Upstart painter Huang Yuxing generated more money at auction last year than Jonas Wood. Is this proof of a bubble?
Few in the Western art market had heard of Huang Yuxing until mid-2020, when one of his fluorescent-hued paintings fetched $1 million at Christie’s Hong Kong. Once a young artist gets an award like this, it doesn’t take long for international players to start paying attention.
Over the past year and a half, the Beijing-born artist has gained global gallery representation and set several new auction records. In December, his Seven Treasure Pins (2016-2019) grossed $8.3 million, beating its previous record by 424% and beating its high estimate by a factor of 13. Huang’s work brought in more money at auction last year than top notch names like Nicolas Party and Jonas. Wood, according to the Artnet News Pro Intelligence report.
The surge in prices for his paintings, which fashionably mix figuration, abstraction and landscape, coincides with what could be a rebound in contemporary Chinese art more broadly.
The return of the Chinese contemporary
While the rise of young Chinese collectors has been a major narrative in the market in recent years, Chinese contemporary art has been slower to rebound from the Great Recession that hit in 2015, just after Chinese President Xi Jinping. extensive anti-corruption crackdown sent a number of senior officials to prison.
That tide changed last year when millennial collectors began spending increased sums on young Chinese and foreign artists. Sales of ultra-contemporary Chinese art, defined as the work of artists of Chinese descent born after 1974, nearly doubled to $96.1 million from $49 million a year earlier, according to the database. of Artnet price data.
Between 2019 and 2021, sales for the category jumped nearly 240%. The new bump is mainly driven by demand from painters like Huang, Jia Aili (b. 1979), Zhao Zhao (born in 1982) and Liang Yuanwei (born in 1977).
“The contemporary art market is fueled by a young generation bringing in energy and new money,” veteran art dealer Pascal de Sarthe told Artnet News. “In recent years, the art market has developed on all fronts and has gone beyond art for art’s sake. It is more than ever an asset and a form of investment. It adds an element that hasn’t been scaled up until the last decade or so, and everyone in the contemporary art world is enjoying the journey.
In November, Phillips Hong Kong launched a new series called “Ultra/Neo”, dedicated to a generation of Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian artists, largely born in the 1970s, whose work comments the rapid technological and cultural developments they witness. All 30 lots, offered in the daytime and evening sales in association with Poly Auction, sold, some for well above the estimate. Six set new artist records.
Nevertheless, amid the economic uncertainties triggered by the superimposition of geopolitical crises, some are wondering if this segment of the market, which has proven to be volatile before, has any real resilience. In a market increasingly manipulated by speculation, do artists like Huang, whose prices have skyrocketed, have roots deep enough to weather an impending storm?
The Rise of Huang Yuxing
Born in Beijing, Huang graduated from the mural painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), China’s leading art academy, in 2000.
In the years after graduation, Huang’s works appeared in various group exhibitions, with paintings often depicting Japanese anime characters like Astro Boy. They gained traction in local auctions, but as the market lost interest in anime paintings around 2009, Huang lost his edge.
A long trip to the Himalayas in late 2009 set him on a new path, according to Chinese media. This new focus on landscape brought him solo exhibition opportunities, including a 2014 exhibition with Antenna Space in Shanghai.
Huang’s big break came the following year. He had a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum, became the first guest artist at the Yuz Museum Project Room, and began to develop a modest aftermarket presence with total sales of $323,917. After dealer Johann König encountered her work at Art Basel Hong Kong, he offered her a solo exhibition in London in 2019. It sold for prices ranging from $20,000 to $100,000.
Meanwhile, steam resumed auctions. In the year of the König show, his work grossed $1.6 million. This figure increased nearly sixfold in 2020 and increased again in 2021 with $19.9 million in sales. The Average Huang fetched $326,816 at auction that year, more than his cumulative work in 2015. At Christie’s Hong Kong on May 27, Huang’s Ravine of cherry blossoms (2019) grossed over HK$6.9 million ($883,177), almost 10 times expectations.
What is the draw?
Huang’s contemporary take on the landscape – the subject of traditional Chinese ink paintings for centuries – helped him develop a dedicated Chinese collector base. In recent years, his admirers have grown to include Western collectors and institutions such as the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami.
“Collectors who are perhaps largely millennials or even Gen Z are very attached to this color scheme as it harkens back to the Y2K aesthetic which is very distinctive and inspired by the mid 90s and early 90s. 2000,” said Danielle So, head of contemporary art sales at Phillips Hong Kong.
Huang’s star status was confirmed when Louis Vuitton showcased his work on his Capucines handbag last year, putting him in the ranks of Vik Muniz, Zeng Fanzhi and Paola Pivi. “The bag will accompany different conversations and daily activities, rather than just remaining static in an exhibition,” the artist told media at the time.
The starmaking gallery Almine Rech began representing Huang in 2020, before presenting a sold-out exhibition of his work in Brussels. In an effort to expand his collector base, Rech said he sold all 21 works to American and European collections. “Its well-executed details and impressive use of color set it apart from its peers,” said Eileen Wang, gallery director in Shanghai.
Notice of reversal?
In the booming contemporary art market, surging sales may seem like a warning: if collectors buy an artist’s work at inflated prices, they could give up and cash in, while financialization can discourage curators and others who might help ensure the longevity of this artist’s career. Some observers fear that Huang, along with other rising young artists, may fall victim to this cycle.
“Being caught in a speculative market is an artist’s worst nightmare,” warned de Sarthe, citing a previous boom in the contemporary art market in the late 1980s that “left so many victims behind.” The dynamic hurts the collector who has paid too much too. “The real problem is that very few collectors currently buy art with their eyes. Most of them just follow trends,” said de Sarthe.
Today The market is “most comfortable” with paintings with detailed brushstrokes and intense colors that put a contemporary spin on traditional styles like surrealism or abstraction, observed de Sarthe. “The bad news is that, in some cases, growth can leave the artist with little room for error as they reach record prices in their first year of success,” he said. .
There are already signs of unsubscribing. Huang’s top 20 auction lots were all sold in 2020 or later. Fourteen are recent works, having been created in 2015 or later; four of those 14 were completed in 2019. (This includes his record Seven Treasure Pins and White building in the forestwhich was acquired by a European collector at the 2019 London König fair and sold for $497,782 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April.)
The rapid turnaround has caught the attention of some art advisers who, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the return of works to the market in less than five years is a warning sign. Two of Huang’s top 20 lots represent repeat sales, having been bought at auction in 2018 and 2019 and resold in 2021.
But market participants invested in Huang’s success take a different view and say they are working to rein in his runaway market. Almine Rech has put in place a five-year non-resale agreement for the artist’s new work ahead of his first solo exhibition in New York later this year. The new primary market prices are yet to be confirmed.
Ada Tsui, Head of Today’s Sale of Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Asia-Pacific Art Department, described Seven Treasure Pins as “an exceptional case” and said that “Huang’s labor market has become stable”. Phillips’ So agreed that the $8.3 million record should stay in place for some time.
But with his growing exposure in the West, demand for Huang’s colorful paintings is unlikely to die out anytime soon. The waiting list for his new work is long and many collectors have been lining up for nearly two years already, said Wang of Almine Rech.
The artist “can hardly be called prolific,” she noted. “Sometimes he spends six months traveling without working. Sometimes he stays in his studio all day to create with passion.
To be a fan of Huang, it seems that patience and a big wallet are essential.
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