Zao Wou-Ki (Chinese/French, 1921-2013) 23-9-70 1970

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Lot 2AR
Zao Wou-Ki
(Chinese/French, 1921-2013)

Sold for £ 591,062 (US$ 709,100) inc. premium
Zao Wou-Ki (Chinese/French, 1921-2013)

signed in Chinese and Pinyin; signed, titled and dated 23.9.70 on the reverse
oil on canvas

46 by 55 cm.
18 1/8 by 21 5/8 in.


  • This work is included in the archives of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki, Geneva, and is accompanied by a photo-certificate of authenticity.

    Galerie Sapone, Nice
    Private Collection, France
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

    Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris 1978, p. 298, no. 401, illustrated in black and white
    Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, New York 1979, p. 298, no. 401, illustrated in black and white
    Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris 1986, p. 338, no. 433, illustrated in black and white

    Globally renowned and celebrated for his energetic paintings that traversed the cultural distances between East and West, Zao Wou-Ki's 23-9-70 reveals the immense skill of the artist's hand that combines the fluidity and harmony of the calligraphic arts with the avant-garde style of the Art Informel members, who embraced him as one of the masters of gestural painting of the period. Dancing across an ethereal haze, Zao's accumulation of strokes and dabs produces a horizon line of vivid scarlet that rolls and draws the eye to its diffuse precipice. Completely fresh to the market – and reproduced in all three of the important Jean Leymarie monographs – the present painting is a veritable masterwork by one of the first truly international artists of the post-war period.

    Elegant and profound, 23-9-70 is a painting that boasts a rare palette for the Chinese-born artist. Across a canvas of exquisite proportions, it is a work of melodic beauty that wonderfully illustrates Zao's core intention of merging traditional Chinese practices of artistic expression in ink with the dynamic compositional and material processes of abstract oil painting that was so prevalent in European and American Modernism. As one of the most admired practitioners of the Twentieth Century, Zao's global style and appeal is attested to by his inclusion in museum collections around the world, including the Tate Gallery, London, the MoMA, New York, the Suzhou Museum, Suzhou, and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

    Zao Wou-Ki was born in Beijing in 1920 and enrolled at the Hangzhou School of Art in 1935, where he trained under one of the uncommon proponents of European Modernism in China, Lin Fengmian. Learned in the techniques and principles of Chinese calligraphy and traditional painting from an early age, Zao's indistinguishable style and gestural power imbued his work with an univocal force, whose sonorous and dulcet passages of paint owe much to his study of ancient script and landscape painting.

    Inspired by Claude Monet's Impressionism, and with a great admiration for Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, the artist cultivated a deep appreciation for the pre-war Impressionists and groundbreaking Modernists of Paris, moving to the city in 1948 with his then wife Lalan. In this intense and graceful work, his influences merge in a tranquil theatre of paint, that demonstrates his exceptional breadth of vision and skill.

    Zao's arrival in Europe was quickly met with praise, and his new studio in Montparnasse placed him in the midst of some of the most influential artists of the period. He soon befriended Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Pierre Soulages, Pablo Picasso and Henri Michaux, with whom he would collaborate throughout his lifetime. It was in 1957, alongside his friend Soulages, that Zao first visited New York – the same year he became represented by Galerie de France, cementing his place amongst the European creative elite. Exposed to the vigour and intensity of the paintings of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, the turn of the 1960s marked a significant departure for the artist, entering his most majestic and lauded passage of work, the 'Hurricane Period' (1959-1972), from which the present work derives.

    It is within this phase of his practice that, as art historian Pierre Schneider highlighted, "the effervescence [that at] first reached the intermediate areas, has [now] been communicated to the whole picture. A broadly sweeping, irresistible movement crosses it from edge to edge" (Pierre Schneider in: Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Barcelona 1977, p. 43). The immensity of the space, conveyed by the most intricate and precise of gestural marks, produced a new paradigm of expressive painting, illustrated in no better example than the present work. 23-9-70 is a deeply mature work, coupling Zao Wou-Ki's stylistic imperatives with the advanced, cross-cultural narratives that his paintings arguably pioneered.

    Laced with cursive lines of brushstrokes over a lavishly textured surface, the present work is a bravura demonstration of the impeccable variety of techniques and unparalleled skill with which Zao constructed his works. The voluptuous and rare red composition beautifully elicits the diversity of his influences and interests, producing a powerful sense of light, space and movement that was so integral to his pursuit of a universal spirit of abstraction.
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