On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from the Collection of Howard and Patricia Farber

(B. 1965)
Swimming Series
signed in Chinese; dated '1993.1.2' (lower left)
oil on canvas
49.5 x 61 cm. (19 1/3 x 24 in.)
Painted in 1993
Red Bridge Gallery, Liu Wei, Shanghai, China, 2008 (illustrated, p. 62).
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Lot Essay

The Farber Collection: A Penchant for the Chinese Avant-Garde

Among the foundational stories of the evolution of Chinese avant-garde art is its early "discovery" by outsiders. This first generation of collectors included expatriates, diplomats, journalists and business people, individuals whose travels to Asia and China gave them early exposure to this movement in its nascent period. But there were also those whose passion emerged almost out of sheer accident. This group included instead well-heeled collectors of Western art who found in the Chinese avant-garde a freshness of spirit and vision that, to them, was otherwise lacking in the art world.

Howard and Patricia Farber's began as one such collection, evolving over time to become recognized as much for its meticulousness as for its restless eye. First encountering Chinese contemporary art in the mid-1990s on a holiday to Hong Kong, the Farbers immediately became avid collectors as well as advocates for the movement, leaving their American paintings collection behind and devoting over a decade to studying, collecting, and promoting Chinese contemporary art.

Having shifted their focus towards Cuban art, the Farbers sold the bulk of their collection in 2007, retaining for themselves a selection of exceptional works with which they wanted to live. The six paintings from the Farber collection featured here in Christie's Evening sale reflect the last of the collection, perfectly reflecting the historic nature of the Farbers' collecting practices. These iconic works speak to their appreciation for the dominant historic and artistic trends that defined a movement. Ranging from the Cynical Realism of Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Liu Wei, the attention to historical and collective memory in the works of Zhang Xiaogang, the Political Pop of Wang Guangyi, and the irony-tinged expressionism of Zeng Fanzhi, these works embody the disparate responses of artists grappling with their own personal histories as well as that of the nation, as it passed through the dramatic, rapid, and often painful transition from the Maoist era to that of the economic super-power recognized today.
Where the Chinese avant-garde of the 1980s might be defined by a generalized search for a new cultural and creative identity, resulting in a wide range of experimentation in form and content, by the 1990s, Chinese art began to emerge more fully formed. Following the Tian'anmen Square tragedy of June 1989, combined with a growing and rampant consumer culture, a new malaise settled over artists, and many of the best works of this period are marked by their use of irony, symbolism, and metaphor. This was especially the case for the Cynical Realists painters such as Liu Wei, Yue Minjun, and Fang Lijun, artists whose works are marked by their iconoclastic, oblique humor, and sardonic view of the transition from Communism to industrialization and modernization.
In his early Revolutionary Family paintings (lots 1032 and 1033), in the deliberately awkward composition, campy Technicolor palette, and subtly malformed features of the figures, Liu is following an almost Oedipal line of inquiry, shedding any filial or symbolic loyalty to the past, and subtly transforming the mundane into an investigation into moral character and mortal impulses. Beginning with these works and extending into the more fantastical Swimming series, Liu is slyly rebelling against the patriarchy and all its symbolic baggage, his father appearing as a person and as a symbol, the representative of a lugubrious bureaucratic state out of touch with the desires of youth.
Throughout this series, Liu might identify the figures with his titles, paintings might feature his father or Chairman Mao. In other cases, he allows for an ambiguity between the two (fig. xxx). In this case, he offers only that this is a swimmer, but the tell-tale mole on the figure's chin suggest that here Liu is indeed portraying the Great Helmsman, his likeness emerging from Liu's meticulous brushstrokes with a hyper-sensuousness that waffles intentionally between the ecstatic and the borderline repugnant.
Images of Mao's famous swim down the Yangtze River in 1966, surrounded by other political figures and 5,000 supporters, would be extremely familiar to Chinese audiences, as well as the propaganda posters of Mao encouraging swimming as the most rewarding of athletic sports, embodying for him the struggle of man against nature Understood within this context, Liu's painting taunts the viewer, destabilizing the vaunted imagery associated with Mao's hagiography, and insisting instead on the corporal reality of the man.
Graduates of Chinese art academies could not complete their degree without demonstrating their ability to paint water, and certainly for many painters at this time, swimming and water provided important motifs and metaphors. In Fang Lijun's hand, a lone and lonely swimmer might simultaneously embody feelings of freedom, escape, and nihilism. Technique was essential in these works, offering up not only the sensuous properties of the image, maximizing its metaphorical value as well. With his Swimming series, Liu has begun especially to treat the flesh of the body with a kind of exactitude meant to exaggerate the viewer's visceral reaction to the painting.
Every strand of the figures' hair is defined. The color of the water is the unnatural turquoise of chlorine-filled swimming pools. The waves gather in soft foam around the figure, splashing sensually over his features. The warm, flushed tones of the flesh are contrasted with the surging waves, built up in washes, hard and soft edges and strokes, and every green shade of blue. Similar to George Grosz's use of psychological details to announce social ills (fig. xxx), Liu's magnification of observed details and attention to textures and surfaces is a strategy to reveal alternative, subconscious realities. As such, this fine Swimming painting extends Liu's Freudian provocation, suggesting the psychological tensions and urges that underlie even the most innocuous of circumstances, radically portraying Mao not as the iconic leader of a nation, but as simply a man, enjoying a swim.
As the enfant terrible painter of his generation, Liu is less interested in the authority of the past than in the psychological, emotional, and physical urges that have been otherwise repressed in the long history of Chinese aesthetic culture. His exquisite technical skills render bodies and materials so meticulously to seem obsessive, crude, and almost repugnant, a juxtaposition that reveals a cynical view of the aestheticization of Chinese traditional culture and its suppression of subjective feelings and desire. Liu's reversal of this trend embraces the subjective through his own hyper-aestheticization of the flesh, a polarity that indexes Liu's own view of his rapidly shifting contemporary reality, one that instigates unsettling, chaotic, and potentially uncontrollable feelings and forces.

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