How a Journey of Rediscovery Uncovered Two Little-Known Zao Wou-Ki Paintings

How a Journey of Rediscovery Uncovered Two Little-Known Zao Wou-Ki Paintings

The tale of two paintings and sixty years, as told by the Cohen family.
The tale of two paintings and sixty years, as told by the Cohen family.

T reasured in the same family collection for six decades, 15.03.60 and 07.06.60, arrives at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this autumn with an extraordinary tale of rediscovery. Created early in Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period (1959–1972) – often regarded as the apex of his immeasurable artistic achievements – the paintings reflect the pinnacle of Zao’s transition from representational to abstraction, and the culmination of his synthesis of his formative training in traditional Chinese art with the influence of Western art in his journey.


The Hurricane Period was precipated by Zao’s vast travels around the world in the late 1950s, when the artist was already a rising star in the international art scene. Leaving Paris following the end of his first marriage, Zao arrived in New York in September 1957. Joined by Pierre Soulages and his wife, Zao traversed the globe from other cities in the US, to Japan and Hong Kong before finally returning to Paris in 1959.

The present paintings were exhibited in Zao’s second solo show at Galerie de France in Paris in 1960, which is where the Cohen family acquired them. There is no greater story to tell about these paintings than that which only the family who lived with the works can share. Read on to discover the remarkable life of these paintings in the Cohen family home.

My mother is celebrating her 95th birthday this October. I’m happy to share that she’s had a life full of good health, travel, and family. A love of art has always been at the center of her life, and our family's – not just painting but all the arts. Our home was filled with books and paintings in every room; our weekends were spent at museums, galleries, theater, concerts, dance, and opera. That is one of the great gifts our parents gave us by raising us in New York.

New York City skyline. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Recently I’ve helped my mother move from New York to California so she might be closer to our family. The move has meant downsizing her collection as she no longer has room for all her art in her new home. Amidst the months-long journey of sorting through what to keep and how to part with so many special things, I quite literally stumbled upon the original catalog for the Zao Wou-Ki exhibition at which my parents’ purchased the two paintings; it was among their countless art books. I recognized the artist’s work from the image on the cover. I was not familiar with his name, and knew nothing about him. But as I looked through the catalog, there – on page 14 – was a photograph of my parents’ painting; the index gave it a name: 15.03.60. I was sitting on the sofa underneath that very painting as I held open this page.

Catalogue cover of the 1960 Zao Wou-Ki exhibition at Galerie de France, Paris.

From there, an online search gave me more insight about the artist. I then reached out to the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki in Paris to learn more, and the director wrote back immediately to say they only knew of this work from the black-and-white catalog photo, and had been trying to locate it for several years. The second painting, he wrote, was only known by lists with no image. It was in their records that both had been purchased by a Mr. Cohen from New York – but, as there are thousands of people who go by Mr. Cohen in New York, they had so far no luck tracing the record to its owner. “Thanks to you, the first one will be reproduced in color and the second one can be added to the catalogue raisonné. So thank you deeply.” I caught my breath – realizing the significance of this discovery.

When I returned to the monumental task of sorting through my mother’s belongings I brought with me a heightened appreciation of my parents’ aesthetic legacy, and their evolution as collectors. As I combed through photographs and ephemera from decades of artistic adventures, I was able to piece together how these important works ended up in our family home.

My parents settled in New York early in their marriage, in the late 1950s. Mid-20th century New York was a mecca for Modern Art, and my parents, in their curiosity, embraced all that was new, interesting and beautiful. They regularly visited galleries as well as museums to see the young artists exhibiting in New York at that time. When they bought their first home, they decided they would slowly build a collection, waiting until they saw things they truly loved to purchase, rather than fill the walls all at once. In the early 1960s, they began regularly traveling to Europe. They would return from each trip with new artworks for their collection. What always caught their eyes and interest were the works of young artists who were exploring the intersection of the old and the new, both in subject and in media.

City view of Paris. Image courtesy of Unsplash.
15.03.60 in the catalogue of the 1960 Zao Wou-Ki exhibition at Galerie de France, Paris.

In the summer of 1960, they wandered into the Galerie de France in Paris, then located at 3 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where Zao Wou-Ki was exhibiting his latest paintings. They both were drawn to these two compositions and purchased them on the spot. They were attracted to the unique and powerful beauty of the paintings, as well as to the story of the artist laid out in the exhibition catalog. Zao Wou-Ki’s background in classical Chinese art forms and his exploration of modern European visual expression resonated with both of them. These were paintings they wanted to live with.

As was the custom, they traveled to Europe by the S.S. France, and would have their acquisitions delivered to the ship. When they returned home, it was always an adventure to see what they brought back as the works were uncrated. My sisters and I took great delight in seeing where they chose to hang the new works, and watched as the collection grew over the years.

Zao Wou-Ki, 15.03.60, 1960 | Estimate: 10,000,000 – 20,000,000 HKD

I remember well the place of honor that the painting I now know as 15.03.60 – the larger of the two – had in our family home. As you entered the home through the rather grand front door, you would find yourself in an elegant, high ceiling foyer. The furnishings as well as the artwork of course were mid-century, though that’s not what they were referred to back then. A sparkling Orrefors chandelier lit the marble floor. In front you would see into my father’s library, walls lined floor to ceiling with limited edition books, with its large windows offering a view out over the sloped backyard, beautifully landscaped. To the right were the formal living room and dining room.

But what I recall now is how, to the left, a staircase led up to the living quarters, and there, on the landing, the large Zao Wou-Ki painting held court, a museum light overhead to illuminate the dark depth of the composition. I always think of the central image in the painting as a bird in flight, heading up and away from the stairs, off into the heavens. The energy that Zao Wou-Ki captured in that image is full of emotion and longing to me, a flight to freedom. The dark palate of the painting expresses a mood that is palpable to me.

Zao Wou-Ki, 07.05.60, 1960 | Estimate: 1,000,000 – 2,000,000 HKD

In contrast, the smaller painting, 07.06.60, with its beautiful orange and grey glow, has a warmth and fire. I find that its smaller size, compared to so many of the monumental Zao Wou-Ki works, has encouraged me to spend time with it, intimate time in visual conversation.

My parents instilled in us a deep curiosity – it’s important to me to understand a work of art to fully enjoy it: the time in which it was created, the journey of the artist, its place in cultural history. Once again discovering these paintings has been one of the greatest adventures I’ve had in great part because of what I’ve learned about Zao Wou-Ki’s own development and adventures as an artist and the wonderful memories it has brought back to my mind. His own exploration of classical forms and traditions, of calligraphy, the lessons he gained from his father’s scholarship, the exciting years in Paris surrounded by friends and colleagues who were also exploring new forms – this is what inspires me, both as a collector and as an artist. My sisters are also collectors – it is our legacy – and our own collections take very different forms. Learning so much about my parents’ collection as I revisited it these past few months has been invaluable. I’m more aware than ever that they bought art for what it meant to them, not for what value it might have in the future. For this lesson, I am truly grateful.

It is important to me that this collection finds a home where it can be loved and appreciated as it has been by my family for the past sixty years.

Modern Art | Asia

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