Liu Ye’s largest figure painting expected to fetch HK$25m at Sotheby’s HK

Liu Ye’s largest ever figure painting, titled Leave Me in the Dark, may not enjoy the spotlight; but it is going to be one of the star lots at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong on 9 July. 

The evening sale is part of Sotheby’s spring auction series in Hong Kong starting the week of 5 July, after three month delay due to the pandemic. 

The work is expected to fetch between HK$25m and HK$35m (US$3.2m and US$4.5m).

Born in 1964 in Beijing, Liu has become one of the most reputable contemporary artists in China, whose crimson-hued Smoke (2001–2002) sold for a record HK$52m (US$6.6m), eclipsing his previous high mark of HK$5.5m set in 2013.


Measuring 219.7 x 299.7cm, the piece is the largest figure painting by Liu ever available for auction.

Completed in 2008, the work aims to draw people into the deep stillness of a snowy winter. His solitary protagonist takes centre stage against a mythical backdrop comprised in shades of dark violet, forming a cavernous space that stimulates viewers’ imaginations.

An eerie quiet pervaded the painting, as the character stands in the middle of nothingness with remarkable equanimity, seemingly impervious to the cold.  

The suitcase in dark grey suggests she is on the move — perhaps departing, perhaps arriving — rendered in gentle brush strokes that convey calmness and serenity. 

Adding to the peculiarity of the painting, a bright ray of light illuminates behind her head, drawing viewer’s gaze to her eyes that radiate childlike curiosity, or melancholy, as if she is trying to tell us her tales. 

“Whether she looks happy or sad depends on the mood of the audience,” said Yuki Terase, Head of Contemporary Art, Asia.

The work first appeared in Liu’s solo show at Sperone Westwater, New York.

“An international collector bought it pretty much without knowing who Liu Ye was, but he was captivated by the beauty of the piece," Terase noted. 

Like many of Liu’s paintings, Leave Me in the Dark draws references from Piet Mondrian’s adherence to geometry and pays homage to Johannes Vermeer’s gentle brush strokes.

Since 2000, Liu has strived to create a more simplistic approach to storytelling, reducing the composition to blocks of colour within immersive space.

Apart from Leave Me in the Dark, Liu conceived three other paintings in a similar fashion between 2008 and 2009 – Banned Book 2 (2008), Reading Girl (2008) and Ballet Lesson (2009) – all strike a contemplative tone with a singular female figure placed against a monochromatic background.

The lot marks the artist's fourth grand-scale figure painting, following the bright-hued trinity composed of Sword (180 x 360 cm), Gun (180.4 x 359.9 cm) and Smoke (178 x 356.5 cm) back in 2001 to 2002.

"Smoke" by Liu Ye (178 x 356.5 cm) 

"Gun" by Liu Ye (180.4 x 359.9 cm)

"Sword" by Liu Ye (180 x 360 cm)

A year after the completion of Leave Me in the Dark, the artist created a second version nearly 13 times smaller than the original one, in which his mysterious protagonist, in the exact same pose and outfits, takes up most of the space. It has been sold for HK$20.5m, more than double its estimated price.

Leave Me in the Dark (S) by Liu Ye (80 x 60 cm)

Given the sheer size of it, Leave Me in the Dark is believed to perform better than forecasts; but uncertainty remains under the shadow of the pandemic.

Liu Ye, Leave Me in the Dark (2008)

Size: 219.7 x 299.7cm
Estimate: HK$25,000,000 – 35,000,000

Provenance (established by The Value temporarily):

  • Sperone Westwater, New York
  • Private collector acquired the work from above gallery 

Auction house: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Venue: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Auction: 9 July 2020