At Zeng Fanzhi’s Beijing studio in the artist enclave of Caochangdi, a garlanded statue greets guests; carp swim in a courtyard pond and inside, the sunlight pours through the skylights. The zen surroundings are suitably auspicious for the most famous contemporary artist living and working in China (with Ai Weiwei in exile in Berlin). Zeng grabbed global attention in 2013 when his “Last Supper” oil painting sold for €19m at Sotheby’s. But four years later that price tag – still an auction record for an Asian artist – hangs heavily around the 53-year-old’s neck.
The four-metre-long oil painting substitutes Leonardo’s 12 disciples for communist boy scouts; completed in 2001, it is the most famous of his figurative “Mask” series. He embarked on these paintings – a commentary on city-dwellers – in 1994, a year after moving to Beijing. He’s switched subjects and mediums several times since and when we arrive he’s working on semi-abstract monochrome landscapes on custom-made paper.
“Zeng has avoided the mistake made by other artists who repeat their work once it becomes worth something,” says Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art at Beijing’s 798 art district. ucca’s retrospective of Zeng’s work last year drew large fee- paying crowds, a recent novelty in Beijing.
Standing in the middle of his studio, Zeng lays out his favourite waterfall on the floor. “All these paper works are based on nearly seven years of research,” he says, fully aware that he is due to switch styles. Three large canvasses dominate Zeng’s main studio: a vibrant Van Gogh with bandaged ear; a bedridden Lucian Freud; and a huge flatscreen television sitting on rollers.
In October, Zeng will have a small exhibition at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. He has recreated seven versions of the Dutchman’s works and disguised them with swirling brush strokes. For Zeng the connection goes back to his teenage years when he saw “Sunflowers” in a magazine. He would later hide his admiration to favour German expression, a much edgier inspiration under his graduation from Hubei Institute of Fine Arts. It is only now that he feels sufficiently comfortable to peel off his cosmopolitan mask. Any need to impress is also absent from the casual attire of this reputably sharp dresser. “I don’t like to go to social events that much so I tend to stay at my studio most of the time,” he says.
How does Van Gogh’s struggle to sell art compare to his own burden of selling for high sums? “To me he was very confident because he lived in his own world and didn’t have to explain himself to others,” he says before admitting to envying the Dutchman’s prolific output and access to paint itself. Zeng attended the country’s leading arts institute during the 1980s and 1990s, when a tube of oil paint cost half of his monthly stipend. He remembers being trained to reproduce socialist realist art for state institutions – more craftsman-like than answering any calling as a contemporary artist.
Today Zeng pours a round of tea, laughing off any ear-slicing anxieties. From the couch area he can see his work from different angles – and view the large portrait of Lucian Freud that hangs opposite a smaller portrait of Francis Bacon. The influence that the two artists had on the young Zeng is clearly evident in his so-called “Meat” and “Hospital” series.
One of Zeng’s “Meat” paintings from 1992 is to feature in a major retrospective of Chinese contemporary art that opens at New York’s Guggenheim in October. It captures two butchers hanging animal carcasses in Wuhan. “It is one of my most important works and I haven’t seen it since it was collected in 1992,” says Zeng. The Guggenheim exhibition covers Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the Beijing Olympics in 2008: “The peak of my artistic career.”
Chinese contemporary art during this highly productive period is yet to acquire an “-ism” but the organisers are at least hoping to provide some useful context. “The history of Chinese contemporary art has been written up to this point by the auction houses,” says Tinari, who is co-curating the show. Zeng has no plans to attend, however. Besides his own exhibition in Amsterdam he is also a regular at Frieze London. His work will be included in the Gagosian Gallery and he will tour the fair with his collector’s hat on, looking to add to his walls where sketches by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele take pride of place. China’s most bankable painter won’t have much chance to pick up a Van Gogh – nor much need to.
‘Meat’, 1992 (oil on canvas)
The Wuhan native stayed close to home while studying at Hubei Institute of Fine Arts with a series of paintings based on a nearby butcher’s shop and hospital, both of which take stylistic inspiration from Lucian Freud.
‘Hospital’ series, 1994 (oil on canvas)
A Chinese man wearing sunglasses sits calmly amid the gory and chaotic scenes of an a&e waiting room at a Wuhan hospital. Zeng’s apartment at the time had no toilet so he made frequent trips to the hospital.
‘Blue’, 2015 (oil on canvas)
This seven-metre-wide semi-abstract landscape features a nocturnal scene in a mixture of blues that appears under the shadow of jagged tree branches. The style signals a departure from Zeng’s figurative paintings and he has since moved onto painting monochrome landscapes using watercolour and paper.
‘The Last Supper’, 2001 (oil on canvas)
This blockbuster artwork from the “Mask” series replaces Leonardo’s original disciples with children wearing uniforms from the Youth Pioneers, a communist youth organisation. It holds the auction record for the highest price paid for an Asian artist.
‘Portrait’, 2004 (oil on canvas)
Zeng changes styles every six or seven years and periodically returns to self-portraiture to capture each movement. This iconic work features the artist – now a father – standing in a hooded red robe next to a toy horse.