Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
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Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)


Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
signed in Chinese and signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed 'ZAO WOU-KI', titled and dated '27.1.86' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 ¾ x 63 ¾ in. (200 x 162 cm.)
Painted in 1986.
Galerie Artcurial, Paris
Private collection, Europe
Anon. sale; Tajan, Paris, 21 November 2001, lot 93
Private collection, Asia
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, Beijing, 30 November 2014, lot 38
Private collection, Asia
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 3 April 2016, lot 1025
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
M. Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, fig. 59 (illustrated).
B. Noel, Zao Wou-Ki Grands formats- Au bord du visible, Paris, 2000, fig. 54 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Artcurial, Centre d'Art Plastique contemporain, Zao Wou-Ki, 1955-1988, September-November, 1988 (illustrated).
Tokyo, Ishibashi Foundation, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Zao Wou-Ki, October 2004-January 2005 (illustrated).
Further details
This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

“To stand on the top of the mountain, to walk at the bottom of the sea.” This famous saying by the Buddhist monk Yaoshan Weiyan, describes the highest state of spiritual attainment, in that for someone who has reached the zenith of the world, it takes extraordinary courage for them to set off to unknown places that no one else can reach. Zao Wou-Ki’s 1986 painting 27.01.86 is a daring and glorious canvas that captures the artist’s creative prowess during this period, as he paints with great freedom while constantly seeking to transcend himself. Standing before the nearly seven-foot tall canvas, the dramatic brushwork evokes the feeling of being submerged in the depths of the sea, or—alternatively—taken to the heights of the world. It shows the artist’s vision moving freely between the earthly realm and the boundless universe, as it captures the transcendence that is distinguishable in Zao’s work from the 1980s. By this time, he had established himself as an influential voice on the international art scene, as his unique form of abstract art had garnered widespread critical acclaim. In early 1980, he was honoured with a major retrospective of his three-decades-long career at the Grand Palais in Paris, while in 1986, his autobiography was published in countries across the world.

Despite his achievement and fame, Zao did not pause in his quest for artistic breakthroughs, continuing to develop his innovative brushwork. In 1985, he returned to his alma mater , the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, to teach, re-examining the brushwork and spatial composition found in traditional Chinese ink painting. He began to introduce these concepts into his own work, which marked the start of what has become known as his Infinite Period (1986-2008). As Professor Wang Che-Hsiong has written “After 1986, Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings seem to discard all rules and forms, and return to nature and spontaneity…At times, they are reminiscent of the work of Shitao in the way they encompass refinement, vigour, freshness and crudeness” (J. Wang, “The Model of Delicate Spiritualised Integration of Chinese and Western Cultures: The Person and the Art of Zao Wou-Ki, Master of Lyrical Abstraction”, Infinites of Zao Wou-Ki, 2017, p.26). The present work perfectly illuminates this spirited brushwork and sense of the monumental realm in Zao’s oeuvre, and of the Infinite Period in particular.

In 27.01.86, Zao uses the attributes of ink—thickness, thinness, dryness and wetness— to create a multi-dimensional structure with a great sense of breadth and depth. Like the tree of life, it grows, thrives and reaches into an infinite space. Between 1985 and 1990, the artist created several similar compositions, and among these singlepanel works, 27.01.86 is one of the largest in size and most complex in composition. Green ochre, ink grey and burnished red lines are interwoven into a massive web of ink, opening up a tremendous force field at the centre. It brings to mind the painting View from the Peak by Pan Tianshou, in which the pine trees surge beyond the composition and soar up to the sky. In 1988, Zao took this vision further in Tree of Life , a design he created for the Games of the XXIVth Olympiad in Seoul. The expression of vitality in 27.01.86 echoes this Olympic spirit that symbolized peace, unity and resilience.

Compared to the immense intensity in his work from the 1960s, Zao’s brushwork from the 1980s embodies a sense of ease and deeper touches of life. This painting also presents a departure from his fierce brushstrokes and use of central-axis composition in the 1960s. Here, the lines possess an fluid quality in how they spread and extend beyond the painting, creating an open and boundless space. It is also a mirror to Zao’s life journey and his travels between the East and West in the 1980s. Against a backdrop of clouds of rose gold, bands of dark green and blue grey intersect and evoke images of the ocean, vines, mountains and rivers in a fantastical world. A closer look at 27.01.86 sheds light on glimpses of nature depicted in vibrant brushwork. In the lower left corner, the rainstorm is rendered in delicate white strokes, white touches of white nestle between dark grey oil paints. The roaring rain, fleeting snow and melting ice converge in a onesquare- foot section in the lower left corner, while hints of green smoke and red fog stir in the upper middle section of the painting.

In the upper right section of the composition, Zao applied a unique transparent liquid above the bands of dark green, revealing an intricate interweaving of veins. The forces of nature and the seasons collide in a manifestation of Zao’s creativity. 27.01.86 exemplifies Zao’s expansive artistic language in the 1980s—a language that merges the splendors of nature and varying perspectives in an astounding expression. Here, the artist transcends the limits of the canvas, creating an infinite universe with the spatial conception in Chinese ink and his versatile brushworks. A work of great aesthetic and historical significance, 27.01.86 has been featured in several important solo exhibitions of the artist’s work, and has also included in Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China by Michael Sullivan, as testimony to Zao’s aesthetic innovation through the merging of Eastern and Western influences.

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