Fabien Fryns grew up in Belgium and Switzerland and began collecting art while still in high school. His first gallery was in Malaga, Spain, but in 2004 he moved to Beijing and opened a gallery in Caochangdi (F2 Gallery). There he showed a diverse array of artists, from Zeng Fanzhi to Wu Junyong to Sun Xun. In 2010, Fryns launched an eponymous gallery in Los Angeles (Fabien Fryns Fine Art), presenting artists such as MadeIn and Wu Junyong on the American West Coast for the first time.
Chris Moore: Fabien, you are originally from Belgium. How did you become involved in art and particularly Chinese art?
Fabien Fryns: I became involved in art quite early on, when I was about fourteen. My cousin, Xavier Hufkens, who is about five years older than me, was showing Antony Gormley, Andres Serrano, Félix González-Torres, and people like that. At that time, mid-1980s, you could buy works on paper for the equivalent of a few hundred euros. So that’s what I started to buy — I can’t say collect; I was using all my pocket money the best way I could. I was in Le Rosey Boarding School in Switzerland and my friends started to ask me to advise them what to buy. We were buying works by Gormley, Anish Kapoor, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The most expensive work was $3,000 for a large Basquiat work on paper, about 120 x 100 centimeters. The dealer was happy to get rid of it because at that time Basquiat was not so popular, which abruptly changed when he died six months later.
I realized that by selling works, I could afford to buy more works for myself. So I guess this is how I decided to become a dealer. Apart from contact with artists, I hugely enjoy passing on the collecting bug to others. Following school, I took the Christie’s fine art course. I was knowledgeable about cutting-edge contemporary art, but I didn’t know [anything] pre-Marcel Duchamp. This took two years. Then, to avoid the army, I studied business administration for four years. Finally in 1994, at the age of 24, I opened a gallery in Spain, next to Malaga, the town where Picasso was born.
CM: And Chinese art?
FF:My first introduction to Chinese art was in 2000, when I came across the work of Zhang Huan, who was living at the time in New York. I was at the ARCO [International Contemporary Art] Fair in Madrid and a fellow exhibitor nearby my booth was putting up a series of Zhang’s “Family Tree” photos. Each time I walked by I noticed it, panel by panel, and by the time the installation had finished and the fair opened, I’d purchased it.
Then I found out that Zhang was living in New York. At the time my sister was working in a New York gallery, so I spoke with her and I quickly realized that the gallery I had bought from had been a bit cheeky and had hugely overcharged me. And the gallery that was next door to my sister’s gallery was Chambers Fine Art, and Chris Mao [Chamber’s founder] is in fact the godfather of Zhang Huan’s son. It was Chris who suggested that I participate in the first edition of a new art fair, CIGE [China International Gallery Exposition], in 2004. And that’s how I came to be involved in Chinese art.
CM: So 2004 is when you started going to Beijing.
FF: I wish I had come in 2000! I basically opened a gallery a year after my first visit.
CM: What have been the gallery’s high points — not just exhibitions, but broader achievements too?
FF: China, and Beijing in particular, has really been an amazing adventure for me. I was very lucky to arrive here in 2004, just in time to witness the boom that happened in 2006–7. I think that this type of boom will never occur again in my lifetime, given the scale and dimension of what took place in China. And this is only the start. Apart from having developed wonderful working relationships and friendships with many artists and professionals in the field, I am particularly proud of the China Gold exhibition that took place in the Musée Maillol in Paris during the Olympics summer of 2008. It was not a walk in the park to organize, but the end result was well worth it for all parties involved. I hope that in my early years in China I was able, despite my rather young age, to share some knowledge with artists in China that may have helped them in developing their careers. I am aware of the fact that I am living a dream, as I am on first name terms with so many Chinese artists, from the most established to the young up and coming. It would not have been the same in the West.
CM: When did you meet Zeng Fanzhi?
FF: I wish it had been earlier but unfortunately I only met him a full year after my first visit to Beijing. I visited many studios before that time, on a daily basis, going from door to door. But his studio was quite isolated, in the neighbourhood of Songzhuang, and it took me a year before I really noticed his work and met him. The revelation came in 2005, when I saw work of his at the CIGE Fair, and, just like with the Zhang Huan work in 2000, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was an exhibitor at the fair, and although this particular painting was not for sale, I bought my first Zeng painting that same day from a private dealer. I was lucky to meet the artist shortly after that. We’re both cigar smokers, and I saw him at an opening and my wife befriended him and we became very good friends.
CM: So the gallery’s been running a few years now. What was the motivation to open a gallery in Los Angeles?
FF: In 2007 I launched a gallery in L.A. with a local partner. Eventually we dissolved the partnership, and I reopened in March 2010 under my own name. The focus is contemporary art from China, but it’s an uphill struggle in California. I am confident though that, especially if I put more time into being in L.A. myself, I will get there and put the gallery and the artists we work with on the map on the West Coast.
CM: Are there other Chinese art specialists in California?
FF: Cheryl Haines in San Francisco, as far as I know, is the only other one. Certainly we are the only one in Los Angeles. At present we have a purely Chinese program, although that may change soon. We might include some Western artists eventually. But our initial idea was to promote a cultural exchange. Originally it was hoped that my partner would help to show certain New York artists from the 80s, people like David Salle and Peter Halley, in Beijing. That wasn’t to be, so for the time being we are exhibiting only Chinese artists.
Unfortunately I’m not in L.A. all that much. I have a very good director there, Danielle Shang, but she’s more from a curatorial background. People should be able to put a face to a name, otherwise you haven’t done your job by building a presence there. At this stage, I’m still not so well connected in L.A. I need to spend more time there. But there is a lot going on in L.A. It’s a very vibrant scene, but much more focussed on Californian artists. That’s my impression. Apart from Ai Weiwei, the Los Angeles public is not as aware as their New York siblings about contemporary art in China. Even Zhang Xiaogang — they might recognise his works when they see them, but they don’t know his name. So in L.A. it’s a little different from either Beijing or New York.
CM: Do you see potential? After all, West Coast America, including Vancouver in Canada, has the biggest and most successful Chinese diaspora in the world. The new U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, is from Seattle, though his ancestors are from Taishan in Guangdong.
FF:Yes, definitely! Firstly, there is potential to develop new clients and contacts with institutions. Solo and group shows of our artists in museums also provide an opportunity for us to showcase them in our gallery. And finally, some of the artists we cannot show in Beijing, because they are represented by other galleries or for whatever other reason. So with artists like MadeIn, Ai Weiwei, Liu Wei, and Hu Xiaoyuan, there are lots of projects in the pipeline. Of course, although the L.A. gallery is quite new, I’m quite well established in China, so there’s already a relationship of trust in place. That is very important.
CM: Who are your customers?
FF: I do ninety percent of my business with ten percent of my clients — usually long-standing, mainly European clients. Increasingly we notice more clients developing in Mainland China, but they seem to prefer to buy at auctions, at least for now. We get a lot of requests from Europeans and Americans, and a few from Taiwan, Japan, and Indonesia, including some of my friends from boarding school who followed me all the way to China. They started buying Zeng Fanzhi paintings five years ago, so they are not complaining.