Auction | China Guardian (HK) Auctions Co., Ltd.
2023 Spring Auctions > Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art
Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
04.06.62(Painted in 1962)

Oil on canvas

92 × 73 cm. 36 1/4 × 28 3/4 in.

Signed in Chinese and English on bottom right; signed in English, and titled on the reverse

2017, Willem de Kooning|Zao Wou-Ki, Lévy Gorvy, New York, p. 103
18 Jan – 11 Mar 2017, Willem de Kooning|Zao Wou-Ki, Lévy Gorvy, New York

Kootz Gallery, New York
Pascal de Sarthe Fine Art, Arizona
Private Collection, Asia
27 Nov 2010, Christie's Hong Kong Autumn Auctions, Lot 1006
Acquired directly by present important private American collector from the above

Note: Three labels of New York Kootz Gallery, Arizona Pascal de Sarthe Fine Art, and New York Lévy Gorvy are affixed on the reverse

This work will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki)

A Dragon Rises from the Sea, Soaring in the Clouds
A Natural Masterpiece from the Creative Peak of Zao Wou-Ki

“An Eastern painter stood on a Western peak ... Zao Wou-Ki is a shooting star from China in the international art world.”
——Life magazine, 1954

In 1941, shortly after Zao Wou-Ki had graduated from the Hangzhou National College of Art he held his first solo exhibition in Chongqing, though at that time he mainly painted portraits and the only work sold was purchased by his banker father. During the war books on Western art were difficult to obtain in China and as a result Zao developed his understanding of the genre from articles introducing artists he read in such magazines as Life and Bazaar. In 1948, in an effort to escape the limits imposed by the strictures and conservative traditions of China at the time, the artist traveled to France and where he absorbed Western culture like a sponge, from architecture to classic works by artistic masters in museums and the post-war fashion for abstract expressionism. As Zao focused on one and then the other, he also began to reexamine his own status and started to review a Millennia of Chinese culture and aesthetic heritage -- from oracle bones to inscription of ancient bronze objects, bronzeware, Song Dynasty landscapes and the calligraphy he learned at elementary school ad in these he found the roots of inspiration. Thereafter, Zao sought to blend the essence of Chinese and Western cultures in his works and thereby create a path uniquely his own. As part of this process, he went from an avid reader of Life magazine in 1941 to being the subject of a major piece by the magazine in 1954 as he opened a solo exhibition at Cincinnati Art Museum. The report praised him as “a shooting star from China” who found himself “stood on a Western peak,” but it was through his tireless effort and talent that Zao Wou-Ki made an international name for himself in the world of art.

In 1957, Zao signed a long-term contract with the Kootz Gallery, one of the most influential art galleries in France at the time, and an agent for New York, which had signed such top artists as Pablo Picasso and Paul Soulage. Through the efforts of the two, by the 1960s Zao Wou-Ki had scaled the heights of the art world and was considered a “global artist,” a position built on Western post-war abstract art. As art critic Jia Fangzhou wrote: “Zao Wou-Ki was the first Chinese artist to find success in the West and the one with which the West most identified.” Throughout his life, Zao made a splash in Europe, the United States and Asia, holding more than 100 solo exhibitions around the globe, with his works collected by 129 museums and important international institutions, including the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao, Spain. At this time, Zao was considered not only called the “pride of China” but also a “global treasure.” On this occasion, China Guardian (HK) is honored to present for auction the work 04.06.62 from the collection of the renowned New York Kootz Gallery, completed in the 1960s when Zao was at the peak of his fame and one of the most sought after artists in the world. Through the luster of the lighting speed colours and lines visitors are invited to experience first-hand Zao- Wou-ki's world of freedom, boldness and soaring ambition.

Sunset Opening the Water Gate, a Dragon Bursting from the Sea: Focused Powerful Tension

After the attainments of the Oracle Bones Series in the mid-1950s, Zao's painting and personal life entered a brand-new stage in 1958, as shaped semiotics started to disappear from his work and he sought to conquer works through colours and lines alone. At the same time, he also recovered from the aftermath of his divorce from Hsieh Ching-lan. Not long after, Zao and Pierre Soulages visited New York where he saw with his own eyes the energy and great ambition expressed by artists on large canvases in the US art world. This creatively inspired Zao and on the way back to Paris he stopped off in Hong Kong where he met and fell in love with actress Chen Mei-ching. The next year, he bought a new studio in Paris which enabled him to focus his considerable passion on art. Indeed, the artist has himself said that in this period his creative work entered: “The beginnings of a new and irreversible trend, and I wanted to paint things that cannot be seen: the energy of life, wind, motive force, the life of shapes, the unfolding and fusion of colour ... Starting in these years I could focus exclusively on painting and do whatever I wanted, because there were no more technical issues ... I wrestled with space on the canvas, not only to fill it up, but also to give it life. I wanted to express being moved, whether in a circuitous and lingering way or at lightning speed, I wanted to make the canvas jump into life through the multiple tremors caused by contrasting the same colour.” It was against this background that 04.06.62 was created, making it an important example of the core thinking of Zao Wou-Ki in this period.

“Each stroke has to have its own use so the picture can be awakened and filled with spirit.”
——Zao Wou-Ki

The work we are looking at is a picture with the power to awe viewers. It utilizes Zao Wou-Ki's iconic “mountain ridge type” composition from the 1960s as the object depicted bursts from the centre of the painting. In addition, the fact this compositional form appears in no more than 20 of the artist's works from 1959-1969, is an indication as to the special nature and rarity of the piece. In some ways, the different shades of green in 04.06.62 are reminiscent of Shang and Zhou Dynasty bronzeware, or a forest on a mountain wilderness and together with the brown earth they create a background, while strong brushstrokes at the bottom of the work bring to life clear blue water, which in turn awakens in viewers imaginings of nature and the ocean. In the painting, the leaping, swirling and undulating black lines painted by the artist with the tip of the calligraphy brush, create a powerful sense of rhythm, which moves from the bottom to the central area, while the white and pink lines contrasted with it accumulate in layers. In addition, the fact the oscillating black lines cover, confront and collide with each other highlights the co-existence of Yin and Yang, how strength and speed occur, and how the interplay of the two causes an explosion of rhythm. This is sometimes excited and passionate, but on other occasions tender and melodious, combining to construct a “double S-shaped” cyclone like a hurricane. In this depiction, space vigorously twists, extends and rises allowing viewers to feel the surging vitality of life deep inside, creating a scene that brings to mind the words of Ming Dynasty writer He Jingming (1483-1521) “Sunset Opening the water gate, a dragon bursting from the sea,” based on the Chinese belief that a dragon can call forth the wind and rain and fly to the heavens when it has water. Viewers feel the universal context characterized by Zao as: “the invisible essence of life” and at this point it causes ripples in the mind that ensure it is observed and cherished.

A Formless, Empty and Meaningful Path:
Indistinct Space, the Poetic Home of the Soul

“Zao Wou-Ki combines the tip of the calligraphy brush with a deep sense of atmosphere, and although this cannot be likened to Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline, it does express the Chinese instinct of three-dimensional space. A Chinese artist never focuses on the surface of an object, but rather seeks insight into what lies behind it, while the misty and indistinct distant vistas seen in many traditional Chinese paintings are invariably allusions to a world that exists beyond what can be seen.”
—— British art historian Michael Sullivan

In 1961, Zao Wou-Ki observed: “All of my recent oil paintings have been instinctive expressions of China,” an expression of Eastern aesthetics seen in the aforementioned calligraphic brush tip used to paint the lines in the central area and powerful rhythms of life in 04.06.62. It is also present in the “mountain ridge composition” that is an extension of the central axis compositional approach in such traditional Chinese landscape paintings as Mount Kuanglu by Jing Hao (850-911) during the Five Dynasties period and in the arrangement of the background space in this work. Moreover, Zao uses shading of similar hues in the background of this piece, so between the smudging he crafts something akin the rendering of Chinese painting, creating a dark and indistinct space that highlights the core foreground while also pushing the space back into the boundlessness. This is similar to the “leaving of blank spaces” in Chinese ink painting, while also echoing the aesthetics and world view of Laozi and Zhuangzi. As Laozi said: “The great phenomenon manifested by the Path has no shape nor form; the Path hence, is unidentifiable and nameless,” while French art critic Alain Jouffroy observed: “The Eastern world view is no longer a representational focus on one mountain or river, one tree or stone, it is rather a broad understanding and reflection on the swirling ether of cosmic phenomena. The works of Zao Wou-Ki clearly reflect the Chinese world view of the universe and all things in it, with the distance and indistinct imagery reflecting the implicit recognition of spirit and not that of representational objects.” It is also a distinctive artistic layout a Western artist would have difficulty replicating. In this painting Zao establishes a home for the soul of the viewer, wherein we are moved to praise, to travel and to take flight, as we feel the vast and boundless nature of time and space and the strong heartbeat of the land. As a result, the work achieves oneness with Heaven and Earth and all things in nature, and herein lies the enchanting magic of Zao Wou-Ki's painting.

Price estimate:
HKD: 15,000,000 – 25,000,000
USD: 1,910,800 – 3,184,700

Auction Result:
HKD: 21,210,000



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