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signed in Chinese, signed ‘ZAO’ (lower right); signed, titled and dated ‘ZAO WOU-Ki 21.4.64.’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
80.5 x 130 cm. (31 3/4 x 51 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1964
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Collection of Mr Charles A. Wyman, New York, USA (acquired from the above in 1966)
Thence by descent from the above to the present owner
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)

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Lot Essay

“I spent ten years at full speed, the same at which I was driving a fast car” - ZAO WOU-KI

Bold in color and structure and masterfully executed, this work exemplifies the best qualities of Zao Wou-Ki’s iconic Hurricane period. All at once triumphant, explosive and meticulous in its execution, 21.04.64 evokes the power of elemental energy and primeval forces.

In the eyes of Wassily Kandinsky, considered the father of abstract art, the color red, compared to the other primary colors yellow and blue, possesses a formidable power and is imbued with boiling tension. Red is associated with life, fire, blood, and passion, symbolizing the energetic forces that are regarded as fundamental elements of both nature and human civilization. Red was one of the first colors to appear in surviving examples of early art; in the caves of Altamira in Spain, bison and horses painted over 15,500 years ago are rendered in rich shades of red and black, achieved using natural ochre and charcoal pigments. In Ancient China, the Yangshao culture used ground cinnabar to decorate ceramic vessels, cover the walls and floors of interior spaces, and add symbolic power in the form of color to ritual ceremonies. In the European Middle Ages, red took on a religious dimension, evoking both the blood of Christ and the flames of Hell. Across all these cultures, red was associated with life, being not only the color of blood but also of fire, the element that most differentiates humankind from other species on Earth.

The 1960s were precisely the years of blood and fire in the life of Zao Wou-Ki. Passionately in love with his second wife May whom he had met in Hong Kong after his first trip to New York with Pierre and Colette Soulages, he also had to deal with her growing mental illness. His 1960s paintings crystallize a very turbulent time with simultaneous highly euphoric bliss and intermittent states of torment. This series of conflicting emotions along with an acquired artistic technical maturity would come as ingredients to nurture his inspiration. As Zao would recall the course of events during the 1960s in his autobiography published in 1988: “I spent ten years at full speed, the same at which I was driving a fast car”. Zao indeed drove a Porsche at that time, evidence of his eagerness for a fast-paced life.

21.04.64 is emblematic of this period. Against a bright red background, heavy charcoal-black brushstrokes dance energetically on the surface. The upper part is traversed by a large horizontal black band, securing the composition in a contained stability. Underneath, the lower area is dominated by sparse flying brushstrokes with a sense of speed that pulls the viewer’s eye back and forth from left to right, in a furious rhythm. Long and short strokes mingle and overlap, bringing a dynamic fluidity to the stable horizontal composition underneath the balancing beam.

With each of the varied strokes he employs, Zao brings out greater contrasts in hues and techniques, producing dense visual rhythms between the areas of chapped strokes, spreading washes, thick impastos, and dry and wet paint. In his fine brushstrokes, with their twists and turns, a variety of melodic rhythms and visual tensions form. Behind the web of interwoven splashes and lines, a sense of thriving pulsating energy hides beneath the surface. Strokes in oil pigments both collide and echo each other, full of visual agitation, creating a great impression of depth. The loosely applied coat of crimson red across the canvas reveal the beige-colored background in some areas, adding an extra layer of depth with very minimal means.

Similarly, in the Chinese aesthetic of landscape painting, a great deal of simplicity lies behind the techniques and concepts where the sole use of black ink on a plain surface can produce a broad spectrum of visual effects. The command of brushwork is of central importance in that tradition. The six variations of “black, white, thick, thin, dry, wet” that offer black ink when mastered after years of practice, can create infinite pictorial possibilities. Zao Wou-Ki already had a skilled grasp of this tradition. He reflected it in his work not merely in the choice of pigments from a narrow range of colors, but also in his great range of brushwork techniques. 21.04.64 calls to mind cursive script calligraphy, such as Chen Chun’s Seven Character Poems written in the early 16th century, in which the calligraphic lines unfold freely with a dramatic sense of abandon. Energy flows energetically from the body, through the brush and onto the surface, transforming it into infinite space.

At the same time, on several trips to New York during the late 1950s, Zao Wou- Ki began to appreciate the ideas behind American Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting. His assessment was as follows: “Their paintings are full of freedom, freshness, and rude energy. I like that rude energy, and the way they spray their pigments across the canvas”. Inspired by Jackson Pollock’s ground-breaking works, Zao acquired a sense of freedom to challenge tradition. His style also gained a new energy, evolving to incorporate sweeping brushstrokes, greater use of impasto, and a broad gestural expression.

The year 1964 comes as the peak of the artist’s achievement in his search for an absolute abstraction capable of expressing inner experience. With his intimate knowledge of calligraphy, acquired since his childhood, Zao developed a pictorial technique deeply rooted in Chinese tradition. The dynamics of his brush, the pulse of his thoughts, and his mood as a painter echo and resound through the painting as he borrows calligraphy's energetic motions and the spirit of Abstract Expressionism and perfectly reconciles East and West.

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