(ZHAO WUJI, B. 1920)
signed 'Wou-ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right); signed 'ZAO WOU-Ki' in Pinyin; dated '14.11.63.' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
131 x 196 cm. (51 1/2 x 77 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1963
Kootz Gallery, New York, USA
Acquired from the above in 1964 and thence by descent to the present owner
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Documentation by Fran?oise Marquet, Hier et Demain Editions, Paris, France and Ediciones Pol?grafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1978 (illustrated, plate 100, p. 149).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated, plate 100, p. 149).
Massachusetts, USA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - the New Gallery, Zao Wou-ki Exhibition, 1964.

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Lot Essay

At the end of the 1950s, Zao Wou-ki was a young artist in his thirties, and was viewed as a member of the post-war abstract school. He was one of the artists represented by the Galerie de France, and through numerous showings of his work he established a fine working relationship with well-known museums and art dealers around the world. He was especially well known and regarded in North America, where he received the support of New York's influential Kootz Gallery. Showings of his work there every two years led to their acquisition by a number of American museums as well as important private collectors. His name at that time already stood alongside those of other well-known abstractionists such as Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, and Alfred Manessier, showing, as Zao Wou-ki said, the "concrete results" of his prodigious creative energies. In a letter to Zao, Manessier said,

You are so different in every way: your mental world, your background, your Chinese origins. Though I had never seen before the kind of scenic world you paint, or the kind of light within it, I can still find in it something that is known to me, something I recognize, and it has taken hold of me and given me a moving experience. While superficially different, you are still one of us, and your inner world is not so distant from mine after all.

Manessier's coments reveal how much Zao's work was appreciated in the West, and hint also at the way in which, with its richness of Chinese cultural implication, its meanings nevertheless broke through the linguistic barriers and the cultural chasm between East and West.

Line is one of the most basic formal elements of art, and has always been used both incisively and with broad expressive purpose by Chinese artists. Subjects are interpreted through line in Chinese painting, calligraphy, and sculpture, and even in architecture and dance; it is used not only to frame the outlines and structures of objects, but as a medium for conveying the artist's subjective feelings and frame of mind. Ever since the 1950s, line has been an important formal element of Zao Wou-ki's work, from his Klee-influenced period, in which he outlined figurative subjects and landscape elements, to his mid-1950s works, where it has strong symbolic presence in the form of calligraphic motifs. After 1958, Zao's use of these symbolic "oracle-bone" motifs decreased, and the importance of narrative in his work was reduced, with the result that his lines began to exhibit a purer, more absolute expressiveness. Zao refined and simplified images into the form of motifs, which he then further deconstructed into pure lines, in a process that made the late 1950s and early '60s a crucial transitional period for this artist. Christie's is honored to present four Zao Wou-ki works, 2.11.59 (Lot 1014), 14.11.63 (Lot 1013), and 6.11.85 (Lot 1015) in its 2011 spring Evening Sale. These four works vividly demonstrate how Zao, over a period of 30 years, transcended his earlier achievements to reach new artistic heights.

2.11.59 Depth through Color and Consciousness of Space in Landscapes

By early 1959, the shapes suggesting oracle bone inscriptions that Zao formed on his canvases were becoming freer, even as his line and brushwork became more natural and flowing. 2.11.59 embodies a major change in Zao's artistic development. Western, scientific theories of color tell us that color is created by light, and that objects have no color of their own; we perceive a particular color because it reflects back to us a certain part of light's spectrum. But here, Zao Wou-ki employs yellow pigments, thinly diluted or in thick heavy layers, that seem to create their own light, emanating from the center, in a painting where the primitive, mysterious oracle-bone inscriptions of his earlier work blend with layers of highly transparent color. The darker areas surrounding them seem by contrast to expand and take on even greater depth. In modernist painting, after its foundations were laid by Kandinsky, artists competed to break through the constraints of three-dimensional space and realistic depictions through the use of points, lines, and planes; Zao Wou-ki's approach in 2.11.59 is different. Solid form and empty space seem to change places as color contrasts give rise to brilliant light and shadow, while the light source itself helps further establish space as a physical presence in the painting. Inside this elusive three-dimensional space, the profusion of interlacing lines and brushstrokes creates effects of direct, refracted, and reflected light; the light entices our imaginations to find images within its shadowy depths, which further enhances the feeling of an immense and deep space on the canvas.

Art critic Zong Baihua pointed out that "Differences in the way space is presented express the worldviews, and the deepest apprehensions of life, of different nationalities, different eras, and different classes, according to their economic circumstances and social conditions." While Zao Wou-ki adopted the Western use of light to create a sense of physical space, he also infused his work with the concept of space seen in the works of the ancient Chinese scholarly class, in which the artist sets himself within an overal framework of nature and the cosmos. 2.11.59 features a palette of black, white, and yellow, with abstract lines clashing and soaring through the central axis of the painting, where dense brushstrokes overlap but gradually subside as they spread outward from the vehement activity at the center. The background is applied with a broad brush, with faint variations in layering, reflecting the artist's attempt to capture an inner mental vision and a sense of the basic rhythms of nature and the universe. At the same time, 2.11.59 captures a sense of traditional Chinese landscapes, which often viewed a scene from several perspectives to best capture its full grandeur and power. But, unlike the monumental landscape style of the Five Dynasties and Northern Song periods, Zao extends a streak of brilliant yellow to the very upper edge of the canvas, where the energy of his brushwork almost pushes it beyond the painting's border, thus breaking through the limitations imposed by the size of the work. The tension that is created expands ever outward and informs this entire composition. The artist has projected into it the great expanses of heaven and earth, creating open and free spatial relationships, and, like the great Chinese painters of old, he manages to bring the majesty and power of a grand scene into a painting of more modest dimensions.

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