signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’ (lower right); signed and titled ‘ZAO Wou-Ki 5.10.91’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
81 x 100 cm. (31 7/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1991
Galerie Thessa Herold, Paris, France
Private Collection, Asia
Anon. Sale; Christie’s Hong Kong, 28 May 2006, Lot 233
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
The work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued and signed by the artist on 15 February 2007.
This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou- Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue
raisonne prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki).
Henri Michaux/ Zao Wou-Ki – Pas de barbare en Asie!, Galerie Thessa Herold, Paris, France, 1993 (illustrated, p. 17).
Henri Michaux – Le langage de la peinture, le regard du poéte, Galerie Thessa Herold, Paris, France, 1994 (illustrated, plate 73, p. 64).
Paris, France, Galerie Thessa Herold, Henri Michaux/Zao Wou-Ki-Pas de barbare en Asie!, 1993
Paris, France, Galerie Thessa Herold, Henri Michaux : le langage de la peinture, le regard du poete , 1994

Brought to you by

Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Check the condition report or get in touch for additional information about this

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

Zao Wou-Ki once said, "I aspire to paint with colours to express subjects that can be represented in the most simplest way."


Soon after Zao Wou-Ki moved to France in 1948, the artist’s talents were recognized by poet Henri Michaux. Zao quickly went on to establish a position for himself in the art world of post-war Paris. From his base there, he began exploring new styles of painting. While the influence of post-war avant-garde developments in Western art such as Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel are apparent in his works from this time, these paintings also project a deeply Eastern sensibility with traditional aesthetics that recall calligraphy and ink painting. It is this cross-cultural fusion that makes Zao’s abstract paintings transcendently unique.

Zao Wou-Ki’s journey to abstract painting began in the mid-1950s when he embarked on an exploration of the symbols and patterns from pictographs, along with other visual symbols borrowed from ancient Chinese cultures. His free spirit and pursuit of spontaneous expression, inspired by both Abstract Expressionism as well as Song and Tang dynasty Chinese landscape painting, is manifested in his paintings from the 1960s. The reintroduction of ink on paper as medium in his oeuvre in the 1970s directed Zao’s abstract painting down a new path. Throughout this period, the artist gradually enhanced the subtle changes of colour in his compositions, while reducing the bold and heavy calligraphic strokes. Moving onto the 1980s, Zao began to focus on the energy and rhythm, as delivered by colours, and his exploration of colour became even more adventurous and unrestricted.


05.10.91 (Lot 3) is a work that deeply embodies Zao’s shift toward colour field painting during this later period of his life. 05.10.91 is a painting that breathes and flows, a masterful coexistence between tension and unbridled reverie. The violent, vigorous, and feverish spirit with which the paintings of the 1960s were imbued, is no longer present here. In place of those brooding and fomenting strokes, is a realm of freshness, vitality, and dynamism.

The painting also reveals Zao Wou-Ki’s spirit as a septuagenarian. Zao never ceased to challenge the depth and breadth of abstract painting. In June of 1991 after a five-month effort, at the age of 71, Zao completed a monumental triptych titled Homage to Claude-Monet . In October of the same year, 05.10.91 is completed with fresh and vibrant palette—dioxazine purple, violet, rose, light emerald green, phthalo green and deep green bloom and spread across the canvas with a gradation reminiscent of Chinese ink in the foreground, while subtly nuanced green and purple tones expand out into a dream-like space behind. Comparing this 1991 work to an ink on paper piece from 1971 shows clearly how the two media are interconnected within Zao’s body of work. It was probably via his India ink works that Zao Wou-Ki went on to earn the right to be called a true colourist. As Zao once said, “now I seek only to make a picture, in the grid of the moment and of colour, where everything and nothing is represented at the same time, with economy, parsimony even.”1

Different from Mark Rothko’s treatment of colour, in which planes of one tone floated within another colour, thus intensifying the chromatic values of the central colours, Zao’s compositions infinitely extend beyond the edge of the painting, suggesting a kind of Chinese philosophy on nature which is limitless and without form.


It is in fact from nature itself which Zao draws inspiration, giving his works a highly distinctive character. Within the universe of each painting is contained infinitely rich colours and spaces; rapid, spontaneous, brushstrokes; a composition in which tension coexists with looseness; a mysterious light that suffuses the canvas as a whole.

In 05.10.91 , an organic splash-like motif takes up the central plane; formed by dark linear brushstrokes, simultaneously delicate and bold, taking up the centre, circulating the air, it is as if this form is an intensive energy source glowing and radiating power and glory; this then evolves into shades of intense and fresh colours. Violet and green accompanied by a silvery white occupy the upper and lower registers of the canvas, further emphasizing the way in which Zao empowers the colours he used to take centre stage. This also allows the weave of the canvas to glisten rays of mysterious light.

Such kind of organic splash-like motif is first seen in Zao’s paintings in the mid-1960s. Numerous fine and intersecting lines form the motif at that time, as if a network with high density, which are seen in 13.02.67 and 02.03.64 which is a homage to French poet, René Char (1907-1988). Besides, such motif can also have traced in two special paintings by Zao dedicated to his beloved wife, May Chan. Through the expanding motif in the paintings titled In Memory of May – 10.09.72, and We Too Again – 10.03.74 , Zao fully injected his emotional energy. In the 1990s, it is then expanded into a larger format and invisible force is represented by the empty space within the motif in the 1990s, which can be noticed in important monumental paintings homage to Henri Michaux (1899-1984), a very dear friend of Zao, as well as Claude Monet (1840-1926) to whom Zao highly respects. The above critical paintings by Zao prove organic splash-like motif is especially meaningful to Zao, who is sincere and loyal to relationship, as an expression of strong emotion. Thus, 05.10.91 , which shares this motif, can be regarded as meaningful piece to Zao.

Zao recalls how he often used drive around the Romanesque churches in Burgundy and in Southwest France on his holiday. Zao recalled,
“Standing in front of a church and looking up at the reliefs, or at the carved capitals inside, they spoke to me with words that were quiet, intimate, full of light… Perhaps in this light I instinctively sensed a feeling which had something in common with the old arts of China, from Dunhuang to the Tang and Song dynasties. (This time in Japan, I was to have the same feeling when I saw the Buddha at Horyuji Temple.).”2

“I at least was struck by the manifestation of a certain universal sentiment.”3

The expression of light is often used to refer the manifestation of “holiness” in art. Zao transfuses his paintings with a radiating light through his choice in colour, establishing a sense of mystery and holiness—and through such universal feelings, he creates a connection to audiences from many different backgrounds.

(1) Zao Wou-Ki et François Marquet, op. cit., p. 185.
(2) Haga, Toru, "In Praise of Zao Wou-Ki – From a Personal memoir", August 2004.
(3) Same as above.

More from Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) / Contemporaries: Voices from East and West (Evening Sale)

View All
View All