After the Kootz Gallery, which had represented Zao Wou-Ki, closed its doors in 1966, the artist turned to Europe in the following decade as the focus for his career. In the 1980s, as the Cold War was coming to an end and the doors to Asia began to reopen, 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 North American art scene. With the rapid rise of Asia, Zao held important solo exhibitions at the National Museum of History in Taipei (1981), the Hong Kong Arts Centre (1981), museums in Fukuoka, Tokyo, Fukui, Kyoto, and Kamakura (1981-1982), and the National Art Museum of China in Beijing (1983), marking his triumphant return after more than 30 years away. Zao Wou-Ki was in his 60s and was by that time regarded as a world-class artist, with invitations to hold exhibitions pouring in from museums around the world. Even as his career moved into a new stage, he obviously drew on decidedly different creative inspirations and missions. As his life experience and insight grew, his creative spirit became markedly calmer. The confidence and energy that emanated from within the works showed deep roots 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, and 29.02.88 (Lot 1016) is a brilliant milestone in this journey.
Typically, Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period (1959-1972) works were composed around a central axis. This painting style, supported by this immense power, could be seen as a reflection of the artist’s self-awareness. With the death of his wife May-kan in 1972, the power that underpinned these works suddenly vanished and the abstract structures of the works markedly changed. His works came to be structured around the periphery and empty in the middle, dominated largely by pale tones. This was the beginning of his Infinite Period, showing that the artist had entered into a realm devoid of the self and existence. In the 1980s, Zao Wou-Ki signed a contract with Pierre Matisse Gallery, while also receiving his first solo exhibition in a French museum at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in 1981. Zao became more devoted to examining his Western artistic inspiration, creating a series of works in tribute to Western masters. The composition of Hommage a Henri Matisse I- 02.02.86 (1986) obviously draws on Henri Matisse’s Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (1914). The Matisse had a composition of vertical stripes, with a black stripe in the middle set off by two vaguely figurative bands of colour on either side – this work by Matisse most closely approached abstract painting. Zao created Hommage à Henri Matisse I- 02.02.86 based on this piece, and it obviously shows the closest connection between Matisse’s artistic language and his own. Zao Wou-Ki also painted Hommage à Claude Monet- Triptyque- Fervier-Juin 91 in 1991, and its composition was drawn from the famed Étretat landscape series by Impressionist master Claude Monet. Étretat is located in Monet’s home region of Normandy, and the Porte d’Aval has become world-famous because of his paintings. The unique arch of the Porte d’Aval seem to have inspired Zao’s abstract work. Closer examination of the artist’s work between 1986 and 1991, including the two Hommage paintings, 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. 29.02.88 was created between Hommage à Henri Matisse I- 02.02.86 and Hommage à Claude Monet- Triptyque- Fervier-Juin 91, and it shows him working out this weighty theme. In terms of size and overall composition, 29.02.88 and Hommage à Henri Matisse I- 02.02.86 are cut from the same cloth, but rosy clouds appear at the top of 29.02.88, which are connected to the left and right sides, thereby changing the vertical stripe composition of Hommage a Henri Matisse I- 02.02.86. If we look to the later Hommage à Claude Monet- Triptyque- Fervier-Juin 91, we can see that this artistic inspiration may have come from the structure of the Porte d’Aval at Étretat.
Zao Wou-Ki’s return to Asia also had a significant influence on his work. In 1981, Zao visited Taipei for his solo show at the National Museum of History, and reunited with master Chinese ink painter Zhang Daqian, who he had not seen in decades. Zao and Zhang became acquainted in Paris in the 1950s, and at the time, Zhang, who was showing in Paris for the first time, was known for his gongbi paintings. However, as Zhang spent more time abroad, his work gradually showed the influence of European and American abstract painting. His splashed ink and colour landscapes from the 1960s onward mark the pinnacle of his later work. This time, Zao Wou-Ki and Zhang Daqian met in Taipei, in what could be considered a grand summit between masters of twentieth-century Chinese oil painting, ink painting, and calligraphy. After this meeting, Zhang Daqian created Peach Blossom Spring, one of his final works, and the colours in Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings became brighter and more luminous. He more often employed diluted colours and flowing, splashed techniques. If we compare 29.02.88 and Peach Blossom Spring, the arched structure mentioned above can be connected to the classic composition of the Peach Blossom Spring motif. The dense clouds of varying colours in the centre of 29.02.88 clearly echo the artistic effect of Chinese splashed ink. This great combination of Eastern and Western art was recognized by the art world at the time. In 1986, the Pierre Matisse Gallery held a solo show entitled “Zao Wou-Ki Paintings 1980-1985.” The artist’s lifelong friend and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine François Jacob wrote the preface, showing his insight and judgment. This passage might be the best footnote to 29.02.88:
“Zao Wou-Ki manifests his Chinese heritage primarily in his method of creating, of disposing a space with the weight of the universe. If Chinese painting suggests volume with a brush stroke, in Zao Wou-Ki’s work it is color which serves to master space. Line only comes later, to complement, if necessary. Here line functions neither to engender form, nor to contain color. It nourishes color, like blood vessels penetrating flesh and branching out. Zao Wou-Ki engages the battle of space with colors. The accumulated layers attest to this, the outcroppings that hint a hidden world, the scratches pierced by rays of unexpected light, the rips that gape like caves of darkness. The artist’s eternal quest is displayed here in a festival of light, in the great joy of the colors. Through their whorls, flashes, glows and pulsations, we glimpse something like the sensual breathing of space.”
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale