Years from now, when a rational history of this decade’s irrational art market is finally written, some of the most baffling tales of excessive hype and inflated prices will likely center on the work of Chinese-born artists. The frenzy began around 2005, when prices for works by Beijing painter Yue Minjun and others skyrocketed into the millions, sometimes increasing tenfold or more. Before long it seemed as though a whole generation of Chinese “stars” couldn’t resist cashing in by churning out art to feed the market; when that market hit the skids last year, so did many of their careers.
Then there’s Huang Yong Ping. Although he has long been revered by Western curators and his fellow Chinese artists, Huang, 55, who emigrated from China to Paris in 1989, has a way of dissociating himself from such mundane things as booms and busts. Talk to people around him and you’ll hear about how he kept megacollector François Pinault waiting for years before finally agreeing to sell a sculpture that’s now on view at Pinault’s new Punta della Dogana museum in Venice, Italy, or about how he rebuffed PaceWildenstein, the blue-chip New York gallery, when it opened a branch in Beijing last year. Huang not only turned down Pace’s offer to show his work in China (citing his loyalty to Gladstone Gallery in New York) but also politely mentioned that he had barely heard of Pace, which has a stable of artists that includes Chuck Close and Robert Ryman.
When it comes to money and marketing, says the artist’s Paris dealer, Kamel Mennour, “Huang doesn’t give a damn. Sometimes I’ll point out important clients to him, but it makes no difference. He never goes to openings or parties, never reads magazines. He wears the same pants and shoes every day. He’s just obsessively focused on his work.”
Of course, one has to wonder whether Huang’s apparent lack of commercial instinct is a kind of calculation in itself, a game of highbrow hard-to-get. But that seems unlikely, given that his attitude has barely changed since he began creating art in China during the Eighties, when there was no art market to speak of. Huang’s works tend to be highly conceptual yet deeply of the moment, often dealing with the conflicts and clashes sparked by globalization. He favors materials that aren’t particularly suited to collectors’ living rooms, such as live insects or lion feces. One of his key early pieces, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987), was basically a mound of soaked pulp—the unreadable remnants of two iconic reference books he had put through the wash. Since relocating to France, Huang has increasingly moved toward large-scale sculptures and monumental installations, though they still reference everything from European immigration policy to the I Ching. And even in the West, the artist hasn’t escaped occasional clashes with the authorities (or with animal rights groups, due to an installation in which caged reptiles and insects devoured one another).