cnn– Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou tends to excel at whatever he puts his mind to. He’s one of Asia’s best-known singers, the director of an award-winning movie and a magician with his own Netflix series. But when it came to collecting art, Chou wasn’t, by his own admission, instantly successful.
His first foray into the art world began in Paris’ Le Marais neighborhood, an area renowned for its mish-mash of galleries, boutiques and bars. There, a three-dimensional, stereoscopic work caught his attention, so he purchased it and brought it back home to Taiwan.
He thought the piece was “super cool” at the time, he recalled in a video interview from Taipei. But his art-savvy friends didn’t agree. “They said they would introduce me to a good art adviser,” joked Chou, who buried the artwork in a warehouse and hasn’t taken it out since.
The “Mandopop” (Mandarin pop) singer has come a long way since then. At home, a pink Picasso (a color closely associated with Chou, whose legions of fans often wave pink glow sticks at his concerts) has pride of place in his office; Peter Doig’s stirring “Road Home” hangs along his staircase above a transparent piano; and a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting has been built into the structure of Chou’s house, permanently encased in glass in his living room.
In 2019, the 42-year-old star was named in ArtNews’ “50 Art Collectors to Watch.” Paintings by the likes of Gerhard Richter and Frank Stella often pop up in the background of Chou’s music videos. On Instagram, where he has a following of 6.4 million, the singer seesaws between sharing holiday snaps, previewing his latest projects and posting art he admires, such as David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist,” Philip Guston’s “The Studio” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear.”
At the time of our interview, Chou was promoting his recent collaboration with Sotheby’s auction house: A two-part contemporary art sale, personally curated by the musician. At the main auction, held Friday evening in Hong Kong, Basquiat’s “Untitled” sold for over 289 million Hong Kong dollars ($37.3 million). A separate digital sale, featuring artists including Yayoi Kusama, Ronald Ventura and Yoshitomo Nara, closed Tuesday with KAWS’ “Untitled (MBFR7)” fetching a top bid of 3.4 million Hong Kong dollars ($487,000).
From pianos to art
Amid the Picassos and works by celebrated Chinese French artist Zao Wou-Ki, a number of Chou’s concert memorabilia went under the hammer, too (a tour-worn studded Tomas Chan outfit sold for over 1.2 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $154,000). The contrast raised an unlikely question: How did a mainstream pop artist find his footing as a credible figure in the art collecting world?
Chou is seemingly obsessed with nice things. He accumulates rare wines, watches and cars, though his affinity for collecting began in an unusual place: his fascination with Europe.
Long before his first ill-fated art purchase in Paris, he had amassed a collection of European antiquities and ornate pianos. When he encounters an antique piano, the singer imagines everyone who has played it before him, he said. As a classically trained musician, Chou says he’s drawn to European architecture and furnishings — so much so that he and his wife, Taiwanese Australian actress Hannah Quinliven, chose a castle in Yorkshire, England, as the venue for their 2015 wedding.
“I don’t know if it’s because I learned classical piano when I was a child, or (if) it’s a past life connection,” he said.
Chou has been surrounded by art his entire life — thanks, in part, to his mother Yeh Hui-mei, a former art teacher who he still turns to for collecting advice. She made art history a part of his childhood, telling tales of famous artists. She preferred Salvador Dalí to Picasso, Chou recalled in a Sotheby’s auction preview — “Dalí was more loyal to his lover,” he is quoted as saying.
When Chou decided to begin collecting art seriously, he started big. His first purchase was a work by Basquiat, an artist he admitted to not knowing much about. The celebrated painter was “the first artist I was exposed to” as a collector, the singer said.
Chou was initially intrigued by the artwork’s extravagant price tag, but the more he learned about Basquiat, the more he fell in love with his work. “Basquiat (was) a pure artist, without commercial motives. He (was) like a child, directly expressing feelings in his paintings,” Chou explained, likening it to how Picasso’s works “transcend technique.”
Since that purchase, Chou has committed to his expensive new hobby. “I’ve spent almost all my earnings from my concerts on artworks,” he said.
As one of Asia’s biggest entertainers, Chou certainly has the means. Last May, he shared a tweet claiming that his 2019 tour earnings put him seventh among the world’s male vocalists, just behind heavyweights like Ed Sheeran and Elton John. (He was also the only Asian artist on the list.) In his caption, Chou vowed his ranking would rise, saying he was “ultracompetitive” and needed to be “first place in everything I do.”
According to Chou’s friend Jazz Li, CEO of art collective Enviseam (a collaborator on the Sotheby’s sale, alongside Hong Kong’s K11 Group), the star is a “really passionate guy” and the same applies to his “crazy” approach to collecting art. “Sometimes I (tell him) calm down,” Li said. “He gets very excited when he tries to buy something.”
At the time of our interview, Chou said his next target was Richard Prince’s “Runaway Nurse,” one of the pieces featured in the Sotheby’s sale on Friday (it went on to sell for just under 94 million Hong Kong dollars, or $12.1 million, though it is not known if Chou was the buyer). He encountered the work, which was inspired by a film noir heroine, while in New York, and it left a “deep impact” on him, he said.
“Some people put their assets in real estate, sports cars, luxurious clothes, different (categories of collectibles),” Chou said. “But for me, art is the most important asset class.”
Though art is very much an investment for Chou, he still purchases pieces with a view to displaying them at his home. Occasionally, he has interior designers mock up plans to display special artworks in his property, though as his collection grows, pieces have also gone into storage.
But for Chou, hanging art on the wall is not only a way to beautify his house. It has another purpose altogether: “Living with art inspires you to make more money,” he said, “and to buy more art.”
Imagining the future
While Chou is drawn to big names, he has a “strong desire” to support emerging artists. He can relate, he said, having spent the early part of his career songwriting and producing for other musicians behind the scenes, before releasing his breakout solo album “Jay” in 2000.
“People tend to look at big names like Jia Aili and Zao Wou-Ki,” he said, referencing two prominent Asian artists. He compared collecting to running a record label, adding: “Everybody Is always looking at the big music stars, and they don’t tend to get to see the more emerging singers.”
An interest in lesser-known artists was apparent in his picks for the Sotheby’s sale, which included Angela Yuen’s mesmerizing spinning skylines and Fatina Kong’s arresting collisions of nature and manmade cities. He names American artists Dana Schutz and Avery Singer as two of the names he’s been quietly collecting.
And at home, Chou is also an artistic benefactor of sorts: His children Romeo and Hathaway have started painting. Just as his own mother nurtured his love for art, Chou proudly shares his children’s passion on social media — from 3-year-old Romeo’s introduction to art appreciation to the family’s chaotic home art studio. (“For the inception of the artist, don’t be afraid of dirtying your home,” he captioned the latter.)
Chou reported that both children are drawn to his favorite artists. During our video call, the star proudly shows off his daughter’s latest project: a sketch of Chou sitting in front of a Basquiat. His wife, Quinliven, has found various places around the house to display the kids’ works amid blue-chip masterpieces, and Chou has even incorporated their art into his clothing line, Phantaci.
Having not had time to learn to paint when he was a child, Chou said he wants to “make up for the lost opportunity” with his own children. As for whether they can make it as professionals, Chou reflected: “The path to becoming an artist is hard.”