Zeng Fanzhi’s visually and historically complex paintings reflect his bold experimentation with, and fusion of, Eastern and Western artistic traditions.
Born and raised in Wuhan, China, Zeng graduated from the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts, Wuhan, in 1991. From the nineteenth century until the 1990s, Wuhan was one of China’s most prosperous cities and witness to a collision of Western and Eastern cultures. During his youth Zeng was inspired by China’s ’85 New Wave movement, which saw artists search for a new, often more conceptual, language after the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Zeng closely followed and studied Western art and was particularly drawn to German Expressionism and French Romanticism, through which he observed the ways in which his predecessors processed and visualized their experiences during times of extreme societal flux. He was especially drawn to the bold expressive gestures of Max Beckmann, as well as artists such as Willem de Kooning and Edvard Munch. These influences led him to deviate from the Social Realism that he was taught in school. Instead, he keenly observed objects and images from daily life. His Hospital (1991–92) and Meat (1992–94) paintings are examples of this turn. In these visceral works, he painted the skin of his subjects a pinkish color resembling slaughtered meat, demonstrating his concern and compassion for human existence and fragility.
In 1993 Zeng relocated to Beijing, where the unfamiliar environment left him feeling isolated. During this time he became keenly aware of the people he encountered, from all walks of life, who were living through a period of rapid modernization. This awareness led to the creation of his Mask works (1994–2004), a series that preserved the large, vacant eyes and thick, clumsy hands of the subjects seen in prior paintings and introduced greater distance between the figures, creating a sense of alienation. The masks in these works obscure and divert from the subjects’ feelings and hint at Zeng’s apprehension toward and rejection of society’s accelerated, systematic development. These works not only provide a record of this period of profound social transformation, but also offer a glimpse of the collective memory of this era.
Since 2000 Zeng has become increasingly interested in traditional Chinese art and culture, particularly the paintings and sculptures of the Northern Wei, Yuan, and Song Dynasties. Influenced by the philosophies of Laozi and Zhuangzi—which are integral to traditional Chinese art—Zeng’s subject matter has slowly shifted from society to nature. In particular, his interest in scholar’s rocks inspired the creation of the Abstract Landscapes (2004–). In these works, dark, brooding landscapes are often obscured by complex linear brushstrokes or intertwining foliage. The artist has characterized these landscapes as reinterpretations of nature’s creation as opposed to depictions of an objective world. The tragic yet sublime desolation of these works echoes Zeng’s early portraiture.
The Abstract Landscapes have undergone many revisions and breakthroughs, most of which suggest Zeng’s shift toward abstraction. While early works incorporated imagery of the sky, fire, and animals, later works rely heavily on line and color and are removed from the figurative world. The references and emotions within his works have become more ambiguous, creating an uncertainty that opens up a kaleidoscopic range of potential interpretations. On close observation, the viewer notices the texture of the oils, cadence of the brushstrokes, overlaying of the lines, layering and mixing of color, and various conflicts and transitions within the canvas, while from afar, the viewer may interpret the forms as nebulae or electrical networks.
Aside from his landscape works, Zeng has continuously engaged with portraiture, often subverting the genre. For example, beginning in 2002 he employed circular brushwork to blur the outlines of his subjects’ faces. In Tiananmen (2004), the subjects are depicted at such close range that they are difficult to make out; in Van Gogh (2017), the figure seems to be in a perpetual state of destruction and reconstruction.
In 2014 the Louvre commissioned a painting inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) for which Zeng created From 1830 to Now, No. 4; hung next to the original, it united opposing styles and times under a common theme. Similarly, in 2017 the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, presented an exhibition of four works in which Zeng bridged Vincent van Gogh’s unique use of color and brushstroke with his own. Combining imagery from Western myths and religion, Zeng reaches across culture and history, opening up an entirely new artistic language.
Paintings, Drawings, and Two Sculptures
November 6–December 23, 2015
555 West 24th Street, New York
Artist to Artist: Georg Baselitz and Zeng Fanzhi
On the occasion of Georg Baselitz: Years later at Gagosian, Hong Kong, Zeng Fanzhi composed a written foreword for the exhibition’s catalogue and a video message to the German painter. Baselitz wrote a letter of thanks to the Chinese artist for his insightful thoughts.
Zeng Fanzhi on Cézanne, Morandi, and Sanyu
Zeng Fanzhi speaks about curating the exhibition Cézanne, Morandi, and Sanyu at Gagosian, Hong Kong, and the connections between the three artists’ works. Interview by Jin Jing.
Zeng Fanzhi | Van Gogh
Zeng Fanzhi discusses his approach to the Zeng Fanzhi | Van Gogh exhibition in Amsterdam and the various ways the renowned Dutch painter continues to inspire artists today.
Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years
Gladys Chung investigates the formative stages of this artist’s career.
Zeng Fanzhi’s Blue
A slideshow containing photographs of the creation of Blue (2015) by Zeng Fanzhi.
Catalogue Raisonné 1984–2004
October 22–November 22, 2020
Zall Bookstore, Wuhan, China
To celebrate the release of Zeng Fanzhi: Catalogue Raisonné 1984–2004, the Fanzhi Foundation for Art and Education is hosting an online conversation and exhibition of early works made by the artist, in his hometown of Wuhan, China. Three of Zeng’s former professors from Hubei Institute of Fine Art—Pi Daojian, Wei Guangqing, and Fang Shaoh—and Shanghart founder Lorenz Helbling will speak about the artist’s practice on October 22, at 2am EDT (2pm HKT). The online conversation will be conducted in Chinese. The event is free and open to the public on WeChat and Zaiyi.
Zeng Fanzhi. Photo: Guo Shaoming
Art Basel Hong Kong Online
March 20–25, 2020
Works by Georg Baselitz, Jennifer Guidi, Tetsuya Ishida, Jia Aili, Takashi Murakami, Mary Weatherford, Tom Wesselmann, and Zeng Fanzhi were available exclusively online. The selection was also on view in the Art Basel Hong Kong Online Viewing Rooms, accessible through artbasel.com and the Art Basel app.
Takashi Murakami, Kiki, 2018–20 © 2020 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All rights reserved
Cézanne, Morandi, and Sanyu
Friday, April 26, 2019, 6pm
Gagosian, Hong Kong
Gagosian Hong Kong’s managing director Nick Simunovic and senior director Han-I Wang will discuss works by the three modern masters in the exhibition Cézanne, Morandi, and Sanyu at Gagosian, Hong Kong. In this presentation, Zeng Fanzhi examines the ways in which these three major figures set the stage for painting as we know it today, serving as crucial touchstones both for their contemporaries and for countless artists thereafter, including Zeng himself. The tour will discuss the visual relationships between the works and the recurring characteristics of modernism that are present in this show. To attend the free event, RSVP to email@example.com. Space is limited.
Sanyu, Basket of Flowers, 1931, courtesy Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation
Zeng Fanzhi | Van Gogh
October 20, 2017–March 5, 2018
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
This show marks the first time the Van Gogh Museum has invited a contemporary Asian artist to exhibit at the institution. Zeng Fanzhi, who has been inspired by the artist, presents new never-before-exhibited paintings that refer to works by Van Gogh in the museum’s collection, creating a dialogue between modern and contemporary art. The show was extended to accommodate the addition of a new painting.
Zeng Fanzhi, Van Gogh III, 2017 © Zeng Fanzhi