Masters of Reinvention
Larry Gagosian & Zeng Fanzhi
By Madeline Ross, interview by William Zhao
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.
See also: 10 Things To See At Art Basel
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.
CONTINUE READING: William Zhao interviews Larry Gagosian and Zeng Fanzhi
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. For more information, visit artbasel.com