PARIS - 1.5.60 and 5.5.60 are two paintings by Zao Wou-Ki depicting closely linked stories. Of identical size, 100 by 81 cm., they were completed just four days apart from one another – one on the first of May 1960 and the second on the fifth of May. They each entered private collections in Paris on the same day in the early 1960s and have never moved since. They have never been reproduced or been exhibited publicly to this day.

1960 was a year of intense artistic activity for Zao Wou-Ki who completed 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 creativity was the result of several changes in his life and his work that provoked a complete renewal and the rise of a period of increased productivity.

ZAO WOU-KI, 5.5.60. ESTIMATE 1,400,000–2,000,000 EUR.

The shift of his painting towards abstraction in around 1954 – quite late in terms of other Parisian abstract artists – was based, on the 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.

5.5.60 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. 1.5.60 participates in this change offering a newborn space, a freed horizon, leaving colour in the foreground, used here without reserve, with frankness and power.

ZAO WOU-KI, 1.5.60. ESTIMATE 1,200,000–1,800,000 EUR.

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 1.5.60 is used rarely, probably because it was considered in Ancient China as belonging to the Emperor. 5.5.60 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.

Yann Hendgen is Art Director of the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation