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Warhol, To China And Back: The Art Market Changes Forever

21/01/2014 14:04 GMT | Updated 22/03/2014 09:59 GMT

As the "new" year progresses I find myself at once in awe of the record-setting that characterized 2013, and confident that 2014 will utterly eclipse it.

To wit:

• Francis Bacon's 1969 triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the world's most expensive work ever sold at auction, bringing in $142.4 million.

• Jeff Koon's stainless steel Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4 million, making it the most expensive piece of art sold by a living artist.

• Zeng Fanzhi's monumental 2001 work The Last Supper took the Chinese art market to new levels, yielding $23.3 million at Sotheby's in Hong Kong -- the most ever for an Asian contemporary artist at auction.

Basquiat, Newman, Richter, Wool, Judd, Guyton, de Koening -- the list of artists who set new records goes on. But in November, a sale caught my eye that was not merely record-setting, but indeed perhaps emblematic of the new reality that China and her enthusiastic, prosperous collectors have wrought.

November 13th, of course, marked the $105.4 million Sotheby's New York sale of Andy Warhol's 1963 Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), a sale that broke all previous auction records for his work. And just a week before I had been standing in front of another Warhol piece in Beijing, feeling, well, haunted.

The piece was Warhol's Self Portrait from 1965, and I was in Beijing at the CAFA Art Museum to visit the Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal exhibition. I reflected on Warhol's seemingly perpetual genius, from the glorification of the commodity and the desire to individual fame to the critical conflation of low and high culture. Warhol undeniably imprinted his philosophy and tactics on the world; more then 25 years after his death he remains at the top of his game, and it became evident last year that this superstar artist's impact traveled far beyond Western parameters and well into present-day China.

The most monumental Warhol retrospective ever is held in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing while a Warhol painting breaks every record imaginable in New York. Surely there was an intrinsic connection?

At a minimum, these concurrent events created two new major symbols of a circular journey connecting West and East, strengthening the dialectic of orientalism and westernisation -- and, most importantly, sealing the intrinsic relationship between Warhol's oeuvre and ideals with the Chinese avant-garde and contemporary art.

But how did this emulation start? With Andy Warhol's own voyage to China.

The artist visited Hong Kong and Beijing in 1982, his trip resulting in a body of photographical work that not only provides viewers a unique vista into his intimate experience of that country, but also acts as a near-historical archive of these fascinating cities at a crucial turning point in their history. And the notion of some sort of circular journey between East and West is exemplified by Warhol himself -- in particular, his uncanny ability to predict China's future.

Andy Warhol's visit to China occurred at a pivotal moment in Chinese history; his reflections upon that visit can be seen as a powerful, even foreboding divination of the transformations that were to arise. Indeed, when Warhol travelled to Beijing in 1982 he witnessed a historical, monumental capital, perhaps one of the world's least commercialised cities. It was such a far cry from the American society of the spectacle, Warhol was asked what he thought about China not even having a McDonald's restaurant. His reply: "Oh, but it will."

Warhol's prediction proved true; McDonald's Corp today boasts more than 1,700 restaurants in the Middle Kingdom.

As a fascinating parallel export, Warhol's art itself can be seen as a strong foreshadowing of Chinese contemporary art; consider his 1972 Mao, which aligned itself to the legacy of his other numerous "celebrity" portraits, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. As an essential cultural reference point in China, the image of Mao has become a crucial image within contemporary art practices --continually appropriated and repeated (much as Warhol would) as a signifier of skewed ideals and the paradoxical traumas these can cause.

What does all this have to do with a record-breaking Sotheby's sale? That it is impossible to discuss Warhol's influence on contemporary culture without discussing the commoditization of art and artists. The man himself said, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art." Could more salient words have ever been spoken, underlining the crucial paradox and enigma of Warhol's persona and art, while we watch his work become just as objectified as the Brillo boxes and soup tins he depicted?

The critical exploration of commodity fetishism that was at the core of Warhol's practice comes now to the fore of Chinese avant-garde art, as today's artists examine and critique the commoditized values and ideologies in post-revolutionary China. Ai Weiwei's art is an investigation of these aspects, exemplified through Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola logo. In this work, Ai Weiwei is critically intervening in today's perception and memory of culture -- in demolishing (or transforming) the ancient Chinese vase with a Coca-Cola logo, he is questioning the power of today's commercialism in our society, raising the tensions of how it has not only taken hold of Chinese culture but abolishes memories of Chinese history, destroying her cultural heritage. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of ancient and high culture with commercialism and low culture is a strategy similar to Warhol's revolutionary integration of the two poles of the modernist dialectic and spheres of visual representation -- namely low and high art, or commercial and fine art. By aligning the department store and the museum, conflating commerce and culture, Ai Weiwei -- like Warhol -- is questioning what results are wrought from this amalgamation.

Indeed, the link between commerce and culture has never been more profound for Chinese collectors and artists. The first Chinese contemporary art sale took place at Christie's in New York in 2005; the following year Sotheby's held its own Chinese auction, creating new records for numerous artists. China today represents 90% of the Asian art market, with Beijing as the world's third-largest market for contemporary art -- grossing over €200 million in 2012-2013. The supremacy of America and Europe has been somewhat revoked, as one-quarter of the top bids are currently Chinese -- bearing out, in a way, Warhol's prediction.

Chinese art buyers have generally been acknowledged as important consumers of their own historical objects, as well as keen collectors of their own contemporary art. However an emerging shift towards the acquisition of Western art has been seen, particularly in such high-profile sales as that of Picasso's Claude and Paloma. That 1950 work sold in New York last November for $28.2 million, and to Wang Jianlin -- China's wealthiest man.

Exhibitions of Western artists taking place in Beijing -- Louise Bourgeois and Gabriel Orozco at the Faurschou Foundation, Warhol at CAFA, and French surrealist Marcel Duchamp at the UCCA -- all emphasise this circular pilgrimage of aesthetics, completing the West-East journey with the all-important return trip.

Reflecting thusly, and trusting my instincts after many years of intimate involvement with China's art market, I am certain her impact going forward will be global, profound, and inevitable. China will move the art market to new and unseen levels, and in 2014 we will witness more western art being bought by Chinese collectors than we might ever have imagined.

The CAFA exhibition and the Silver Car Crash sale should serve as reminders, not just of Andy Warhol's enduring influence on art, but as bellwethers for the emerging influence of China as a global powerhouse in the art market.