Led by Basquiat’s Anti-War Masterpiece, Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale Set Five Auction Records

On the second day of Hong Kong auction week, Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale pulled off remarkable results selling 28 of all 32 lots offered. Four of them were each sold for over HK$10m, including an anti-war masterpiece by Jean-Michel Basquiat that sold for HK$31.95m (US$4m). Meanwhile, five auction records were set in this sale, including the auction record for the rising Japanese contemporary artist MADSAKI.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Spartan King

One of the most famous American artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat first gained notoriety as a subversive graffiti artist and street poet in the late 1970s. By 1980, at 22-years of age, Basquiat began to direct his extraordinary talent towards painting and drawing. In 2017, his 1982 painting Untitled was sold for a mind-blowing US$110.5m at auction in New York, setting an auction record for the most valuable work artwork by an American artist.

Basquiat's art focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. Thermopolae, created in the later years of Basquiat’s brief but intense artistic career, is in many ways an anti-painting. Through Thermopolae and his protagonist the anti-warrior, Basquiat gleefully dismantles the cultural tropes and iconography of “the Other”, a fundamentally reductive narrative of weakness and deficiency concerning non-Western peoples.

Thermopolae is a reference to the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, fought between the doomed Greeks and invading Persians at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae (in Latin, "the hot gates"). In the hands of Basquiat’s wordplay, the title of the battle becomes bastardised - “a little heat”, rather than the most famous military last stand of Western civilisation.
Basquiat was fascinated by the power and vulnerability of marginalised bodies. Basquiat’s anti-hero, a naked, shitting, overly-endowed, dark-skinned savage-warrior waving a spear, manifests a visible skull, ribcage, sinew and spilling guts. He is the physical antithesis of his counterpart in Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical (and notoriously homoerotic) masterpiece Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814). 

When Thermopolae is read as a self-portrait, the burning bush and flames behind the protagonist’s back suddenly take on urgent meaning as well. The story of the burning bush, aflame but not consumed by the fire, is the story told in the Book of Exodus about the moment God charged Moses with freeing his people from slavery under the Egyptians. The bush is an acutely political rallying cry: a criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.

Jean-Paul Engelen, Phillips’ Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art 

Spanning 218.5 x 134.5cm, the masterpiece was sought after mainly by two telephone bidders following the bidding started at HK$18m. It was hammered down at HK$26.5m and sold for HK$31.95m (US$4m) after premium to the client of Jean-Paul Engelen, Phillips’ Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art.

Wenjia Zhang, Phillips’ Regional Director in China

Four Elements in Zao Wou-Ki’s Magnificent Abstract Landscapes

Another lot that reached the HK$30m benchmark was 29.05-31.10.68, an abstract painting by Zao Wou-Ki from 1968. The auctioneer started the bidding at HK$20m and put the hammer down at HK$27m after 7 bids, selling the piece for HK$32.55m (US$4.16m), the highest price realised at the sale. The winner was a telephone bidder who was bidding through Wenjia Zhang, Phillips’ Regional Director in China.

During the 1960s, Zao’s style reached a new level of maturity. If the 1950s were associated with the Oracle Bones period and the appearance of signs in Zao’s works, in the 1960s Zao starts to pursue his calligraphic experiments in a different manner, recreating the atmosphere of ink paintings by adding turpentine to thin out the heavy consistency of his oil paints.

Balancing the virtues of Western paintings in their use of colours and tones with the essence of traditional Chinese ink landscapes from the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the result is an image of implicit scenic beauty, evoking the four elements and natural phenomena in magnificent abstract landscapes. In the present work, Zao’s vigorous brushwork illustrates the battle between the four elements: fire, earth, air and water. To balance this epic encounter, the painting is ingeniously divided into three horizontal bands which give a sense of stability to the central swirling composition. 

Liu Ye’s Fascination for Mondrian

The most intense bidding of the night started when the auctioneer presented lot no.7 – She Isn't Afraid of Mondrian by Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye. The bidding started at HK$10m and attracted five bidders who pushed the price up to HK$18m. It was then escalated into a duel between Wenjia Zhang and Sandy Ma (International Specialist in 20th Century & Contemporary Art), who were bidding on behalf of their telephone bidders. After a prolonged bidding battle, the painting was knocked down at HK$22m and sold for HK$26.55m (US$3.4m) to Wenjia Zhang’s client. 

Liu Ye is considered a leading figure of Chinese contemporary art. Born in 1964, Liu Ye grew up in an artistic family: his father wrote children’s fairy tales and his mother was a language teacher. Liu Ye’s paintings are simple yet succinct summaries of the issues he faces in everyday life. 

Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. Collection of Museum of Modern Art

The centrepiece of the artist’s fascination is Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian also pays tribute to an Abstract Expressionist whose meticulously painted works influenced Liu Ye. By the artist’s own admission, She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is a direct response to Barnett Newman’s Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, a connection that lends a provocative backstory to the work.
Painted in 1995 upon Liu Ye’s return to Beijing from his studies in Berlin, She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is a painting that combines many elements of Liu’s earliest and most discernible hallmarks. Measuring 200 x 170cm, this is the largest canvas format that the artist used in the 90s. In this painting, the winged female figure thus takes on the role of both protector and disciplinarian, an apt allusion to the delicate situation of the couple’s disagreement. 

‘To me, ugly is beautiful.' – MADASKA 

One notable lot of the sale was a record-setting painting by rising Japanese contemporary artist MADSAKI. MADSAK’s Untitled was sold for HK$3m (US$383,400), obliterating the artist’s previous auction record set a night before at Christie’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong, where the artist’s Tooth Brush was sold for HK$2.5m.

MADSAKI, a Japan-born visual artist known only by a pseudonym, is one of the rising stars of the contemporary art world. Known for his signature use of spray paint, his works cast a critical eye upon mass culture and art historical tropes – both examining the cultural value systems inherent to making art, and re-interpreting them in his inimitable style.

Speaking of his aesthetics and artworks, MADSAKI said, “There are plenty of artists who can copy masterworks much more beautifully than I can. I’m not interested in painting beautifully or nicely. To me, ugly is beautiful.”

Untitled, one of the works from MADSAKI’s Character Series, was created after MADSAKI’s return to Japan and speaks to the disorienting experiences between two cultures that formed his aesthetics and personality. Mixing cultural traditions and storytelling with an eclectic ensemble of instantly-recognisable American cartoons and Japanese manga characters, Untitled brings together Sesame Street’s Big Bird, Beavis and Butthead, Star Wars’ R2-D2 and C-3PO, Homer and Bart Simpson, Stimpy from Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy Show, as well as Gatchan and King Nikochan from Dr. Slump and Dragon Ball Z. MADSAKI explained his emotional connection to these characters.

Artworks sold for more than HK$10m

Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013). 29.05-31.10.68

Lot no.: 12
Created in: 1968
Size: 81 x 100 cm

  • Galerie de France, Paris
  • Private Collection, Paris (acquired from the above in 1969)
  • Cornette de Saint-Cyr, Paris, 4 April 2011, lot 8
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$28,000,000 - 38,000,000
Price realised: HK$32,550,000

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Thermopolae
Lot no.: 8
Created in: 1985
Size: 218.5 x 134.5 cm

  • Galerie Bruno Bischofsberger, Zurich
  • Rupert J. Smith, New York
  • Leo Malca Collection, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$26,000,000 - 38,000,000
Price realised: HK$31,950,000

Liu Ye. She Isn't Afraid of Mondrian
Lot no.: 7
Created in: 1995
Size: 200 x 170 cm

  • Galerie Serieuze Zaken, Amsterdam
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 28,000,000
Price realised: HK$26,550,000

Zeng Fanzhi. Mask Series No. 1
Lot no.: 6
Created in: 1996
Size: 200 x 180 cm

  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 31 October 2004, lot 314
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$14,000,000 - 24,000,000
Price realised: HK$19,350,000

New auction records set

MADSAKI. Untitled

Lot no.: 2
Created in: 2017
Size: 150 x 150 cm

  • Galerie Perrotin, Seoul
  • Private Collection, AsiaAcquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$1,000,000 - 2,000,000
Price realised: HK$3,000,000

Stanley Whitney. Winter Rap
Lot no.: 10
Created in: 2005
Size: 135.8 x 152.6 cm

  • Esso Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection, Europe
  • Private Collection, Asia
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$1,000,000 - 2,000,000
Price realised: HK$2,875,000

Natee Utarit. King 
Lot no.: 33
Created in: 2011
Size: 200 x 320 cm

  • Art Seasons Gallery, Singapore
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$1,000,000 - 1,500,000
Price realised: HK$2,750,000

Genieve Figgis. A Social Portrait
Lot no.: 1
Created in: 2014
Size: 58.4 x 99.1 cm

  • Almine Rech Gallery, Brussels
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2015

Estimate: HK$120,000 - 180,000
Price realised: HK$1,875,000

Bernard Frize. Leu
Lot no.: 18
Created in: 2015
Size: 160 x 140 cm

  • Galerie Perrotin, Hong Kong
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$350,000 - 450,000
Price realised: HK$1,500,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Phillips Hong Kong
Sale: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 24 November 2019
Lots offered: 32
Sold: 28
Sold by lots: 88%
Sale total: HK$205,650,000