Zeng Fanzhi - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, October 6, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Out of this interplay of mind and music emerges a tracery of brushstrokes that form as if by chance.”
    — Zeng Fanzhi


    Walking the tightrope between pure abstraction and figuration, Untitled 07-3 highlights the vital years in Zeng Fanzhi’s artistic career where the restless artist was searching for new ways to shed the constraints of figuration and semiotics. Zeng’s diverse oeuvre spans across several periods, beginning in the early 1990s with his seminal Hospital and Meat series – visceral explorations of human and animal mortality – prefiguring his well-known Mask series, encapsulating the contradictory dualities between internal emptiness and external pretence, marked by his move to the metropolis Beijing in 1993. As Zeng sought an increasingly earnest visual language, his ‘unmasking’ of figures propelled him into expressive, raw brushstrokes, foreshadowing his flirtations with abstraction beginning around 2002 in his Chaotic Strokes or loose brush (luanbi) series. In the present lot, the vast, barren land runs panoramically, with heavily gestural brushstrokes evoking an array of bare branches and thorns.

    Ambidextrous Duplicity


    Zeng’s brushstrokes are charged with an electric thrill, zigzagging in all directions in lightning bolts, intertwined with tangles of coal-black lines which echo the opulent swaths of cobalt blue, magenta and yellow underneath. The lines – appearing as thin wires, seaweed strips undulating with the waves, or wheat swaying in the wind – injected with a degree of uncomfortable vagueness. It obscures, as much as reveals, the image beneath; Zeng renders his layers inseparable from one another, such that it must be considered wholly, from a distance.

    In Untitled 07-3, chaos and instability writ large, likely pertaining to the artist’s own internal psyche: ‘Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait,’ declared Lucian Freud, an artistic influence of Zeng. i


    “In the last decade I became increasingly reliant on introspective representation. My sentimental fluctuation leads to the periodical differences among my works.”
    — Zeng Fanzhi

    This summoning of chaos is explored through Zeng’s unique two-hand brush technique: holding multiple brushes in each hand, he paints free from the constraints of mimetic precision; the left hand altering what the right has established, as if playing the piano. The chance creation of such a technique came about following the artist’s injury to his dominant right drawing hand. The dichotomy between left and right, emergence and divergence act as calligraphic line, echoing the constant flux of inner turmoil, or revealing ‘traces of the subconscious’ on canvas, perhaps harkening back to surrealist automatism. ii Through this duplicity, Zeng positions physicality as central to his artistic practice. He activates a kind of calligraphic gesticulation, his process akin to performance art or the lauded drip paintings of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.


    Jackson Pollock, No. 5, 1948
    © 2023 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York



    A Nightmarish Realm or a Glimpse into Renewal


    Untitled 07-3 reads from right to left with a panoramic perspective that overcomes the limitations of conventional linear perspective, particularly the cyclops eye from which a single vanishing point is established. Instead, Zeng grants the peripheries of the present work to gain equal gravitas as the centre, continuing a long lineage of scroll paintings of literati motifs. Incidentally, the dried withered branches and attention to rendering the horizon call to mind the winter landscapes of the Song Dynasty. Often didactic, these landscapes emblematise human endurance in the face of harsh, unyielding external factors, or simply acts as a reminder of the unwavering resilience of nature.


    Attributed to Liu Songnian, Snowy landscape with rustic riverside retreat, Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279)
    Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


    Zeng’s experimentation with landscapes began at the beginning of the 2000s, starting with obscuring the figures in his famed Mask series with abstracted strokes. And thus, the luanbi (loose brush) technique was born: while injured and relying on his left hand, the artist honed his luanbi xiantiao technique of loose brush lines. At times, Zeng would use two brushes simultaneously: one thick, larger one which would render backgrounds, while a thinner more precise brush would create delicate lattices of tree branches.  


    Detail of the present lot 


    Later the technique took on even more complexity, whereby the artist would use a palette knife to scrape, drag, and manipulate wet impasto, often imbuing his works with a frenzied, highly gestural quality, not unlike the works of the abstract expressionism movement aforementioned.


    The present work parses as a culmination of all such interests, carrying a beguiling yet eerie glow of white starkness against the otherwise wild and desolate landscape. With a luminescence resembling white-hot flames, the V-formation appears to be jolting towards us with a foreboding warning of environmental torment. But there is hope of a rejuvenated nature: jagged, pronounced strokes of neon green emerge from the bottom right of the composition, hinting at regrowth and renewal.


    Zeng Fanzhi, Untitled, 2018
    Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art



    Collectors’ Digest


    • Among the most prominent Chinese artists of our time, Zeng Fanzhi has received widespread international acclaim for his works. He is honoured with numerous solo exhibitions worldwide, most recently including Zeng Fanzhi at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (2023), Zeng Fanzhi: Van Gogh at Van Gogh Museum (2018), Arcadia at Gagosian, Hong Kong (2017), Show and Tell at The MET Museum (2016-2017) and Zeng Fanzhi at the Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris (2013-2014), among others. In 2019, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the phenomenally scaled Untitled (2018). Zeng is also in the institutional collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the M+ Museum in Hong Kong.


    i Lucian Freud, quoted in Sarah Howgate, ‘Lucian Freud: Portraits’, 2012
    ii Hugo Hess, ‘Zeng Fanzhi’, Widewalls, 22 March 2012, online

    • Provenance

      Gallery Hyundai, Seoul
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Singapore Art Museum, Zeng Fanzhi: Idealism, 30 April - 3 June 2007, p. 66 (illustrated, p.67)

    • Literature

      Fabien Fryns and Richard Shiff, Zeng Fanzhi: Every Mark Its Mask, Stuttgart, 2010, p. 260 (illustrated, 172-173)

Property from an Important European Collection


Untitled 07-3

signed and dated 'Zeng Fanzhi [in Chinese and Pinyin] 2007' lower right
oil on canvas, triptych
each 260 x 180 cm. (102 3/8 x 70 7/8 in.)
overall 260 x 540 cm. (102 3/8 x 212 5/8 in.)

Painted in 2007.

Full Cataloguing

HK$6,000,000 - 9,000,000 

Sold for HK$4,953,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 6 October 2023