Zeng Fanzhi | And Like That, a New Language is Birthed

Via Issue 185, The Cocoon Issue

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

Photographed by

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Styled by

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Zeng Fanzhi. “E Series 2022 No.14” (2022). Oil On Canvas. 146 7⁄8” X 87 3⁄4”.© 2023 Zeng Fanzhi. Courtesy The Artist And Hauser & Wirth.

Standing beneath Zeng Fanzhi’s towering abstract paintings, you can’t help but get sucked into the mesmerizing cascade of color—a sort of incubation in the work. Regardless of where you might have wandered in from prior, each brushstroke reorients the viewer into a kind of suspended cocoon space, where layer upon layer of vivid yellows, reds, and blues flow together to form a language of their own.

Born in 1964, Zeng has emerged as one of China’s most visible contemporary artists. His paintings—which fetch upwards of seven figures at auction—can be found in the collections of top international institutions and on the walls of collectors, the likes of which include luxury magnate, François-Henri Pinault. But behind the blue-chip status is an artist in motion deeply committed to his craft and stylistic exploration.

Shaped by the Cultural Revolution during his upbringing, Zeng’s early work explores haunting moments of humanity with scenes from hospitals to abattoirs. In the 1990s, after graduating from university, Zeng relocated to Beijing, where he continues to maintain a studio practice. Coinciding with a moment of rapid industrialization and social change, the artist’s iconic Mask Series examines status, isolation, and collective identity.

Zeng’s influences range from Cézanne to Beckmann to the painting practices of the Song Dynasty, and culminate in a body of work that transcends cultural boundaries. Over the past two decades, this has manifested in a shift towards abstraction and expressive portraiture. With the same emotion and discovery of his earlier work, Zeng has continued to explore the abstract landscape, harnessing his intuition and technique to create something unparalleled. We sat down with the artist ahead of his new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Downtown Los Angeles.

Zeng Fanzhi. “D Series 2021 No.3” (2021). Oil On Canvas. 98 3⁄8” X 98 3⁄8”.© 2023 Zeng Fanzhi. Courtesy The Artist And Hauser & Wirth.

You have spoken about the importance of technique in your practice, and the hand-mind-heart connection. How do you balance a desire to learn the rules with a desire to break them?

In China, there is an old saying: ‘work like an expert butcher cutting up the carcass of an ox,’ which means that the mind and the hands are integrated. After solving the problem of skills, there will be no more entanglement and trouble in the process. In the same way, I don’t need to think about establishing or breaking rules during the painting process, as they happen naturally without consciousness.

From Pollock to Rothko to de Kooning, scale plays an interesting role in abstractionism. How did you think about scale when creating this series of paintings?

Like most artists, I began working on a smaller scale early in my career and I gradually worked at a larger scale over the years. In this exhibition, large scale formats are chosen to correspond to the space, a result of certain curatorial considerations with the exhibition environment. Most of the works on view are horizontally oriented, but I chose to present some works of vertical compositions to resonate with the walls in the gallery.

You described a shift in your career from representation to abstraction as, “transition from the external to the internal.” How do you feel this has evolved in your current work?

My painting habits may be different from others. I am used to working on different types of work at the same time. It’s like doing various experiments. So, I’d rather consider the current works as results at a certain stage of experimentation, instead of defining them as something transformed, “from representation to abstraction,” or, “from the external to the internal.”

You’ve mentioned that you don’t like to feel boxed in creatively. Do you think the art world has a fixation with labels?

I don’t agree with defining the phenomenon of labeling in a one-sided way. Every artist has their own path in art, devoting themselves to a certain style or pursuing an evolving path. I think that depends on one’s personality. As for myself, I am a person who needs a sense of strangeness. It is the most interesting part in my creation to find languages or images that have not been repeated before.

Zeng Fanzhi. “Untitled” (2021). Oil On Canvas. 89” X 77 1⁄8”. © 2023 Zeng Fanzhi. Courtesy The Artist And Hauser & Wirth.
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Zeng Fanzhi, Art, Bennett DiDonna