Warhol’s Work Takes China By Storm

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Andy Warhol in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1982. (Christopher Makos)

When American pop art legend Andy Warhol visited China in 1982, one of the sights that struck him the most was the image of everyone in matching Communist garb. Time can certainly change quickly: today, China’s wealthy art collectors can’t get enough of his works at auction, and his aesthetic is gaining a growing legion of fans across the country.

His art has been featured increasingly prominently at Asia sales for Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which are both organizing China-based exhibitions containing several of his Asia-inspired works for upcoming auctions. Sotheby’s will be showing an exhibit in Hong Kong from September 12 to 24, which will feature 40 works with prices between US$15,000 and US$1 million, according to Bloomberg. The article describes some of the pieces that will be on display:

A folding screen depicting butterflies done in ink and watercolors is among the pieces included in Sotheby’s “From Warhol, With Love.” A ballpoint drawing called “Hong Kong, China, 1956,” shows a bustling shopping street. A drawing of a shoe is made with gold leaf.

Meanwhile, Christie’s, which earlier this spring inked a landmark deal to operate independently on mainland China, will be hosting a Shanghai exhibition of 45 Warhol works from September 24 to 26, with prices ranging from US$8,000 to US$56,000. Notable Asia-inspired images in the show include a 1986 Komodo dragon and a 1982 black-and-white photograph of two Chinese phone booths.

According to the article, a growing contingent of Chinese collectors can’t get enough of Warhol:

“In our first online Warhol sale in February, 8 percent of bidders were Chinese, a higher percentage than we have previously seen,” said Amelia Manderscheid, Christie’s associate specialist on e-commerce for Warhol. The auction house also held private Hong Kong sales of Warhol’s work in November and May.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn, 1967 (Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh)

Andy Warhol, Marilyn, 1967, one of many famous works making its way across Asia for the “15 Minutes Eternal” tour. (Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh)

Warhol is also becoming increasingly well known to China’s general public. From April 29 to July 28 of this year, Shanghai’s Power Station of Art hosted a major retrospective of his work entitled “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal”, which was sponsored by Christie’s and will also be showing in Beijing at an unspecified date.

The artist’s growing popularity in China is fitting, considering the fact that the country gave him a great deal of inspiration for his work. When U.S.-China rapprochement began in 1972, Warhol was moved to created his infamous Mao portraits (which, ironically, were not shown in Shanghai for fear of censorship). According to CNN,

“Mao was front-page news in America and that was often where Warhol got his biggest inspiration,” said Eric Shiner, director of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, which organized the exhibition. He described Mao as “classic Warhol subject matter.”

Warhol relied on a copy of Mao’s portrait photograph in the leader’s Little Red Book of ideological quotations to create his paintings. Little did he know that he would eventually pose for a photo in front of the original portrait hanging in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

A decade later, Warhol paid his first ever visit to China, where he posed for a photo in front of Tiananmen Square that can be found on posters for sale today in Beijing’s tourist-heavy 798 art district. In addition to the “15 Minutes Eternal” exhibition, visitors to Shanghai have access to a collection of photos of him on his China trip touring locations such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square shot by Christopher Makos at the Elisabeth de Brabant Art Center in Shanghai until August 30.

In possibly one of the clearest signs of his growing mass popularity, the Warhol aesthetic has also inspired branding efforts: in July, Perrier celebrated its 150th anniversary with a set of four Warhol-themed bottles that were unveiled at a “pop-art”-themed party at Shanghai’s SOHO China Gallery, while Cadillac sponsored a Beijing exhibition featuring works by Warhol in April of last year.

The growing popularity of Warhol pieces to Chinese collectors is likely due the artist’s blue-chip status, making his art highly attractive to this pragmatic group of buyers. China’s rapidly growing group of collectors is likely to have a strong impact on both top-tier Western and Chinese pieces in the years to come thanks to the value of hard assets as important investment pieces.

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Art & Auction, Culture