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An inner, imaginary landscape: Zao Wou-Ki’s 29.09.64

Clara Rivollet admires a prodigious abstract work by the Beijing-born, Paris-based artist which has been in private hands for almost 50 years, and is to be offered in the Contemporaries: Voices from the East and West sale on 27 May in Hong Kong

Born in Beijing in 1921, Zao Wou-Ki moved to Paris in 1948 — and would never again live in China. In 1956 he began working with New York dealer Samuel Kootz, who promoted the Chinese artist to American private collections and institutions and encouraged him to experiment with larger formats. In 1961, Zao took a more spacious studio in the Montparnasse neighbourhood, which allowed him to paint on bigger canvases.

In Paris, where the Galerie de France organised annual solo exhibitions of Zao’s work, the artist mingled with Lyrical Abstraction artists including Pierre Soulages, Alfred Manessier, Hans Hartung and Georges Mathieu. During the day, he would spend long hours in his studio; in the evenings, he attended joyous gallery openings in Saint Germain. ‘Zao needed the freedom of creation and innovation that Paris brought him,’ says Clara Rivollet, a specialist in Asian Art at Christie’s Paris.

The 1960s was a time of both great joy and deep sorrow for Zao, whose wife was battling mental illness. The intensity of this period nurtured his painterly practice, and the artist developed a new technical maturity and material ease. As Zao would later say of this decade, ‘I spent ten years at full speed, like driving a fast car.’

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji, FranceChina, 1920-2013), 29.09.64, 1964. Oil on canvas. 230 x 345 cm (90½ x 135⅞ in). Estimate HK$38,000,000-48,000,000. This lot is offered in Contemporaries Voices from East and West  Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 27 May 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji, France/China, 1920-2013), 29.09.64, 1964. Oil on canvas. 230 x 345 cm (90½ x 135⅞ in). Estimate: HK$38,000,000-48,000,000. This lot is offered in Contemporaries: Voices from East and West / Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) on 27 May 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zao’s exceptional 29.09.64  was purchased directly from the artist in 1969 by a French architect (the father of the present owner). Following the Second World War, a period of rapid modernisation saw the architect’s practice flourish: he built hospitals, research centres and administrative buildings throughout France and Algeria. The architect assembled a strong collection of abstract paintings inspired by natural forms, of which Zao’s 29.09.64  is the ultimate gem.

‘It's a very complex composition, with multiple layers of oil,’ says Rivollet. A ‘structure of deep, black brushstrokes’ is topped with a network of ‘controlled, sinuous lines that remind us of Chinese calligraphy’. But this kind of loose movement in the white paint is also inspired by Pollock, as Rivollet explains.

‘There's a real sense of speed in the brushstrokes, and that's what translates the energy of the painting,’ she says. ‘He uses different colours to create depth, which a Chinese painter couldn’t do with ink and paper.’

‘Zao Wou-Ki brought new possibilities to Chinese art, and is today regarded as the Chinese modern master’

This painting could be a Western painting, the specialist notes, but while it is abstract, in its essence it remains very Chinese. ‘Zao Wou-Ki brought new possibilities to Chinese art’, Rivollet notes, ‘and today is recognised as the Chinese modern master.’

Alongside Hommage à Edgar Varèse, 29.09.64  is Zao’s largest canvas from the 1960s, and among the most important of his works from that decade currently in private hands. Like Hommage à Edgar Varèse, the painting originally measured 255 x 345 cm. In the early 1970s, the architect moved to a new house in the Paris region. Under the supervision of the artist, 25 centimetres were removed and Zao re-signed the piece.

For Zao Wou-Ki, abstraction always represents an inner, imaginary landscape. His work sought to capture the harmonious movements of qi, the source of life and the universe; his pioneering style achieved an expressive depth that stands in marked contrast to that of many other abstract artists of his time. Following the New York Asia Society exhibition in 2016, the artist will be the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2018.