Then later that year, while visiting his parents, he came across an old photograph of his mother and father posing stiffly with him and his two olderbrothers. Such studio portraits had been extremely popular in China in the Fifties and Sixties, and the shot of the Zhang family was typically imprinted with ideology: The artist’s father wore a Mao jacket and, though he was a party official, a workman’s cap. Here was the quintessential image of life under Mao, offering unimagined possibilities to a figurative painter. “It’s as if you pushed open a door and suddenly found yourself in a garden,” he says.
Thus began “Bloodlines,” a series of grave, disquieting canvases—“false portraits,” Zhang once called them—showing wet-eyed parents and children gazing blankly out of gray-toned backgrounds. Red lines run in and around the figures, and occasionally a blemish appears, like the wearing away of paper in a photo album. The portraits, which can be as large as eight and a half feet in width, don’t depict any one particular family, Zhang says, least of all his own. He never paints from photographs or live models, and his fictional families often consist of multiple versions of the same pensive face.
With its complicated, subtle melding of nostalgia and grief, “Bloodlines” gained Zhang immediate notice: inclusion in the 1995 Venice Biennale, a 1997 solo exhibition at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, and two shows at Max Protetch gallery in New York, in 2000 and 2005. Last year he was scooped up by PaceWildenstein, the first blue-chip New York gallery to open a branch in China. A solo Zhang show is now being planned at Pace Beijing for 2009. His work has also taken a sudden leap in auction value. In 2006 a “Bloodlines” portrait fetched $979,200; this year Sotheby’s sold another for $6 million.
In keeping with his new prominence, Zhang moved from Chengdu to Beijing in 1999. But other than the size of his studio—which fills a converted motorcycle-helmet factory—he seems little affected by his success. “The first time I heard that my art sold for so much, it really scared me,” he says, laughing. As in Chengdu, his studio is decorated with pictures of his daughter, now 14. (Divorced from the girl’s mother for almost 10 years, he remarried in 2007.)
Zhang’s current exhibition, at PaceWildenstein’s West 25th Street location, is called “Revision”—a loaded word in the China of the artist’s youth, where being branded a “revisionist,” someone who distorted Marxist fundamentals, could mean one’s ruin. In this context, the word takes on an alternative meaning. “These are all new works,” Zhang explains, “and they’re completely different from the stuff that everybody’s known me for.” He’s showing sculpture for the first time, including babies based on photos of himself and his daughter as infants, and his new paintings are almost devoid of human figures. One shows a pair of twin beds, a ragged lightbulb illuminating a pillow embroidered with a political slogan. Another depicts a gigantic dam, an image that, he says, “in the Chinese consciousness of the Fifties and Sixties was considered to be the most beautiful landscape.”