ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)


ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese, and signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed and dated 'ZAO WOU-KI 27.3.70' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
130 x 195 cm. (51 1/8 x 76 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1970
Acquired by the late owners in the early 1970s
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). A certificate of authenticity can be requested for the successful buyer.
J. Laude, Editions La Connaissance, Zao Wou -Ki, Brussels, 1974 (illustrated in black and white, p. 57)
J. Leymarie, Edition s Cercle d’Art, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, 1978 (illustrated, p. 205)
J. Leymarie, Editions Cercle d’Art, Zao Wou-Ki, New York,
1979 (illustrated, p. 205)
J. Leymarie, Editions Cercle d’Art, Zao Wou - Ki, Paris, 1986 (illustrated, p. 205)
C. Roy, Editions Cercle d’Art, Zao Wou - Ki, Paris, 1988 (illustrated, cat. 19, p. 117)
C. Roy, Editions Cercle d’Art, Zao Wou - Ki, Paris, 1992 (illustrated, cat. 19, p. 117)
C. Roy, Editions Cercle d’Art, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, 1996 (illustrated, cat. 19, p. 117)

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Lot Essay

I.M. Pei was one of the century's most influential and respected architects. Internationally renowned for his iconic glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris, he designed over 100 buildings around the world, ranging from large-scale corporate headquarters to smaller, more intimately scaled dwellings. Emerging from the Modernist tradition, Pei's work evinced an intelligent combination of the cutting-edge and the conservative. He rigorously crafted buildings remembered for their crisp forms, luminous interiors and elegant materials designed to engage and please the public. He became one of the few architects whose inventiveness and erudition appealed equally to real estate developers, corporate chairmen and museum boards. In addition to his project for the Louvre, Pei is well known for the National Gallery of Art's East Building in Washington, D.C. (1978), the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong (1989), the Miho Museum in Shigaraki, Shiga, Japan (1997), and one of his last cultural projects, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar (2008).

Integral to an understanding of I.M. Pei and his stature on the stage of international architecture is a fascinating art collection that Pei and his wife Eileen had quietly assembled during their 72-year marriage. It is a unique collection that speaks not only to the sophisticated breadth of their interests in both Eastern and Western artistic traditions, but also to the deep friendships they forged with artists in their milieu. Artists such as Barnett Newman, Jean Dubuffet, Zao Wou-Ki, Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi, many of whom epitomized the major movements of post-war and contemporary art history, and whose bold and assertive works are represented in the collection, were personal friends with whom the Peis maintained longstanding and warm relationships. As such, The Collection of Eileen and I.M. Pei is an intensely personal collaboration reflective of the couple's shared vision and brilliant insight, their artistic circle and an aesthetic sensibility that celebrated a culture of creativity.

27.3.70 stands as a testament to Zao Wou-Ki’s five-plus-decade friendship with I.M.Pei. The two met in Paris in 1951 when Zao was a young artist with a budding reputation defended by the gallerist Pierre Loeb and Pei was on a Harvard fellowship visiting France. They immediately realized that they not only shared a Chinese heritage and a passion for art, but also similar backgrounds with their fathers working as colleagues in banking in Shanghai. For over half a century, both men wouldn’t miss a single occasion to meet when Pei was in Paris or Zao in New York.

For Zao’s first solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery Zao Wou-Ki: Paintings and Drawings, 1976–80, Pei wrote the introduction to the catalogue with immense praise. Their strong friendship extended beyond socializing and into professional collaborations. Pei commissioned several works from Zao to complement his architectural projects: most notably a set of quadriptych ink panels for a central location in the main hall of the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing in 1979 and a ten-meter triptych for Raffles City in Singapore in 1986. Zao reciprocated by introducing him to Emile Biasini, France’s former Minister of Culture, who would later choose him as the architect of the Louvre glass pyramid. 27.3.70 is evidence of the bond between these two giants, who shared the same taste in aesthetics. Surely, it spoke to Pei’s sensibility.

An obscure and tumultuous sky darkens the surface. Heavy lines in brown and black recklessly overlap in an unrestrained melee. Each brushstroke is strong and vital, spreading boldly across the upper part of the canvas. Towards the middle of the composition, slightly to the right, a bright flash of light slices through the clouds and insufflates breath into the tumult. Underneath, calm has taken over the plain grey field occupying the lower part of the canvas.

The painting can be viewed as a metaphor of Zao Wou-Ki’s present life. In 1970, after having spent 12 years in France alongside Ecole de Paris fellow artists, Zao’s style has grown into confident maturity. His mastery of both the Chinese ink and European oil painting techniques has enabled him to create his very own synthesis of Eastern and Western styles epitomized during the Hurricane period. As in other works from that period, the brushwork here is grand, proud, and vigorous, moving both horizontally and vertically to convey strong motion and energy. The obscurity taking over the upper part of the composition creates an intensity similar to that of Zao Wou-Ki’s own state of mind. 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 in 1957, he also had to deal with her growing mental illness. Painted two years before her premature death, 27.3.70 crystallizes a very turbulent time with simultaneous highly euphoric bliss and intermittent states of torment. This series of conflicting emotions would come as ingredients to nurture his inspiration.

The bright colors that took over his monumental paintings in the 1960s have yielded to black, grey, ochre and white. In 1969, Zao Wou-Ki was asked by René de Solier about his favorite colors. His answer was as follows: “I love all colors. I have no favorite colors. I am sensitive, above all, to vibrations.” With this in mind, color itself bears no importance, but it is the relationship between juxtaposed colors that creates a vibration worth exploring. In 27.3.70, a rude energy throbs from the violent clashes of opposite hues. The intense contrasts between the bright area of white and dark brushstrokes give rise to a space of great depth and pulsation.

In the words of Zao Wou-Ki, spoken in 1985: “A composition must have both tension and relaxation. When everything is tense, you can't breathe. When everything is relaxed, it just becomes empty… Painting is like breathing. People must breathe. Without breathing you can't survive, and a painting too must breathe. You have to put your feelings into it, so that the painting breathes right along with you.” Zao brings a special kind of structure to the pictorial space in this work. Densely packed heavy brushwork surmounts the smooth airy lower part, creating the perplexing feeling of an upside-down configuration. The rules of gravity are reversed, shifting the spectator’s perception of space. Emptiness has turned into matter and matter into emptiness. The result is an exquisite composition with a beautiful balance of lightness and weight traversed by breath.

The opposition between solid form vs. empty space and the vertical juxtaposition between black and white call to mind a groundbreaking event that occurred a few months before 27.3.70 was completed: the landing on the moon of Apollo 11 on July 20th 1969. Immediately, images of the bright grey moon surface against a heavy black infinite ground were seen worldwide and captivated the imagination of artists. Mark Rothko painted that year a series of black on grey color blocks, which many have suggested were influenced by images of the moon.

Great artists have pushed the boundaries between figurative and abstract work. William Turner is one of the few to have captured the briefest moments of light and shadow, structuring the dynamics and spaces of his works around them, paving the way towards abstract art. Looking at 27.3.70, the spectator is instantly struck by the artist's practiced control in portraying light, shadow, and space: the area of white at the right side of the canvas pierces through ochre and black brushstrokes, creating a source of light within the canvas, similar to William Turner’s Shade and Darknessthe evening of the Deluge. It is this ability to take the oil painting techniques for depiction of real spaces derived from Western classicism and bringing them into the realm of abstract art that allowed Zao Wou-Ki to produce such grand imaginative spaces.

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