They’re usually treated as two very distinct traditions. ‘East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet,’ as Rudyard Kipling once put it. The upcoming Contemporaries: Voices from East and West sale in Hong Kong, however, will suggest that Asian art and Western art — particularly that of recent decades — have much more in common than people think.
Featuring blue-chip work from both sides of the globe — from Gerhard Richter to Shozo Shimamoto — the sale will be the first to show Western Post-War and Contemporary works with pieces sourced by the Asian Contemporary Art department.
The affinity between movements such as Abstract Expressionism in the US and Gutai in Japan, in the years after the Second World War, is undeniable — while, in the 21st century, globalisation is bringing the artistic cultures of East and West closer still.
Here Han-I Wang (Specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art) and Eric Chang (International Director of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art) explain why a sale uniting Western and Eastern work is overdue, and how not only artists, but also collectors, are embracing this new union.
What prompted Contemporaries?
Han-I Wang: ‘We’ve had this idea of a collaborative East-West sale for a number of years. Since around 2012. The art market is a truly global one now. At the big fairs around the world you see work by artists from all over the globe, not just artists from a particular region.
‘You think nothing of seeing a Cecily Brown alongside a Takashi Murakami. In that sense, our sale is just reflecting the way people look at art nowadays.’
Eric Chang: ‘Artists, too, are travelling a lot more and are in increasing dialogue with their counterparts across the world. In Contemporaries, we include a blue painting from Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Net series, for example, made in 1960, two years after she had arrived in New York from [her homeland] Japan. Her work was hailed by Donald Judd and the Minimalists in America, yet her use of repetition and patterning remained true to her Japanese artistic roots. Cultural cross-pollination like that runs throughout the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.’
Do you have other examples?
EC: ‘Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, a pair of artists from China who settled in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s respectively. They created abstract images into which they incorporated elements of Chinese calligraphy.’
And Zao Wou-Ki is half of one particular East-West dialogue you’re investigating…
HW: ‘Yes, with Willem de Kooning. Both East and West have a strong landscape tradition. In the case of these two artists, we see them moving in a new direction: landscape paintings with a strongly abstract strain.
‘We don’t have evidence that they ever met, but to see them side by side is really striking. At the time of painting his work in our sale [1972’s Landscape], de Kooning had left New York behind and settled in the peaceful surrounds of East Hampton, taking delight in riding his bike every day.’
And collectors are also bridging the East-West divide?
EC: ‘That’s true — you could say buyers’ tastes are merging, becoming more global. There’s a high demand for Asian work in the West, just as there’s an increasing demand for Western work in Asia. Major international galleries have been setting up in cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, for example, meaning collectors there are more exposed than ever to major, international art.’
HW: ‘The outlook of today’s top-end collector also tends to be internationalist. They have often studied or worked overseas and become exposed to different cultures, so it makes sense that they should have an art collection that reflects that background.’
So West is buying East, and East is buying West?
EC: ‘Something like Asian Art Week at Christie’s New York is long–established, and this year achieved its highest-ever total [$332,783,188]. Meanwhile, the buying power in Asia has also grown rapidly in recent years, and with it the appetite for Western work — in November 2015 the collector Liu Yiqian bought Modigliani’s Nu Couché for $170 million. All of which things have made a sale like Contemporaries possible. The lines of collecting are blurring.’
The interaction between East and West actually goes back a lot farther than the 20th century, doesn’t it? Some even suggest that Leonardo Da Vinci was aware of — and influenced by — Chinese landscape painting.
HW: ‘Yes, and the ukiyo-e prints from Japan made by the likes of Hokusai had a major impact on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Our sale is part of a long and very healthy tradition.’