signed in Chinese and signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed, titled and dated 'ZAO Wou-Ki 10.5.76.' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
116 x 89 cm. (45 5/8 x 35 in.)
Painted in 1976
Private Collection, Europe
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).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Documentation by Francoise Marquet , Hier et Demain Editions, Paris, France and Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 1978 (illustrated in black and white, plate 453, p. 305).
Jean Leymarie, Rizzoli International Publications, Zao Wou-Ki, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated in black and white, plate 453, p. 305).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Documentation by Francoise Marquet Editions Cercle d’Art, Paris, France et Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelone, Espagne, 1986 (illustrated in black and white, plate 483, p. 344).

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

Soon after moving to France in 1948, Zao Wou-Ki’s talents were recognized and lauded by the poet Henri Michaux. Over the course of the 50s and 60s, Zao went on to establish himself firmly within the post-war Parisian art world with the help of prominent galleries and dealers active at the time. During the 1970s, personal experiences in Zao’s life led to the development of new artistic styles, steering Zao’s career into a new direction. Paintings executed in this period, such as 10.05.76 (Lot 19), bear witness his acceptance of self, his recovery from sadness and his deep reliance on art.

In the context of Zao Wou-ki’s personal life, the 70s was not a peaceful period but one filled with emotional turbulence and tragedy. His second wife, May Chan, passed away in early March of 1972; the trauma of this event engulfed him emotionally, and just a few weeks later Zao left for China to visit his family, the first time he had visited his country of birth since his move to Paris in 1948. His decision to visit China after a 24–year absence suggests the magnitude of the loss felt by Zao upon May’s passing. This event, representing a period of separation from his daily practice as a painter, prompted him to reflect upon his relationships and to search for new directions in his life and art.

The 1970s represents a period of re-orientation for Zao. May’s tragic death led to a brief hiatus in Zao’s oil painting practice, but it also led to a new period of experimentation with ink painting. Zao was encouraged to explore ink painting by his close friend Henri Michaux, who said that as result, “In his own way, Zao Wou-Ki invented another game with ink again. In a domain even more pure and complete, he broke free from restrictions imposed not only by predecessors but also his own ink paintings previously.” (1) After several months of grief and reflection, Zao resumed oil painting, returning to the Paris art scene 3 years later with a refreshed mind and sense of direction.

Over the span of three-to-four years, Zao, who was in his fifties at the time, strode down the path from sadness to sensitivity, from grief to greatness. His paintings executed in the mid-1970s bear the markings of Zao’s new style, representing a new zenith in his career as well as a period of personal growth in his life and relationships.

From the 1970s onwards, Zao began to create large format diptych and triptych pieces. He completed a large painting that was exhibited at the Galerie de France, while other important triptych works from this period include 15.12.76 - Triptych (195 x 390 cm.), and 01.04.76 – Hommage a Andre Malraux (200 x 524 cm.). In 1976, before the move of the National Museum of Modern Art from the Palais de Tokyo to the Centre d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Jean Leymarie organized an exhibition entitled ‘L’Accrochage III’, which included a full room dedicated to Zao’s works.

10.05.76 clearly showcases the way concurrent experiences with both ink and oil paint impacted Zao’s oil painting. The shift in visual style from his earlier works manifests itself most clearly in the mid-to-late 1970s – Zao sets aside the sharp gestural aesthetic that dominated his early canvases, replacing it with softened and blunted marks that fuse space in a subtle way, recalling the alchemy of ink and paper.

Zao’s shift in style is also accompanied by new explorations of oil paint, as Zao manipulates the medium’s natural heaviness and thickness as well as its potential for lightness and softness, blending in elements typically associated with ink to present complicated visual effects and highlight the characteristics of oil paint.

A highlight of this piece is the ink-wash-like application of the olive hues in the work. It is as if Zao applied wet Chinese or Indian ink, achieving gradations of shade that are absorbed by the background. The layering of colours and use of black pigment highlights the numerous shades of green in this work – moss, fern, and army – colours that seem to vibrate and drift in the air. The colours thus combine to produce a continuous sense of movement, reflecting the rhythms of nature and evoking vast landscapes. As Zao once recalled, “I sought to express movement – its piercing slowness, or its brilliance – and I wanted to make the surface of the canvas vibrate with contrasts or with multiple reverberations of a single colour.” (2)

From the mid-1970s onwards, the bold linear brushstrokes that generally occupied two-thirds of the painted surface in works from the sixties, are now transformed into organic colour blocks and delicate swirling lines. This stylistic evolution pushed Zao’s paintings towards greater theatricality and dynamism. From the mid-1970s onward, Zao’s paintings begin to showcase compositional structures devoid of a center, resulting in stronger works. Spaces are balanced and brought into harmony by irregular forms. In 10.05.76 , the dark charcoal and brown forms on the left and upper right resemble islands rising from the ocean, or clouds drifting in the sky.

In this piece, Zao no longer abides by the common practices of the abstract painter. Instead of treating the central area as the compositional foundation, he breaks away from the standard structure. The dark forms in 10.05.76 create a roughly triangular composition, which echoes the angular compositions used by Southern Song painter, Ma Yuan and gives the work greater movement and fluidity. Inside the triangular composition, lines swirl and roll together, simultaneously delicate and rough, created with quick brush movements that must have seemed to fly through the air while Zao was painting.

Texture and colour play a more active role in the composition of Zao’s works during the 1970s, moving beyond directional brushstrokes. In 10.05.76 , the spots of pale coral and translucent white hues act as highlights, suggesting reflected light. The horizontal white strip at the base of the work, resembles xuan paper traditionally used in Chinese painting. This unexpected splash of white energizes the work and extends the painted horizon, helping counterbalance the intense dynamism in the upper and middle regions. As Zao himself concluded, “Abstract painting, in fact, should allow the audience to understand through observation. That is, let the audience see where the light source comes from. The artist should construct the painting with a sequential, natural and openminded structure, rather than just moving the light source around and changing its position horizontally or vertically without considering whether the artistic conception of the work as a whole is smooth and fluent”. (3)

1 Lu, Jade, 'Perspectives: Chinese Artists and Zao Wou-Ki', Infinities of Zao Wou-Ki, Asia University Museum of Modern Art, Taichung, pp. 114-115.
2 Zao Wou-Ki et Francois Marquet, op. cit., p. 138.
3 Ma, Wei-Chen, "His Paintings Taught Us to See the World: He Taught Me to See Life – In Remembrance of Wou-Ki Zao", Infinities of Zao Wou-Ki, Asia University Museum of Modern Art, Taichung, pp. 21 & 23.

More from Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)

View All
View All