Untitled (Teapot And Vase With Twigs)

Untitled (Teapot And Vase With Twigs)
signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’ (lower right); signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’, dated and inscribed ‘12. 1951 Pour Harry et Nina tres cordialement 6. 1952’, dated again ‘1951’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
54 x 65 cm. (21 1/4 x 25 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1951
Acquired directly from the artist and thence by the descent to the current owner
Abrams Family Collection, New York, USA
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki.
This work is referenced in the archive of the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist’s forthcoming catalogue raisonne prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Foundation Zao Wou-Ki).
The Walker Art Center, School of Paris, 1959: The Internationals, Minneapolis, USA, 1959 (listed No. 78, p. 52).
The Jewish Museum, The Harry N. Abrams Family Collection, New York, USA, 1966 (listed No. 160, unpaged).
Melissa Walt, Ankeney Weitz, and Michelle Yun, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, Asia Society Museum, New York, USA, and Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, USA, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven, USA, and London, UK, 2016 (illustrated in colour, plate 6, p. 75).
This lot will be included in Zao Wou-Ki: 1935-2010 to be published by Abbeville Press Publishers.
New York, USA, Cadby-Birch Gallery, Zao Wou-Ki, 5 November – 6 December 1952.
Minneapolis, USA, The Walker Art Center, School of Paris, 1959: The Internationals, 5 April – 17 May 1959.
New York, USA, The Jewish Museum, The Harry N. Abrams Family Collection, 29 June – 5 September 1966.
New York, USA, Asia Society Museum, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, 9 September 2016 – 8 January 2017.
Waterville, USA, Colby College Museum of Art, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, 4 February – 4 June 2017.

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

Lot Essay

“I believe every painter is realist for himself and abstract for everyone else.” - George Charbonnier

“We are closer to attaining cheerful serenity by simplifying thoughts and figures. Simplifying the idea to achieve an expression of joy. That is our only deed.” - Henri Matisse

Zao Wou-Ki’s 1951 painting Untitled (Teapot and Vase with Twigs) (Lot 22) is a rare and early example of his still life from early 1950s. Composed merely three years after his arrival in Paris, the quiet beauty of antiquarian vase and teapot, the calligraphic quality of the twigs and branches, and the unsophisticated yet absorbingly saturated background colour field, undoubtedly puts the painting as a masterpiece in Zao’s early oeuvre. Acquired directly from the artist in 1951 by publishing mogul Harry Abrams, and in the following year shown at Zao Wou- Ki’s ever first exhibition in New York at the Cadby-Birch Gallery in 1952, then in 1959 featured in the Walker Art Center’s seminal exhibition, The School of Paris, 1959: The Internationals , and in 1966 shown again in New York at the Jewish Museum, the current lot has been in the Abrams Family Collection since its acquisition for the past sixty-six years, preserving its freshness and vitality as of the beginning.

From 1951 to 1952, Zao Wou-Ki spent much time traveling widely in Europe. He visited Italy, Spain, and Switzerland where he saw Paul Klee’s paintings for the first time – “in Klee he discovered an intimate, inner world closely linked to his own sensitivity.” Traveling for Zao was an important journey to search for his newly defined artistic language and to explore cultural identity, both as a breakaway and an opening-out. The unique landscapes in these countries led Zao to discover a perspective that, like in Chinese painting, change before the eyes of the observer.

Zao often only selects a few from a limited repertoire of objects for his still life paintings (Fig. 1). In Untitled (Teapot and Vase with Twigs), Zao focuses on a Yixing teapot and Hu vase (Fig. 2). The exterior of the vase preserves malachite encrustation usually seen on Shang or Zhou bronzes. However, the translucency of the lower right revealing bottom ends of the branches may imply that the vase is made of ceramics. The objects are placed in a place with ambiguous perspective. This is drawn both from the early Cubist treatment of the surface plane in deceptive perspective by Paul Cézanne (Fig. 3), as well as from the all-encompassing atmospheric perspective often seen in Chinese traditional ink paintings (Fig. 4). In Lot 22, Zao abandons perspective and dismisses concerns of volume and lighting. Instead, the teapot and vase are depicted in pitch black silhouette, and set against a heavily worked background composed of contrasting palette of mineral green and burnt orange. In this flowy composition with constantly shifting visual angle, the most definitive elements are the twigs handled in calligraphic brushes, resembling “the golden-thread iron-wire” crackle lines frequently seen on highly prized Chinese Ge - ware ceramics.

In the 1952 Cadby-Birch Gallery exhibition catalogue, Henri Michaux spoke about this lightness quality in Zao Wou-Ki’s work in his introductory, “The absence of weight, elsewhere suspicious, with them is deliberate…Unfaithfully exact, (the fine zigzag lines) render the landscape without following it, and with minutest, straw-like intricacy, quicken the far-off…To show while dissimulating, to break up the straight line and make it waver, tracing as he muses the traying path of the walk and the fly-tracks of his dreaming brush, that’s what Zao Wou- Ki likes, then, all of a sudden, with the same air of festivity that animates the Chinese countryside and villages, the painting appears, quivering joyfully…a little odd in an orchard of signs.” The quiet existence of each object is ultimately defined by its relational position to one another, just as the vases and jars in Giorgio Morandi’s natura morta (Fig. 5).

For Zao Wou-Ki, painting and poetry are inseparable. He believes the nature of the two artistic expressional forms are similar. Both poetry and painting are intended to express the vigor of life, and aim to indirectly convey the deepest meaning of the universe. Poetry gives its readers an indefinable space of imagination, where thoughts can go in and out freely, meandering amongst the harmonious juxtaposition of words - pausing, breathing, lingering, and occasionally lamenting. This “empty” space is precious, just like the “empty” space in painting that artist purposefully leaves open-ended. In the current painting, the immense coloration in the background and its highly-abstracted presence serve as the empty space. Mark Rothko once describes his colour field paintings as such (Fig. 6), “I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions...The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings elicit similar emotional and tactile feeling from the spectators.

In fact, Zao Wou-Ki’s life-long commitment to expressing his inner landscape through lyrical abstraction, and blending the East and the West can be seen in the 1952 work. Bernard Dorival, Director of the Louvre in Paris, in his introductory essay for the third exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki at Cadby- Birch Gallery, wrote enthusiastically on the Zao Wou-Ki’s unequally manual agility of calligraphic dexterity and brushstroke which he learned from his Chinese ancestors. Durival praised Zao’s graphics, exact and sharp, possessing an aerial lightness of not having been touched. The manner of execution also blends delicacy with authority. This virtuosity is placed at the expression of a refined artistic sensitivity and magic poetry and possesses a kind of quiverness, an irradiation which constitute their singular charm. Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings combines the quality of tradition and abstraction, of painterly form and poetic essence, of visual drama and emotional explosion. And it is a true pleasure to experience these all at once in the current work.

The Abrams Family Collection began with the purchases of Harry N Abrams in the 1940s and continued with further purchases by the family through to the present. Harry N Abrams is known for his seminal position as an American art book publisher, having founded the publishing house Harry N. Abrams Inc. in 1950. His sons Michael and Robert continued to purchase contemporary art on their own, and Robert founded the art and illustrated book company Abbeville Press with his father Harry in 1977. The Abrams family’s position in publishing art books has allowed them the privilege of being in close relationship with many of the foremost international artists of the 20th century. As an example of this, the Zao Wou- Ki painting was personally inscribed to Harry and Nina Abrams by the artist on the rear of the canvas. Held in its original collection for the past half century, Untitled (Teapot and Vase with Twigs) is an important piece for all Zao Wou-Ki collectors.

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