Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed, titled and inscribed 'Zao Wou-Ki 25.5.62 200 x 162 (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
199.7 x 161.5 cm. (78 5/8 x 63 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1962
Kootz Gallery, New York, USA
Private Collection, USA
Anon sale, Sotheby's New York, 7 November 1990, Lot 154A
Anon. sale, Christie's Taipei, 14 October, 2001, Lot 36
Anon. sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 24 May 2008, Lot 202
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain. Documentation by Francoise Marquet, 1978 (illustrated, plate 307, unpaged).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain. Documentation by Francoise Marquet, 1986 (illustrated, plate 339, unpaged).
New York, USA, Kootz Gallery, 1962.
Montreal, Canada, Mus?e d'Art Contemporain, Retrospective, 1969
Quebec, Canada, Mus?e du Q?bec, Retrospective, 1969

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Lot Essay

In 'The New Chinese Landscape' published in 1967's Art Journal, Chu-tsing Li and Thomas Lawton wrote: 'Zao Wou-Ki, Tseng Yu-ho, and Chang Dai-chien, as "In these three artists, there are some common elementsKthe traditional style cannot serve to express their own feeling and their outlook. They keep searching for the best means to objectify their experience. They constantly experiment with new techniques, new media, new concepts of time and space, new symbols, in order to embrace the past and present, China and the rest of the world. But deep in their hearts, they seem to seek to perpetuate the profound expression of the traditional literati, in blending their past dreams and present yearning into a synthesis'.


After having been in France for nearly 20 years, the present lot 25.05.62 (Lot 61) was created by Zao Wou-Ki in 1962. Subsequent to his 1956 travel to the United States, he began to explore in depth ways to blend together traditional Chinese aesthetics and creative methods with aesthetics of Western Abstract Expressionism. The centre composition of this artwork subtly echoes his other piece, Mistral, created in 1957, with traditional calligraphy combined with broad strokes also seen in paintings by Pierre Soulages and Franz Kline. The painting shows a combination of relaxed and fast-paced painterly movements, with various colour expressions of thick, thin, dry, and wet and details of flying white (feibai) befittingly created. The resulting tree branches quivering in the fierce wind remind one of the state of mind expressed in Ezra Pound's poetic verse 'Petals on a wet, black bough', and Wang Wei's 'Wind with no rain, as the tree lowers its head.' At the same time, the tonality and shadings of ink application used by Zao with black oil colour shows profound inheritance of Shi Tao's artistic essence, echoing Shi's statement : 'To build up a kind of spirit in painting, life is thus created under the brush. Trifling matters disappear on the paper and brightness emerges from the chaotic world.' Zao was an artist who placed great emphasis on the compositional balance between the tangible and the intangible. The ingenious visual juxtaposition in this painting shows dynamic bursts of brushwork in the middle, with a sense of collected stillness projected from the background. A musical analogy was made by Zao for this treatment incorporating movement and stillness, fullness and emptiness, as he stated that 'the rest has the equal moving power as the sound.'


Zao rarely made sketches for his large-scale lyrical abstract landscapes. He usually stood in front of the blank canvas for an extended period of time to allow the images to be conjured up by his mind and spirit: the creative process turned into a course of ceaseless spontaneity. This seemingly casual yet firmly assured approach resonates with the idea of 'in every landscape painting, the idea comes before the brush,' from Wang Wei's On Landscape Paintings. This particular two-meter high painting is vertically composed, with the background consisted of various brown hues that come together to form a sense of visual coherence. The background is boldly paved with sparse vertical strokes; the mid-ground consists of jagged ridges and twisted branches; and the foreground appears arbitrarily laid out yet comprises of painstakingly crafted dry brushstrokes. The overall composition embodies the three distances from the perspective theory applied in Chinese landscape paintings - the high distance, the deep distance, and the level distance. The resulting painting shows a landscape that is full of majestic grandeur. Although considered an abstract artwork, it transcends time and space and forms a dialogue with great classic masters such as Guo Xi and Ni Zan. Zao demonstrated heart to heart connections with the masters' legacies inherited. On the other hand, Zao's virtuosity in depicting light and shadow in the space and his instantaneous capture of the fundamental elements of the universe, i.e. wind, rain, cloud, and air, is reminiscent of JMW Turner's work. 25.5.62 is a quintessential artwork of Zao Wu-Ki, showcasing a perfect amalgamation of elements from Western discourse of abstraction and traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting.

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