Sotheby’s Beijing Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art Spring sale will take place on 2 June 2015 at China World Summit Wing. 

BEIJING – As collectors shift their gazes to works of academic and historical value, recent years have witnessed a rapid sophistication in the contemporary Chinese art market, with collecting tastes becoming increasingly lucid and refined. At the same time, two concurrent burgeoning trends have emerged from these collecting habits: abstraction and art by younger generations. Among these highly sought-after pieces is one by the established and renowned Zao Wou-Ki, which has equally claimed the market’s spotlight: the grand abstract masterpiece 15.2.93. An embodiment of the late artist’s devoted exploration of abstraction, 15.2.93 is emblematic of a new horizon in the history of art; a magnanimous display of the artist’s virtuosity that penetrates its viewer’s very core.  

ZAO WOU-KI, 15.2.93. ESTIMATE 9,000,000–15,000,000 RMB.

GettyImages-110970368Zao Wou-ki Prepares For His Induction
In The French Academy In France
November 2003 By Raphael GAILLARDE

By the 1990s, Zao Wou-Ki’s wielding of technique had already been mastered to perfection, his artistic achievements recognized and celebrated internationally. One of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, Zao’s paintings were frequently being exhibited at museums around the world. In 1993, the artist’s accomplishments earned him three major distinguishing honours: he was made a Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur by then-President François Mitterrand; he was presented with the Grande Médaille Vermeil de la Ville de Paris by then-Mayor Jacques Chirac; and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Chinese University in Hong Kong. It was during this very year that Zao Wou-Ki completed 15.2.93, the lot on offer. Already in his 70s, the artist had attained a level of command that allowed for spontaneous expression that did not collapse into immoderation, his brushwork fluent and natural, however large the canvas. In this work, with confidence and composure, the artist attempted to reach even greater heights of “courage and freedom.” The painting is unrestrained, natural, and easy; and together, the brilliant treatment of light, vibrant colours, and vigorous brushstrokes create a borderless, dreamlike space that is nevertheless distinct and defined.

In his autobiography, Zao Wou-Ki once spoke about the state of his mind during this period: “Right now I am interested only in painting, in responding to the inspiration of the moment, the demands of colour. Colour is everything, and it is nothing; it must be wielded with extreme prudence, even restraint.” In 15.2.93, Zao Wou-Ki has reduced colour to five large blocks: purple, yellow, blue, pink, and a scorched, dark navy blue – all of the colours naturally meeting, interacting, creating an atmosphere of glittering magnificence. The composition of this piece – swathes of navy sweeping horizontally across the canvas, combined with minimalist blocks of colour juxtaposed against each other – recalls one of the artist’s earlier, monumental works, the Hommage à Henri Matisse (02.02.86). Zao held Matisse in very high esteem, and it has been said that this work of homage was inspired by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure (Porte-fenêtre à Collioure). Zao believed that the painting displayed “a door that presented the simultaneous existence of void and substance. In front of it, we can find life, and ash, and the air we breathe. Yet what is happening behind it? There is darkness, and a vast space. It is a door that opens wide to true painting.” In January of 1993, Zao and his wife visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York to attend the Matisse retrospective. It is not hard to imagine that the buds of 15.2.93 sprang from the experience of seeing Matisse’s works again in person, and that Zao later projected the spiritual experience of witnessing Matisse’s treatment of colours and space onto his own canvas.

ZAO WOU-KI, 15.2.93 (detail). ESTIMATE 9,000,000–15,000,000 RMB.

With his attention fixed upon the canvas, Zao renders layer upon layer of colour, which splash across the canvas with naturalness and dynamism. In a warm golden yellow that appears like shimmering glass, radiance spills down like rays of sunlight, pouring warmth into the centre of the canvas. In large, bold strokes, the artist has daringly painted swathes of purple and blue on the left and right sides of the canvas, fluently designing the painting’s composition. Despite the juxtaposition of contrasting colours, what results is a sense of harmony, a testament to the artist’s virtuosity and ingenuity. Zao once said, “Something I often mull over is how to paint the wind, or how to capture the bright purity of light. I don’t want to capture nature, but rather, to juxtapose and combine various forms that reveal and make people experience the rippling of air above the still surface of water. I want to create new colours, new spaces, to create a feeling of gracefulness. I want to give people something novel, graceful, yet stirring.” With the dark swathe of navy blue, Zao captures the boundlessness of the ocean, the fertility of mother earth, the silent mystery of the dead of night. Vigorous, slender lines rise up from the robust dark paint, the brushwork invoking the lujiaozhi technique from Chinese traditional landscape paintings, the posture of upward extension communicating a thriving vitality. The artist’s brushwork in executing splashes of colour contains the gentle-yet-powerful spirit of Chinese calligraphy yet simultaneously utilizes a whipping technique that creates, in its wild inhibition, fine and powerful splotches of colour, adding layers and texture to the larger blocks. The viewer experiences these specks as a kinetic extension of the artist’s bodily movement, falling upon the canvas in a dazzling multitude of directions and angles, both fluttering violently and tenderly caressing the surfaces of the earth.

Zao’s uncanny capturing of both the vastness of the earth and the delicacy and nuance of the flowers and trees is described by Swiss author and painter Jacques Chessex as follows, “The artist’s transcendent meditation toward objects, here, appears in an incredible way, enriching the spaces of the canvas, producing a spectacle of sweetness and delight. Although no human figures have been placed in the painting, there is a powerful concentration of strength, which conjures the presence of humanity, of the artist’s memory, and of all of the experiences over which he has tread, whether ordinary or joyful.”