ZAO WOU-KI, MAY 1960, TWO MASTERPIECES REDISCOVERED
1960 was a year of intense artistic activity for Zao Wou-Ki who painted nearly forty paintings. He usually painted slowly and sometimes reworked his canvases over several months, even several years. At the beginning of the 1960s however, he painted many more pictures than in previous years. This sudden frenzy of creation was the result of several changes in his life and his work that provoked a complete renewal and the rise of a period of plenitude.
In 1957, due to personal problems, Zao Wou-Ki decided to leave Paris for several months, almost a year in all, even though the Galerie de France held his first solo exhibition from May 7th to June 5th. In September 1957 he traveled to the United States for the first time and stayed about four months with his brother Wu Wai (1923 – 1979) living in Montclair in New Jersey. Wu Wai had left China just before his brother and had graduated in 1947 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. For Zao Wou-Ki it was an opportunity to reunite with his family whom he had not seen since 1948.
Equipped with a recommendation from the Galerie de France and from his friend Pierre Soulages, Zao Wou-Ki met the American gallery owner Samual Kootz in New York with whom he would work until the gallery’s closure in 1967. He was one of the rare gallery owners of this time to show and defend European abstract painting and particularly the Ecole de Paris. Samuel Kootz organized Zao Wou-Ki’s first solo exhibition in his gallery in 1959.
Zao Wou-Ki continued his travels with Pierre and Colette Soulages who had joined him meantime, visiting Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco where they went from museum to museum, before spending time in the islands of Hawai and continuing their journey to Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara). They separated in Hong Kong where Zao Wou-Ki chose to settle for six months. It was the first time he had lived in a traditional Chinese territory since leaving Shanghai in 1948.
In Hong Kong he met the beautiful young actress Chan May Kan (1930-1972) who became his second wife in 1958. The return trip was the occasion for the young couple to visit Thailand, Greece, Italy and Belgium. They went to the Universal Exhibition of Brussels where they visited the Philips Pavilion built by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis for the Symphonic Poem of his friend Edgar Varèse. They returned to Paris in August 1958. In 1960-61, Zao Wou-Ki and May moved to a new studio that the artist purchased at the end of 1959 on the rue Jonquoy in the fourteenth arrondissement and that he redecorated entirely according to his taste.
These changes in his life and career path certainly had an impact on his painting. The stay in New York had put Zao Wou-Ki in contact with the Abstract school of New York. He discovered Abstract Painting and dripping. He also met several artists, many of whom would remain close friends: Franz Kline, Conrad Marca-Relli, Philip Guston, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziottes, Saul Steinberg, James Brooks and Hans Hoffman. This spontaneous, fresh and violent painting, created without reference to the past, was a great shock for him.
Samuel Kootz advised him to let his desire to paint run free across large formats, as the American painters were doing, experimenting with a direct and physical relationship with large canvases. The change of studio in 1960 thus allowed him to begin a series of large paintings and to radically modify his perception of space and his pictorial practice.
01.05.60 are 05.05.60 are precisely examples of these upheavals in his world.
The shift of his painting towards abstraction in around 1954 – quite late in terms of other Parisian abstract artists – was based, on one hand, on the re-appropriation of his Chinese cultural heritage. He reworked archaic Chinese signs that he reused solely for their plastic value, following in this, Paul Klee’s example with Western letters and signs.
He thus escaped the shackles of figurative representation. Little by little, the signs lost their importance in favour of an abstraction based on colour relationships. The discovery of American abstract painting confirmed this development for him. At the beginning of the 1960s, colour had definitively supplanted signs now developed as fibrillated networks, engulfed in colour.
05.05.60 also depicts a muted struggle but the blue colour seems to submerge the black pattern. It is a pivotal moment where a world is on the point of being swallowed whereas the victory of colour is already underway. 01.05.60 participates in this change offering a newborn space, a freed horizon, leaving colour in the foreground, used here without reserve, with frankness and power.
These two paintings represent a condensed summary of Zao Wou-Ki’s pictorial development at a key moment. That same year, the Galerie de France organized from June 14th to July 10th his second solo show presenting fully abstract works that he described himself in his autobiography: “(…) I painted in large gestures, sometimes using a palette knife as if to squash the canvas the better to allow the colour to penetrate into the surface. I felt at ease in the tumult of colours and the tangle of strongly applied, almost smeared lines. I hadn’t yet discovered the extreme difficulty of painting the void, I was more attracted by violence and noise than by silence. Vanquishing the surface had become my obsession, a challenge that posed several problems. (…) Thus, from a painting of sentiment, I moved to a painting of space.” (Autoportrait, p. 137-138).
With these two paintings, he chose to focus his work on medium-sized canvases that did not yet have the scope and scale of the large compositions from the middle of the 1960s. The ratio of power between masses, the latent tension and swift gestures are however the same. Zao Wou-Ki often said that it was more difficult to bring off a beautiful small format picture; it is easier to hide the weaknesses of a work in a large format where the gaze is always pulled elsewhere. These paintings are a perfect example of this.
As he did with Paul Klee’s art, Zao Wou-Ki transformed the influence received from Abstract American paintings into a free and personal style. It is not a question of a sterile copy but a veritable assimilation, which allowed him to bring his painting to maturity. These two works, as with all his paintings, also carry the underlying inheritance of his native China. The yellow colour of 01.05.60 is used rarely, probably because it was considered in Ancient China as belonging to the Emperor. 05.05.60 evokes perhaps in its way the Double Fifth or Dragon Boats Festival that is so popular in China, and which takes place on the fifth day of the traditional lunar calendar. It commemorates the death of the poet Chu Yun in the Miluo river during the Warring States period (V – III B.C.). The choice of date and the aquatic ambivalence of this painting could recall Zao’s celebrations with his family during which the young Zao Wou-Ki threw rice to fish so that they would spare the poet’s body and heart.
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