T wo stages mark the twin pinnacles of Zao Wou-Ki’s immeasurable artistic achievement: the Hurricane Period in the 1960s and Infinity Period in the 1980s. Epitomizing these periods, 20.30.60, 19.11.59 and 29.02.88, featured at Modern Art Evening Sale at the Sotheby’s Spring Auction series, are a full realization of the artist’s vision during the heights of his career. The three works speak volumes of the modern Asian master’s irresistible draw, which has captivated the globe for decades.
20.03.60 was painted in 1960, the same year Zao Wou-Ki returned to Paris after a lengthy journey to seek inspiration for his art. His travels proved to be life changing. Not only did he find a new approach influenced by American post-war Abstract Expressionism, he also met May-kan, who became his second wife. Brimming with passion, love and artistic revelation, Zao Wou-Ki drew upon this sense of new beginnings to fuel his creative spirit.
From the ancient symbols that characterized his Oracle Bone Period, the artist moved toward the unrestrained, intangible universe of his Hurricane Period. During that time, Zao Wou-Ki found in Myriam Prévot, director of Galerie de France in Paris, a champion of his work, and she helped bring his paintings to prominence and to the peak of prestige in the 1960s.
- 1957Zao had his first exhibition at Galerie de France. Soon after, Prévot went on to organize exhibitions for the artist in galleries and museums in France and around Europe.
- 1960Zao returned to Paris. Soon after creating 20.03.60, Zao held a second solo show at the Galerie de France. The work was featured in that year’s exhibition catalogue, along with an essay Myriam wrote in appreciation of Zao’s work.
- 1961In September, Prévot brought Zao’s work to Italy, and 20.03.60 was among the highlights of the artist’s important works at the seventh Exhibition of Pittori d’Oggi: Francia-Italia organized by the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna in Turin.
- 1965With Myriam’s assistance, Zao’s first museum retrospective exhibition in Europe was held at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, marking a key milestone in Zao’s career. The exhibition featured 64 works from 1950 to 1964. According to the exhibition catalogue, 20.03.60 featured in this exhibition, distinguishing it as an important work from the early years of his collaboration with Galerie de France.
From the peak of the Hurricane Period, 20.03.60 reinterprets Chinese traditional landscape, expressed through post-war abstract expressionist techniques. While the middle ground outlines a magnificent stretch of everlasting mountains, the background is shrouded in an impenetrable mist. The effect is a new aesthetic perspective that explores spatial arrangement of both the virtual and the real. Rich in color layering, the composition takes various gradations of red as its primary palette, which is further embellished with ink brushstrokes and white smudges. Within the vast sea of color, the composition resembles a majestic vision of sunrise above the waters.
19.11.59 marked the beginning of Zao’s Hurricane Period. The work features bright, beautiful blues, with deep, almost inky tones at the top and bottom. The middle of the work is saturated in a white lead halo, as if energy is gathered in store there, waiting to be released on either side. This three-part structure of upper, middle, and lower layers is characteristic of Zao’s Hurricane Period. Here, the painting comprises calligraphic lines with no discernible form or image, permeated with an entirely natural living energy.
19.11.59 began its life in New York with Kootz Gallery before it entered the collection of the Upjohn Company in Michigan. Since its founding in 1945, the gallery had established an excellent reputation through its support of Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and other leading artists. From the 1950s onward, gallery founder Samuel Kootz devoted himself to expanding the international vision of the American art scene and actively supported outstanding artists from elsewhere in the world.
- 1957Zao Wou-Ki traveled to the U.S., and he went to live with his brother Zao Wu-wai in New Jersey. There, he found greater creative space within easy distance to New York City, and personally experienced this global artistic hub at its post-war height.
- 1957At that time, Kootz Gallery in New York was actively promoting Abstract Expressionism. With roots in both China and France, Zao Wou-Ki, was an ideal candidate for Kootz, who sought to achieve “an international gallery interested in quality.” These like-minded men hit it off instantly, and established a working relationship starting in November. Kootz Gallery became Zao Wou-Ki’s exclusive representation in the U.S., presenting his work all over the country.
- 1961Dr. William Erastus Upjohn, a major art collector and founder of The Upjohn Company, invested in his hometown of Kalamazoo by establishing various institutes, foundations and community centers. 19.11.59 was purchased from Kootz Gallery in New York on 1 September 1961, according to company records of Upjohn Company, and the painting was part of the long-standing display at the company’s headquarters.
- 1966The Kootz Gallery closed its doors in 1966, and also closed a chapter in Zao Wou-Ki’s career. The artist turned to Europe in the following decade as the focus for his work.
In the 1980s, as the Cold War was coming to an end and the doors to Asia began to reopen. Zao Wou-Ki was by then in his 60s and established as a world-class artist, embraced by museums and receiving invitations to hold exhibitions around the world. It was at this point that Zao embarked upon another period of concentrated activity in North America and East Asia. In 1980, Pierre Matisse, son of Fauvist master Henri Matisse, came to formally represent Zao Wou-Ki and held a solo exhibition at his 57th Street gallery in New York, marking Zao’s return to the art scene in the U.S.
As his career moved into a new stage, Zao Wou-Ki would draw upon new sources for creative inspiration and missions. Having the benefit of life experience and richer insight, his creative spirit settled into a serene space. Nevertheless, his works still exuded the confidence and energy rooted deeply in both Eastern and Western cultures. Particularly after he became famous, he sought to confront the artistic languages of earlier masters. These tributes to art history, which were also challenges and sources of encouragement for him, shaped his bright, luminous style in the 1980s.
29.02.88 represents a brilliant milestone in Zao Wou-ki’s journey. Closer examination of the artist’s work between 1986 and 1991 would reveal that he often painted arched structures that were open in the middle and enclosed on the top, left, and right sides. This was a new form in his work from the 1980s to the early 1990s. The colors in Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings became brighter and more luminous. He more often employed diluted colors and flowing, splashed techniques. The arched structure mentioned above can be connected to the classic composition of the Peach Blossom Spring motif. This great combination of Eastern and Western art was recognized by the art world at the time.