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  • "I want to depict movement, whether lingering in one place or flying fast as lightning. The multiple resonances of contrasting and identical colours make the canvas vibrate, allowing me to find a central, glowing point. My brush moves freely, and sometimes I use a palette knife to press the paint onto the canvas, as if I wanted the paint to penetrate the space." 
    — Zao Wou-Ki 


    Zao Wou-Ki is one of the most renowned Chinese modern artists in the world—enriched by his artistic encounters in both the East and West, he truly came to be celebrated as the embodiment of his name: ‘Wou-Ki’—the artist with ‘no limits’. Painted in 1964, the same year as 3 of Zao’s top 10 auction results, the present work stems from a highly sought-after decade of Zao’s practice known as his ’Hurricane Period’ (1959-1972), the name referencing the flowing, central-axis aesthetic that characterised his works of this time. Widely considered as the apex of his career, Zao’s style reached a new level of unrestrained, technical maturity as he masterfully harmonised the virtues of Western painting with the essence of traditional Chinese ink landscapes from the Song and Yuan Dynasties. As he would later say of this period, ‘I spent ten years at full speed, like driving a fast car.’




    Detail of the present work



    Recognised as a landmark year in his legendary oeuvre, it was in 1964 that Zao finally obtained French nationality on the request of the Minister of Culture André Malraux himself. Having made the move from China to Paris almost twenty years prior, this was a sincere conveyance of respect from his adopted country. Over the course of the decade to follow, his French gallerist Myriam Prévot, at Galerie de France, helped to show his work in key venues throughout the world, widely expanding his recognition. Among them was a major retrospective which took place the year following the present work’s execution at the Museum Folkwang in Essen—the same year as Zao’s final exhibition hosted by the prolific Kootz Gallery in New York before it closed.


    An Extraordinary Power of Expression


    Epitomising Zao’s practice as he came to the full realisation of his artistic vision during the heights of his career, 20.3.64. is a masterpiece of technique, stunningly exemplifying Zao’s inimitable draw which has captivated audiences for decades. Distinguished by its abundance of vermillion red which explodes across the canvas surface, intermixing with swathes of calligraphic, inky black from which bursts of radiant white, silvery light diffuses outwards in feathery strokes, the work is at once triumphant and imposing in its execution, evoking the power of elemental vigour and atmospheric charge.



    35 Four Darks in Red - Mark Rothko 1958 Whitney Museum Of American Art New  York City


    Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958

    Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
    © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York



    As Zao proclaimed, ‘Red is not as easy to master as it seems. If it is not handled well, the painting will come across rather boorish, like someone painting their front door.’i Tapping into the colour’s rich, historical symbolic significance which resonates across all cultures—luck in China; strength in Japan; purity in India; fury, yet also passion and love in Western countries—Zao communicates a visual authority felt by all. Differing to the works of Clyfford Still or Mark Rothko whose treatment of red focused on its intense emotion across a painted surface, Zao instead conveys a dramatic sense of spatial depth. Bringing to mind constellations of stirring gravity, the spontaneous energy from Zao’s hand holding his brush flows to the work in rich layers, as the vibrant amber-red tones dance around those rendered in dark ochre and black, imbuing 20.3.64. with yin-yang harmony in accordance with the Chinese philosophy of the five elements, portraying the infinities of our cosmos with a sensibility of rhythm and colour.




    Clyfford Still, PH-1034, 1973

    Collection of the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver

    © City and County of Denver / ARS, NY


    “I want to make the canvas come alive through contrast and the action of multiple layers of similar colours. I want to find a centre for the radiation of light.” 
    — Zao Wou-Ki 


    A Perfect Bridge between East and West


    Whilst the present work evokes an outward burst of energy with a gravitational pull that seems almost to draw the viewer into its very core, it simultaneously implodes as much as it explodes, into the intimate, inner world of the artist. Born in Beijing in 1921 and trained at the National School of Arts in Hangzhou under the tutelage of the pioneering modern Chinese painter Lin Fengmian, in the late 1940s Zao decided to move to Paris to further his artistic studies, arriving with his first wife, Lalan, in 1948. Originally planning to stay for only 2 years, the pair took up a quaint studio in the creative, bohemian district of Montparnasse, and soon became friends with artists including Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Joan Mitchell, and Sam Francis.




    Left: Rembrandt, Saskia van Uylenburgh in Profile, in Pompous Dress, circa 1642

    Collection of The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel 

    Right: Paul Klee, Gradation, Rotes Haus, 1929

    Collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art



    Across various trips to galleries and museums, Zao broadened his understanding of Western art, becoming acquainted with works by Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt and Francisco Goya—to name a few. Wanting to immerse himself more devotedly in this quest of exploration, in the early 1950s Zao even embarked upon a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, soaking up both the historical and pioneering contemporary art the countries he visited had to offer, including the work of Paul Klee, whose oeuvre Zao was particularly influenced by, as evidenced by their shared disinterest for traditional perspective. But whilst these experiences fed into Zao’s everchanging approach to abstraction, affording him with an anchoring point from which to forge his own synthesised art, his debt to the roots of his heritage was manifold and by the mid-1950s he began re-incorporating Chinese influences more confidently back into his work. Combining Eastern philosophy with Western mediums, Zao came to realise ‘everybody is bound by tradition, I am bound by two.’ i



    Attributed to Ma Yuan - Composing Poetry on a Spring Outing


    Ma Yuan, Composing Poetry on a Spring Outing, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)

    Collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City



    Entering the 1960s, Zao’s work became more vibrant and forceful, growing increasingly abstract as he moved away from the detail-heavy style that characterised his earlier work toward a bolder, more energetic mode of painting. To supplement his more intense, spontaneous way of working, Zao purchased a larger warehouse in Paris to convert into his studio, with renovations complete in 1963, a year prior to 20.3.64.’s execution. Designed as an isolated structure whereby light entered through a glass, sky-roof, to Zao, the studio became a sanctuary of sorts – a meditative space to distance himself from the outside world and pour his heart and mind onto his canvases, particularly as his beloved second-wife May was becoming increasingly ill. Working in his atelier which became ‘the only place of peace where [he] held onto hope like in the middle of a storm one grips onto a small boat inundated by water from all sides’, ii his Hurricane Period paintings reflect both this profound emotional turmoil, and Zao’s yearning for peace.