Modern Art | Asia

Zao Wou-Ki, One of the 20th Century's Most Important Painters

By Sotheby's
Sotheby’s Paris Art Contemporain on 5 June will offer four remarkable paintings by Zao Wou-Ki, an artist widely considered to be one of the most important painters of the 20th century. Two of them, Temps Calme and 3.12.67 have not been exhibited for more than half a century. Ahead of the auction, we look at three beautiful oil on canvas works that marked key moments in the artist's career.
Zao Wou-Ki in his studio in 1973, photographed by Morhor

I n the same collection for more than half a century, Zao Wou-Ki's work Temps Calme illustrates the major shift taken by the artist between 1953 and 1957, when he began incorporating motifs from Chinese culture into his work. Art historian Jean Leymarie describes this period as the emergence of “signs conceived as supports to break through appearances” from figuration to abstraction. These indecipherable signs are distant reminiscences of inscriptions carved into divinatory bones and ritual bronzes of the Shang Dynasty, before 1000 BC.

In a harmonious union of opposites, Temps Calme combines graphic signs and a fluid, almost crimson palette. This rare work, dated from a sought-after period, perfectly encapsulates what Zao Wou-Ki wanted to teach:

“People think that painting and writing consist in reproducing forms and likeness. No. The role of painting is to bring things out of chaos.”
Zao Wou-Ki

A decade later, his work 3.12.67 draws as much on the Eastern tradition as on the contributions of Western abstraction. The signs have dissolved into a composition shared between two areas of expression, the space sculpted by a powerful and vigorous touch.

This painting sheds light on Zao Wou-Ki's mastery of subtle color variations during the crucial years when he forged the aesthetic vocabulary that turned him into one of the greatest artists of the modern and contemporary eras. Drawing from pure eastern tradition as well as western abstraction, 3.12.67 relates to both ancient Chinese composition that divides the canvas into two distinct spaces of expression, symbolising the sky and the earth, but lets the line set the intention at the center of the composition, and the core elements of western modernism, which gives the work its extraordinary power of expression.

“Painting, again and again. The full and the empty, the light and the dense, the lively and the breeze, the best possible. “
Zao Wou-Ki

Perfect fusion of two pictorial visions too-long considered irreconcilable, 3.12.67 represents a milestone in the artistic exploration of this master of the full and the empty, who invokes the spirit of nature to shape the mist, the freezing fogs and the winds. In other words: the ephemeral. Zao Wou-Ki here sculpts the space in a unique way through powerful and vigorous strokes of brush. Giving life to a mental landscape, he also writes a true pictorial manifesto, the lines sometimes overlapping like a cursive script that would be intelligible only to those worthy to decipher it.

At the very beginning of 1968, only a few weeks after finishing 3.12.67, Zao Wou-Ki picked someone to be the owner of this powerful piece. Grandson of the founder of the legendary Frick Collection and American tycoon widely recognised as one of, if not the biggest collector of his time, son of the paleontologist Childs Frick, Henry Clay Frick II from a lineage of noteworthy people, he is one himself.

Chairman of the board of directors of the Frick Collection from 1965 to 2001 and emeritus doctor teaching at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, this spry fifty years-old travelling to Paris also distinguished himself for his exemplary conduct during the Vietnam war, for he voluntarily enrolled twice to serve in a countryside hospital. Passionate and spirited, Henry Clay Frick II and Zao Wou-Ki could only relate to each other when meeting during the winter of 1968, now over half a century ago. Half a century during which the canvas was preciously kept out of sight by the family, to now reappear in the city where it was imagined, conceived and revealed.

The 1990s are a decisive turning point in Zao Wou-Ki's career. Punctuated by the reception of prestigious awards, the Praemium Imperiale in 1994 among them, along with major retrospective exhibitions of his works in Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Mexico, this decade is one of recognition. Boosted by this wave of acclaim, Zao Wou-Ki creates 10.03.92, one of his most haunting and harmonic compositions.

As Georges Duby wrote in the preface of the catalogue of the exhibition A Retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki held at the Fine Art Museum of Kaohsiung in 1996, it is truly at that time that the artist found peace and reached the zenith of his art. "Freed from all the ritualised processes that bundled the act of painting in old China", Zao Wou-Ki undeniably found his way between tradition and innovation, figuration and abstraction, telluric inspiration and the sensitive world. As he explains himself in the catalogue, "[until then] a piece of myself was forgotten, buried under things." After finishing 10.03.92, the artist seemed reconnected with himself, and clearly overcoming his inner battles to give way to a majestic work.

As he adopts a warm palette of bister and amber tones, in contrast with the dark effusions that formerly spurt gaudy colors, as an echo of a world about to crumble, here Zao Wou-Ki presents a past or future world filled only with peace where struggle and chaos would have turned into harmony and softness. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, the orographic shapes cleverly placed at the center of the composition of 10.03.92 look like vaporous reminiscences of the opaline landscapes of the Song tradition.

All the genius of Zao Wou-Ki precisely resides in the shimmering transparency effects "giving an unctuous density, a delicious and infinite splendor to the colored substance", that only the reconciliation of too long-opposed traditions made possible. Which only Zao Wou-Ki managed with such vivacity.

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