After Zao Wou Ki and Chu Teh Chun, the market recognises T’ang Haywen

[24 Jul 2018]

TANG Haiwen (1927-1991) arrived in France at the same time as Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh Chun, but unlike his two compatriots, he was relatively unknown during his lifetime and died amidst general indifference in 1991, aged 64. In search of deeper experiences rather than material success, T’ang Haywen led a vivid life, traveling a lot, working and exhibiting in France, Switzerland, Germany and the United States. He lived his freedom without chasing notoriety, so much so that Father Jean Irigoyen wrote of him in 1994: “detachment goes hand in hand with precariousness, which in turn leads to living the present with much intensity… with the appetite of one who has everything, and yet possesses nothing”.

T’ang Haywen’s work didn’t really emerge from the shadows until after his death, initially arousing the admiration of a couple of influential historians and art critics before seducing new generation of collectors. At the end of the 1990s, an extraordinarily dense body of work began to gain public exposure through four exhibitions: Le Tao and Painting at the Ocean Museum of Monaco (1996), a retrospective at the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts (1997) and Les Maîtres de l’encre at the Tavet-Delacour Museum in Pontoise (1999) alongside works by ZAO Wou-Ki (1921-2013). A little later in 2002, the discovery of T’ang Haywen’s work was given additional support via a solo exhibition at the Guimet Museum of Asian Arts entitled Les Chemins de l’encre and accompanied by a book in which Jean-Paul Desroches, then curator of the Guimet Museum, stated that “T’ang differs from most of his contemporaries, remaining a calligrapher by instinct and a metaphysician by choice”. Like Zao Wou Ki, T’ang Haywen realised his own personal fusion of Chinese aesthetic and spiritual principles with a certain Western lyricism.

On the auction market, for a long time his works were only available in Taiwan, both before and after the posthumous retrospective organised by the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts in 1997. The activation of his market in Hong Kong and Paris coincided with the Guimet Museum’s show in 2002, but sales remained extremely modest until 2005 when Christie’s Hong Kong sold five of his works on the the same day, including a 1966 Untitled oil-on-canvas for $34,000. That was the first positive sign, and as demand picked up, it spread beyond Asia. In the wake of that Hong Kong sale, Sotheby’s in London offered fifteen works by the artist and all sold, although few crossed the $5,000 threshold (17 July 2005). In fact it wasn’t until five years ago that T’ang Haywen’s work began to attract serious demand. Since then, nine works have fetched over $100,000, including a record of nearly $440,000 for a large untitled acrylic from the mid-1960s, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 20 January 2015.

Although T’ang Haywen used various media and techniques, his most iconic works are his diptychs in ink. These pieces, with two sheets side-by-side that the work unites into one, accord with the dualism at the core of Taoist philosophy. Measuring 70 x 100 centimetres, some have already fetched over $40,000 in Hong Kong, are also recognizable by the calligraphy of the signature that combines Roman letters and Chinese ideograms. Usually red, like a traditional seal, T’ang’s signature is part of the composition. In Chinese, the notion of ‘signature’ is expressed literally as “imprint of the heart”… the truth of the being. In the words of Jean-Paul Desroches, T’ang’s signature actually conveys “the substance and energy” of a new language.

Compared with the spectacular records hammered for works by Chu Teh Chun and Zao Wou Ki, T’ang’s art is still very affordable. Moreover, the French market has a particularly abundant supply of his works: nearly half of his 2017 turnover was generated in France from 83% of the lots sold worldwide. T’ang, who liked to stay with friends in Lyon, Paris and various other places, would often give his hosts artworks in exchange for their hospitality. Hence the relative density of the French market. Last October, an exceptional collection of 55 such works was auctioned in Cannes, and they all sold without exception. Indeed, the French buyers found themselves bidding against some highly motivated Asian collectors.