Xin Li, Christie’s Deputy Chairman, Asia Pacific, explores the Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art — paired with sublime post-war works by the likes of Dubuffet, Albers and Kusama. Her guide is Chinese art specialist Michelle Cheng
Among many highlights in the March 16 sale of the Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art in New York are several outstanding pieces of Ming and Qing furniture. Virata, described as ‘larger-than-life’ by friends and family, acquired the pieces over the course of 50 years from some of the world’s top Chinese antiques dealers — Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, Nicholas Grindley and Grace Wu Bruce.
Michelle Cheng, a specialist in Chinese art at Christie’s New York, recently joined Xin Li, Christie’s Deputy Chairman, Asia Pacific, to tour a small exhibition of the furniture, which was displayed together with paintings by Yayoi Kusama, Sam Francis, Jean Dubuffet and others from Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art sales in May.
Li, who played basketball for China, left her homeland for Paris in 1996, where she became the only Chinese model on the runways. She then turned her focus to modern and contemporary art, both Chinese and Western. She was described in a W Magazine profile as ‘a bridge between China and the Western art world’, while the Hamptons home she shares with husband Lyor Cohen was the subject of a recent feature in Architectural Digest magazine. This is an edited transcript of her conversation with Michelle Cheng in New York.
Michelle Cheng: What is your initial impression of this classical Chinese furniture?
Xin Li: ‘I left China 20 years ago so I’m surprised to see, for the first time, how well Ming furniture works with contemporary art. I love how the colourful Sam Francis painting goes with the regal zitan bed. There is a lot of energy and movement in that painting. The bed gives you a base, a place for a quiet moment in a chaotic world. It doesn’t compete.’
MC: ‘This three-sided 18th-century luohan bed (couch bed) with the dramatic inward-curving legs is of the highest-quality zitan wood. Zitan is prized for its intense, purple colour, its weight and its luscious surface. It is more associated with Imperial use than huanghuali, which has amber tones and natural figuration and appeals more to scholarly taste.’
XL: ‘Personally, I like oak. My husband and I have a weekend house in Long Island furnished with mid-century Scandinavian pieces. But I recently spent two weeks in China on Hainan Island with my parents and my sister, who is a big fan of huanghuali, which grows on Hainan. We went to the markets to look for it. I learned a lot; now I’m thinking huanghuali Ming furniture might be my next collecting area.’
MC: ‘When you look at Chinese furniture, you are drawn to the natural beauty of the wood. You want to touch it because it’s so satiny; you have almost a physical reaction to it. The colour and the figuration are what really attracts people.’
XL: ‘I think Ming furniture can go in any modern house.’
MC: ‘We have a pair of zitan “officials’ hat” armchairs that, when you look at their rounded arms and legs, the curvature of the back — you have to think that modern Scandinavian designers were inspired by these forms.’
XL: ‘Chinese furniture also inspires Chinese artists. You see a lot of contemporary Chinese artists who are looking back. The artist Liu Dan, for example, is greatly inspired by ancient Chinese paintings of scholar’s rocks.’
MC: ‘Here a Ming huanghuali box-form stool is set beneath Homage to the Square, by Josef Albers.’
XL: ‘The square painting reflects the shape of the stool. I’ve always loved Albers.’
MC: ‘Under the Albers is a very rare zitan side table from the early Qing dynasty. What is special about it is its diminutive size. It is very narrow and looks quite delicate. But the way it’s built, it’s really sturdy. It has beautifully splayed legs. The only decorative element is the carved apron, an undulating line of beautifully executed scallops. This is a show-off piece. Zitan is a very slow-growing tree and normally has a lot of natural flaws. To find a piece without flaws is very difficult; you would have to have been extremely wealthy and also have had connections to be able to acquire it — and the wherewithal to employ extremely skilled craftsmen.’
XL: ‘What was it used for?’
MC: ‘We don’t know. Aside from this one, there is a smaller one in the Summer Palace and two in private collections. It is not an altar table. One of the characteristics of this diminutive furniture is that it could be moved from room to room, so it didn’t have one purpose. Maybe it was used to display a musical instrument or fruit or, as here, a pair of 17th-century Chinese cloisonné enamel candlesticks.
‘Here, in front of the Kusama painting, is a small flambé vase. The way it’s potted is so unusual, the flambé red glaze with the streaking turquoise. The glaze accentuates the silhouette of the vase.’
XL: ‘A lot of families in China today collect classical Chinese paintings with Impressionists, and pair work by contemporary artists such as Kusama with Ming furniture.’
MC: ‘The vase sits on a very rare, round incense stand with three cabriole legs. It is rare to find a stand this tall and one with three legs. Of extant examples in hardwood, there appears to be only one other, now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum.
‘The Viratas loved being part of collecting history. Beneath the Louise Lawler photograph is their pair of huanghuali “Southern officials’ hat” armchairs from Gustav Ecke’s collection. Ecke was one of the first Westerners to study this furniture, which he photographed and published in a 1944 folio dedicated to Chinese furniture. The chairs are very rare, because they are so wide — 25 inches across — and have a square box form.’
XL: ‘They are really comfortable. They force you to sit up with perfect posture.’
MC: ‘The way these chairs are constructed is fascinating. They were done with mortise and tenon joints — no nails, no glue. It’s a hidden construction that allows for these types of forms. It’s a puzzle that comes together.’
XL: ‘For me Ming furniture is about purity of line and form — and the Zen spirit that invites contemplation.’