From the earliest stages of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been marked by their emotional directness, the artist's intuitive psychological sense, and his carefully calibrated expressionistic technique. His Mask series remain his best recognized, but his meticulous and expressive fusion of form and content can be found throughout his oeuvre. Even in studies for Mask paintings or silkscreen prints, Zeng seeks to maximize his chosen medium to its technical limits. His Study for Mask Series 1999 (Lot 1500) is not merely a preparatory drawing but a fully realized composition, displaying the aesthetic choices that gave the series such enormous emotional impact. Two fashionably dressed figures share a cigar by the seaside, the waves just shy of their impeccably polished shoes. The ridiculous posturing of the scene his given an ironic treatment with the aquamarine ocean, the red veins of their overly large hands echoing the lipstick of their theatrical masks, the whites of their tight grimaces further echoed in the highlights found in their leather shoes and sun-drenched suits.
A heightened superficiality can be found in Zeng's Untitled (Reclining Figure) (Lot 1798) silkscreen print. A figure reclines leisurely on a bed of flowers by the seaside, leaning casually on his wrist, his head arched back and lips parted suggestively. Zeng ironically highlights the subject's seeming identification with commercial fashion and romance imagery, showing him nearly enveloped in a sea of green and bed of roses, his mask a vision of pure vacuity. Here Zeng does not let the silkscreen format limit him, and the composition succeeds in maintaining the same juxtapositions of raw and polished textures and pure and modulated colors that are so captivating in his canvas works.
With the end of the Mask series, Zeng began to pursue more unmediated forms of painterly expression. Zeng has said, "I was interested in expressing the attitudes of moods of people, an individual person, and to do so in a direct response, aimed at conveying the person's expression, emotion, thinking and my own sense of that person" (I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2003, Hubei Arts Press, ShenZhen, 2003, p. 56). This impulse resulted in what has been described as his "Behind the Mask" works. As with the Untitled (Lot 1585) canvas from 2003 featured here, the artist eliminates any contextualizing environment and focuses instead on a more direct character study. Here Zeng suggests a powerful but distorted personality; his hand is extended elegantly at his side, relaxed but if poised for action. His sharp stare and violently red flesh suggest an intensity that exceeds his small frame.
Where in Untitled Zeng gives his singular figure an almost existential isolation, in others the canvas is filled with wild and excited brushstrokes. Andy Warhol's visage (Lot 1619) contained the enigma of his personality and career: an under-stated figure notable mainly for his shocking "fright" wig, whose career of choosing the most mundane subjects revolutionized the art world. In Zeng's hands, the artist takes one of Warhol's most iconic self-portraits and makes it his own through a web of ecstatic, fluid strokes. Against a solid black background, the figure emerges through the intermingling of abstracted pure color lines that coalesce into a recognizable form. In some ways, this series proposes the obverse of Zeng's "Behind the Mask" paintings; rather than giving us his quick and almost ruthless rendering of character, he suggests instead the ways in which despite our best efforts, certain aspects of other people's character will always remain unknowable.