29.01.64: Zao Wou-Ki at the crossroads

Eric Chang, Head of Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong, on a masterwork by the artist who bridged East and West

Born in China in 1920, Zao Wou-Ki moved to France in 1948. In his formative years he was inspired by artists such as Matisse and Picasso, and he continued to be influenced by Western Modernism and the work of the Impressionists and Expressionists. Following his move to Paris, his paintings shifted toward abstraction.

Zao’s art has deep roots in the landscape painting tradition of China’s Song and Yuan dynasties. The vertical composition of 29.01.64  recalls 11th-century landscapes including those of Gui Xi, punctuated with high mountains and trees. While it gives full freedom to abstraction, one can detect in 29.01.64  the outlines of natural elements.

Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 29.01.64, 1964. 260 x 200 cm (102⅜ x 78¾ in). Estimate: HK$85,000,000-125,000,000. This work is offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 25 November 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

In 1957 Zao began to integrate calligraphy into his paintings, with symbols evocative of the earliest known Chinese writings on ancient bronze vessels. The calligraphy series he executed in 1964 brings the artist ‘beyond landscape painting’, says Eric Chang, Head of Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

In 29.01.64, what at first looks like a calligraphy piece reveals, on closer inspection, ‘a landscape, forest, pond or wave in the tiny details’, Chang says. It is a work that may signify different things to different viewers. ‘Readers of Chinese may ‘see the character for “love” or “longevity”,’ says Chang, ‘while non-Chinese viewers might be drawn to the natural landscape.’

Like so many of Zao’s works, 29.01.64 reflects the artist’s the ability to bridge China’s past and present, as well as Asia and the West. On 25 November, this exceptional abstract painting will be offered at Christie’s in Hong Kong as a highlight of the Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art  sale.

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