good amount of institutional attention paid to him in both China and Europe. His works were featured in the main exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. One year later, Liu was the subject of a solo survey at Shanghai’s Prada Rong Zhai, which showcased a group of works from 1992 and after; the show later traveled to Milan’s Fondazione Prada, where it recently reopened following a coronavirus lockdown.
Market specialists point to the 2018 Prada show as a turning point for the artist. “The Prada exhibition in Shanghai,” said Isaure de Viel Castel, Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art for Phillips Asia, “was an eye-opening moment for a younger generation of collectors.”
More recently, the Western blue-chip galleries have increased attention to Chinese contemporary artists. In 2019, David Zwirner added Liu Ye to its roster, making it the second U.S. gallery to take on the artist, after Sperone Westwater who showcased the artist three times between 2006 and 2012. Zwirner will mount a solo show of Liu’s work in November in New York and publish catalogue raisonne of his new book series.
Udo Kittelmann, the curator of “Storytelling,” the Prada show, described Liu’s work as “pictorial messages relayed between two worlds that are often viewed as contradictory: Western cultures versus Asian cultures.”
“In our contemporary world, where images are in constant circulation, our idea of bridging East and West seems increasingly outdated,” said David Leiber, a partner at David Zwirner. “There is a distinctive pictorial structure in his compositions—their rigor, symmetry, and attention to negative space—which give the work an abstract quality shared by both the Song Dynasty painters in China, as well the Modernists like Mondrian and Morandi.”
Several sales of Liu’s works in the July 2020 auctions show promising results. Leave Me Alone in the Dark sold for $5.8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, coming in just under the record for Liu’s art, which was set by SMOKE (2001–02). That work, which came from the Gillion Crowet Collection, achieved $6.7 million at Sotheby’s in October 2019. The previous auction record for Liu was set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013 when Sword was sold for HKD 42.7 million ($5.51 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The results coincide with an expanding resale market, which, according to art market data from Artprice, saw 48 works by the artist generate a total annual turnover of $47.4 million in 2019. That was growth of 410 percent from 2018.
In the summer contemporary auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips staged in Hong Kong, Liu lead the group with eight paintings offered in the day and evening sales achieving a combined total of HKD 139 million ($18 million) and accounting for 5.27 percent of the total market share. This placed the artist as the fourth-highest earner in the Asia-based sales, behind modernists Sanyu, Zao Wou-Ki, and Chu Te-Chun. Christie’s sold Mondrian in London for HKD 22.9 million ($3 million) and Wie Germalt for HKD 13.3 million ($1.7 million). At Phillips, Liu’s Choir of Angels (Red) sold for HKD $27.7 million ($3.6 million), achieving a price four times higher than the work’s low estimate of HKD 2.8 million. A deeper dive into those results shows that five of those works hammered above their high estimates, and the remaining three placed within the pre-sale value ranges which indicates a competitive stable of bidders keeping up the market’s momentum.
Among collectors, Liu’s coveted works are paintings featuring red hues which refer to Maoist imagery, as well as a recognizable images like soldiers, Magritte’s bowler hat, meticulously replicated Mondrian paintings and variations on the theme of a young girl, something of an avatar in his work.
Sotheby’s Head of Research for Contemporary Art Asia Michele Chan said that while some symbols may appear to be politically charged the references are more abstract. “Red for him is the color of his childhood, the background against which he grew up,” Chan said. “For him, it’s describing his early childhood memories, or psychological memories.” Lieber notes his early German years produced an “almost encyclopedic understanding of figurative and abstract traditions, from Leonardo Di Vinci to Barnett Newman,” mining both European modernism and Chinese art history.
de Viel Castel says a key market inflection point followed a 2007 solo show at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland when works started to achieve the $1 million mark. In April 2010, Bright road went for $2.5 million at Sotheby’s, marking “a clear sign that this artist was meant to stay,” de Viel Castel said. In the following months, the sale of his 1996 Baishi knew Mondrian at Poly auction in December 2010 brought $4.4 million, seven times its low estimate of $600,000. Next came the new benchmark set by Sword.
Although these sales represent a rising market, experts say it has yet to fully mature. “Up until now there has been a focus on his more figurative works,” said Lieber. This season, however, introduced less-recognizable images to test buyer demand. According to de Viel Castel , Liu’s single-figure pictures of women with child-like expressions have begun generating interest. The result in Phillips Hong Kong sales, which saw Girl!, a pink ground female nude, hammer above the high estimate to achieve a seven-figure mark suggests tastes are expanding.
Despite the concentration of sales in Asia, specialists emphasize Liu Ye’s oeuvre surpasses regional trend or movement. Noting a rigorous attention to history that gives the artist staying power, Lieber claims the painter’s work is “totally independent from the market.”
“His market broadened beyond Asia into Europe and North America in the 2000s” according to Lieber. Until his first New York show, in 2006, which the Zwirner executive organized, “his paintings were found mostly in Asian collections, which is still true today in fact” said Lieber. Still, Liu’s work are held in prominent European collections like that of Uli Sigg in Bern and the Fu Ruide Collection that have impacted his international recognition. Liu Ye’s market has seen swift price milestones in the past two decades— and as Zwirner bolsters the artist’s status in the U.S., he is a candidate for further growth in an increasingly globalizing market.