Yue Minjun’s Grinning Self-Portraits Are Reaching a New Generation of Collectors

Untitled (from The Giants of Contemporary Chinese Art Portfolio), 2005.
Yue Minjun
West Chelsea Contemporary

In 2007, a startling canvas by the Chinese artist Yue Minjun sold at Sotheby’s in London for a record-breaking £2.9 million (US$5.9 million), making it the most expensive Chinese contemporary artwork sold on the secondary market at the time. Lauded by the auction house as “among the most historically important paintings of the Chinese avant-garde ever to appear at auction,” Execution (1995) was inspired by the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square and had been kept from public view for nearly a decade as part of its initial terms of sale due to the work’s politically sensitive content.

The arresting painting reflects the unsettling and absurd confusion of contemporary life. It features versions of the artist’s hallmark flamingo-pink grinning likeness miming the execution of several similarly smiling, underwear-clad figures who are lined up in front of a long red wall, facing a gunless firing squad. “The whole world’s human conflict…is worth laughing about,” Yue said in an interview with CNN, explaining the work’s global message. “I want the audience not to think of one thing or one place or one event. The whole world [is] the background.”

Over the course of the past two decades, Yue’s disquieting and unrelenting grin has become a ubiquitous presence in the art market, regularly attracting multimillion-dollar bids at auction. “The buying market for Yue Minjun is healthy and still very international,” said Dina Zhang, senior specialist of 20th- and 21st-century art at Christie’s. “Top collectors are always interested in his top-quality and major historical works.” The auction house currently holds six of Yue’s 10 biggest auction results, including his current all-time record, achieved in 2008 with the sale of Gweong-Gweong (1993) in Hong Kong.

A secondary-market sensation

Silly Bird, 2004.
Yue Minjun
FNG-Art

Untitled, 2009.
Yue Minjun
Omer Tiroche Gallery

Sold just six months after the Execution sale, the large-scale painting Gweong-Gweong achieved HK$54 million (US$6.9 million)—over 10 times what it had gone for just three years earlier, when it sold for HK$4.9 million (US$636,574). “Between 2005 and 2008, with the takeoff of China’s economy, the art market in China had tremendously boomed,” said Zhang. “Among this market, Yue Minjun is among the most influential and popular Chinese contemporary artists.” All of the artist’s top 10 auction results were set between 2007 and 2011.

Since then, works by Yue have been a market mainstay. “His market grew rapidly for a period of time and now is more steady,” explained Leng Lin, president at Pace Gallery in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Seoul. The artist was one of the first to be picked up by the mega-gallery when it opened its Beijing outpost in 2008. This dependable market is also reflected on Artsy, where Yue has regularly been among the top five most in-demand Chinese artists on the platform since 2013, jockeying between Liu Bolin, Ai Weiwei, Zhuang Hong Yi, and Ren Hang.

Backyard Garden, from Snatched Ecstasy, 2009.
Yue Minjun
Upsilon Gallery

This international fervor for Yue’s work wasn’t always so consistent. Works by the artist started appearing at auction in 2001. Over the next few years, only three paintings were offered, all of which failed to sell despite relatively modest estimates ranging between around $21,000 and $56,000. It wasn’t until 2004 that his market started to gain traction, the same year that Yue’s work was included in the Gwangju and Shanghai biennales.

By 2006, his larger canvases reliably fetched six-figure sums, and in 2007, his kaleidoscopic painting Goldfish (1993) breached the million-dollar mark, selling for $1.3 million at Sotheby’s in New York over a high estimate of $700,000. According to Zhang, this was largely due to his inclusion in several high-profile international exhibitions, including his first U.S. museum show at the Queens Museum in New York in 2007–08, along with rising global interest in contemporary Chinese art.

“In the 1990s to mid-2000s, the Chinese contemporary market had been recognized as a ‘group’ phenomenon,” she explained. “A group of Chinese contemporary artists, including Yue Minjun, had various opportunities to rise on international platforms, including the Venice Biennale, São Paulo Bienal, etc.” Yue’s exhibition at Saatchi Gallery’s London space in 2008 attracted over half a million visitors, amplifying the artist’s international acclaim.

Behind the cynical smile

Untitled (Smile-ism No. 11), 2006.
Yue Minjun
LongHouse Reserve Benefit Auction

Untitled (Smile-ism No. 6), 2006.
Yue Minjun
LongHouse Reserve Benefit Auction

Though the artist himself is reluctant to claim the title, Yue is generally regarded as the “godfather” of Cynical Realism, along with Fang Lijun and Liu Wei. Coined by the critic Li Xianting, Cynical Realism is a term used to describe a generation of disillusioned artists creating work after Tiananmen Square. Born out of a desire to break away from the collective mindset established after the Cultural Revolution and embrace individual self-expression, it describes a movement that often uses humor to reflect a general sense of disillusionment with Chinese contemporary society.

Using his own relentlessly laughing face, Yue often inserts himself into moments in history, frequently referencing canonical or iconic images—from Ingres paintings to Eddie Adams’s harrowing photograph of a suspected Viet Cong officer being executed—all to discomforting effect. “His works depict himself with his trademark smile,” explained Zhang. “‘What’s so funny?’ you may ask. Behind the smile, we can feel this is not a genuine happy expression from the artist. It somehow reveals helplessness, sadness.”

Expanding demand

Untitled (Smile-ism No. 17), 2006.
Yue Minjun
LongHouse Reserve Benefit Auction

The fact that Yue’s auction record hasn’t come close to being broken since 2008 speaks to how rare and coveted these beaming works are; these days, the only pieces that surface on the secondary market are prints, multiples, and the occasional small-scale canvas. “In recent years (especially after the economic turmoil in 2008), there have only been a few large-scale works of historical significance offered in the auction market, hence his auction record remains unshattered since 2008,” said Zhang. This demand is also reflected in Yue’s primary market. “Generally speaking, relatively few people buy works on paper, but some people buy prints,” said Lin. “There are quite a lot of inquiries for sculptures, but paintings are the main works in demand.”

Despite the astronomic surge in valuation for Yue’s larger, unique works, prices for his prints and editions have remained surprisingly consistent since they first began selling at auction in 2007. Generally speaking, individual prints by the artist will sell for prices well under $10,000, and not for much more than they were fetching 10 years ago. This stability has made Yue’s market more accessible, opening the door for younger and emerging collectors. “Demand for his prints and editioned works at our sales has been always good as the estimates are much lower than his unique oil paintings, which attract more emerging collectors to bid,” said Zhang. According to her, the market for Yue’s works is gradually expanding to include the next generation of collectors who relate to the work’s Cheshire-like cheer.

“Sometimes we are forced to smile even when things are going well, or when we confront historical events, unfair treatment, or maybe the separation because of death,” Zhang said. “Every individual has this conflicting experience, and this inspires Minjun to create works with a perpetual vitality and everlasting charm among the public and collectors.”

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