A Man of East, West, South and North: The Current Market for Paintings by Liu Kuo-sung
14, Feb 2014 19:05
Born in Anhui Province in 1932, Liu came to Taiwan in 1949. He went on to study in the Fine Arts Department at National Taiwan Normal University, from where he graduated in 1956. An open-minded, independent spirit who enjoys being a teacher, educator and art critic as well as a painter, Liu has held countless exhibitions and received many prestigious awards. He has traveled far and frequently throughout his life, making him “A Man of East, West, South and North” who has, over six decades, gradually built a large following of aficionados and collectors. He gained international fame and recognition as an artist early on in his career, and now that he has reached a ripe age, the value of his works is set to rise further.
The 1969-70 ink and color painting “Midnight Sun” sold for HK$6.28 million (approx. NT$24.55 million or US$809,869) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction on October 5, 2013, setting a new global record for a painting by this artist. In recent years, first-hand market prices for his works have soared from more than NT$100,000 per 900 square centimeters to NT$360,000 per 900 square centimeters. At the recent Art Taipei, a 1,661.8cm long-scroll large format work titled “Roof of the World,” painted in a style reminiscent of his “Tibet” series, attracted fervent interest from several potential buyers, yet it turned out to be “not for sale.” It is to be part of the collection of the Asia Museum of Modern Art in center Taiwan designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.
Moreover, the autumn/winter of 2013 has seen a series of exhibitions by five different galleries in Taiwan and Hong Kong, each of which showed retrospect to Liu’s oeuvre: Taipei Loftyart Gallery and Hsinchu Mingshan Art in Oct.; Hong Kong Hanart TZ Gallery and Taichung Modern Art Gallery in Nov.; Taipei Capital Art Center in Dec. At the same time, Liu Kuo-sung’s works have attracted much interest from art collectors at autumn auctions in Beijing, Shandong, Hong Kong, Taipei, and San Francisco.
In fact, Liu Kuo-sung was the first modernist ink wash painter whose work found its way into the collections of major art museums around the world. In 1963, his painting “Cloudy Remoteness” was shown at the 7th exhibition of Taiwan’s Fifth Moon Group, and bought by Hong Kong Museum of Art. It was the first painting Liu sold, and the fact that it became part of a museum collection offered special encouragement to the artist. In 1966, he was awarded a grant by the John D. Rockefeller III Foundation, allowing him to travel around the United States and Europe for a year, and display his work in exhibitions. An individual exhibition at the La Jolla Art Museum was so successful that every last painting found a buyer. During his time abroad, Liu also came into contact with a number of curators and directors of major museums and galleries, and met many influential art critics and collectors. In total, he visited 18 different countries, considerably broadening his horizons. In 1967, the New York Times published a very positive review of one of his exhibitions, and the Rhodes Gallery became his official agent: a first for a Taiwanese artist.
Returning to Taiwan as a widely traveled artist with an outstanding reputation earned through many exhibitions at major galleries, Liu was awarded distinction as one of Taiwan’s “Ten Outstanding Young Persons.” In 1969, renowned snuff bottle and modern ink wash collector Hugh Moss became an agent for Liu’s work, a development that further enhanced the painter’s international standing and market appeal. Following an endorsement by art historian Li Zhujin, Liu took up a post as professor and dean at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he remained for 21 years. In 1998, Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum created a stir with its exhibition “China: 5000 Years—Innovation and Transformation in the Arts.” Liu Kuo-sung was the only living artist from Taiwan who was invited, sharing this honor with other great masters of the abstract, such as Zao Wou-ki and Chao Chun-hsiang.
Since 1960, Liu Kuo-sung’s works have found their way into at least 87 museums around the world, including the British Museum, which in 2010 added the artist’s work “Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking?” (part of the painter’s “Space” series) to its collection, a deal brokered by London’s Michael Goedhuis Gallery. This was more than a confirmation of Liu’s individual status as an artist, it also showed that major Western museums and galleries were beginning to give modernist ink and wash painting a larger role in their exhibitions and collections. While Liu’s success, like that of many artists, was to some extent the result of the generous support he received from friends and connoisseurs who appreciated his art, his outstanding talent, untiring efforts, and the ability to take opportunities when they presented themselves, all contributed to his brilliant career.
An overview of Liu Kuo-sung’s oeuvre reveals him as an artist in constant search of variety and new styles. One of his famous quotations is, “Originality first, quality second.” From 1951-1955, still a student, he basically painted in a realistic style, but beginning in 1958, Liu started to switch to abstract modes of composition, and developed his own individual creative approach. Around 1963 the next phase followed, marked by broad, sweeping brushstrokes and calligraphically-inspired lines. In this period fall the “Which is Outside” series, born of his explorations of nature and the universe, the “Snow Mountain” series from 1968, inspired by the grandiose landscapes Liu had seen in Switzerland, and the “Space” series, which took its cue from the Apollo missions and the first landing of human beings on the moon (1969-1973). Other series that give full expression to the artist’s creativity and confidence, brimming with magnificent images and dynamic energy, include the “Water Rubbing” series (1973), the “Four Seasons Handscroll” (1983), the “Tibetan Suite” series (since 1987), and the “Jiuzhaigou” series (since 2000).
After WWII, modernist painting began to take off in Taiwan, with many young and enthusiastic artists joining a new wave of creative expression. One of them was Liu Kuo-sung, who joinedthe Fifth Moon Group and, although coming from a background of Western-style painting, soon felt that he did not wish to be restricted to one particular school or style. Instead of focusing exclusively on Western techniques, he developed an interest in traditional Chinese culture and art, and made it his mission to promote the “modernization” of conventional ink and wash styles, mostly by blending Western elements into Eastern genres. Two parameters are cardinal to Liu’s work”: ink wash and abstractionism. Inventing new concepts such as “revolutionizing the brush (strokes)” and “revolutionizing the upright brush (strokes)” allowed him to experiment with new forms of expression and explore a variety of media, untrammeled by the limitations of conventional techniques. He developed new ways of employing traditional strokes and methods, such as the “cun” technique, to imbue his works with a fresh sense of structure and texture. His influence reached far beyond Taiwan’s art scene, making a powerful impact in Hong Kong (1970s) and the root of ink and wash paintings Mainland China (since 1980) as well.
Liu Kuo-sung has stayed invested in the research of, and intriguing experimentation with, ink wash painting throughout his entire life, developing four distinct techniques in the process: the “reductionist cun” technique (1960s), the “ink blot” or “steeped ink” technique (1961-63), the “ink rubbing” technique (1973), and the “water rubbing” technique (1973). Liu once said, “No new methods or techniques have been developed in Chinese painting since the Song Dynasty. I have come up with four different new types of ‘cun’ technique, all of which were born out of practical experimentation and application.” While the subjects of his paintings are largely taken from everyday life, Liu yet manages to infuse his works with a broad, even universal, perspective that probes deep into the fabric of nature and spirit. Starting out with concrete depictions of mountains and rivers, forests and rocks, he soon turned to abstract imagery that captures the solemn essence of such landscapes, and has won him global recognition from the academia, as well as the appreciation and support of collectors around the world.
Liu Kuo-sung’s rich life and extensive travels are part of the reason why aficionados and collectors of his art are found in virtually every corner of the world. During the 1960s, most of the paintings shown at exhibitions in US museums or galleries were sold to locally based buyers, which accounts for the fact that to this day, most of the artist’s pre-1970 work remains in the hand of American collectors. This also means that one may occasionally encounter some of Liu’s early works at US auctions or galleries carrying works by Chinese artists.Liu has a strong connection with Hong Kong. The first painting he ever sold was bought by Hong Kong Museum of Art, and Hugh Moss, one of his former agents (“Water, Pine and Stone Retreat” Collection) also spent many years in the former British colony, and introduced the artist to numerous potential buyers from around the globe. In addition to members of the UK Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Group, Tui Yibu Zhai, a member of Hong Kong’s Min Chiu Society, is also a major collector of Liu Kuo-sung’s work. In 1989, the architect in charge of designing the Hong Kong branch of American Express Bank, asked Liu to create a painting for the five-stories-high wall of the building’s big entrance hall. The result was “Source,” the largest Chinese ink and wash painting in the world at a height of 1,952cm and a width of 366cm.
In 1990s, after his retirement from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Liu returned to Taiwan as an artist of international renown. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum organized a retrospective and symposium in his honor, and soon afterwards he was given the Li Chung-sheng Foundation Award for Modern Painting. In addition to museums, many art galleries have also represented or displayed Liu Kuo-sung’s work, including Kaohsiung Zen 50 Art Space, Taichung Modern Art Gallery, Chang Liu Art Museum, J. P. Art Center, Xi Zhi Tang, Capital Art Center, Mingshan Art Gallery, Soka Art Center, and others. Taiwan boasts a substantial number of Liu Kuo-sung aficionados and collectors, among them a senior collector in Taichung who used to be the artist’s neighbor and friend, and who holds a considerable number of his best works, making his a very representative collection. Moreover, Ravenel and other auction houses in Taiwan have been featuring works by Liu Kuo-sung in every major auction for years, with prices constantly rising over the years. Most buyers are local collectors.
In recent times, London’s Michael Goedhuis Gallery and Hong Kong’s Hanart TZ Gallery, both of which are connected to many collectors of international status, have been the two agents that have worked most closely with Liu Kuo-sung. Meanwhile, back in the 1980s, writer Nie Hua-ling introduced Liu to a number of famous mainland Chinese authors, including Xiao Qian, Ai Qing, and Wang Meng. Liu also came into indirect contact with one of the doyens of modern Chinese painting, Wu Guanzhong, and since 1983, many exhibitions and symposiums on Liu and his art have been held at the National Art Museum of China and a number of other museums. In 2007, Liu Kuo-sung even became the first Taiwanese artist to have a solo exhibition at the Palace Museum in Beijing. In April 2013, the Shandong Museum designated their Hall No. 12 as a special exhibition room named “The Modern Ink Wash Art of Liu Kuo-sung,” and marked its opening with a great exhibition of the artist’s work. The special significance of Shandong lies in the fact that Liu’s ancestors hail from that province.
Although a commercial market for art didn’t exist in China until fairly recently, owing to a continuous stream of exhibitions, symposiums, and art fairs, Liu and his work yet managed to gain much recognition in China, building a solid reputation for his brand. In 2011, the National Art Museum of China held A Retrospective at 80, an event graced by the presence of Jia Qinglin, then Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and Wang Yi, then Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office. The retrospective received much media exposure, and it was reported that collectors from Shandong, Beijing, and Liaoning bought some of the best works on view. Recently, Beijing’s major auction houses have also begun to seek out Liu’s work for their upcoming events.
Liu Kuo-sung has previously been given both Taiwan’s most prestigious arts award, the National Arts Award, and China’s most important distinction, the Chinese Artist Lifetime Achievement Award. This year, the works of Liu Kuo-sung have become coveted items in art markets of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and sales numbers have been consistently high. In fact, in terms of the prices paid for works by Liu at auction, more than half of the highest records were set during the year of 2013, and value of his works is most likely to be in the uptrend in the future.
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