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“The absurd thing is that one day in 1982, Andy arrived by happenstance in this unfamiliar nation. The people here were still drowsy under the artifice of a communist government; every face wore the same simple shyness. At these geographical coordinates, not a single person expressed interest in the artist. No one recognized that mask-like face infamous throughout the rest of the world.”|
Andy Warhol’s visit to China is a founding moment for the idea of a Chinese contemporary. Warhol’s portraits of Mao of course connected him retrospectively to the situation inside the Middle Kingdom, but it was his visit a decade later, and the images of his personal photographer Christopher Makos in which it is commemorated, that put the defining critic of mass culture into dialogue with the defining mass society of the late twentieth century. The moment at which the world-famous Warhol, then nearing the end of his life and work, plunged into a society of unfathomable depth in which not a soul knew his face or name is nothing short of a watershed: the last possible instance of East/West incomprehension on such a scale, a time warp in which he appears akin to a prophet from the future, looking out on a population that would soon undergo the endless rounds of capitalist spectacle out of which his art had grown.
This moment cannot but resonate for a viewer of Zeng Fanzhi’s monumental After the Long March Andy Warhol Arrived in China, an epic 2005 canvas which envisions the king of Pop wearily pushing a bicycle down a country path. The bicycle is a Shanghai Forever. Its rider, dressed in blazer, blue jeans, and bluchers carries a simple knapsack as on his China travels, his hair evoking shades of the “fright wig” in which he would paint his last self-portrait in 1986.
After the Long March dates to an similarly special moment in the work of Zeng Fanzhi, an artist now enjoying a Warholian level of celebrity in China owing to the recent stunning rise in the market values of his work. A classic example of Zeng’s current style—dubbed “chaotic brushwork” in a recent monograph edited by the Chinese critic Lü Peng—it is typical of the years immediately after his 2003 solo show at the Shanghai Art Museum. By that point, what Karen Smith has called Zeng’s “seven-year infatuation with the mask” (1994-2000) was an increasingly distant memory. A grouping of transitional works featured in the Shanghai show—including, appropriately, a cycle of nine portraits of Mao offered by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2007—moved Zeng further in the direction of expressionism, their swirling brushstrokes created by his technique of painting with two brushes in the same hand.