Zao Wou-Ki - Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale Hong Kong Saturday, June 1, 2024 | Phillips
  • A robust mélange of luminous colours and vigorous gesture, 25.11.81 stands as an arresting and mesmerising archetype of Zao Wou-Ki’s celebrated corpus of monumental abstract landscapes. Charged with a sense of kinetic energy and rhythmic dynamism that is almost palpable, the present work lures viewers in to closely examine and appreciate its majestic grandeur.


    As the eyes of the beholder scans across the canvas from left to right, a magnificent stretch of vast, verdant mountains begins to configurate. Masterfully utilising a linear perspective to compose 25.11.81, Zao engenders the illusion of depth across the work’s two-dimensional surface by diminishing the thickness of the forest from both ends towards the central axis of the composition. With its bold and gestural strokes of autumnal green and milky white undulating across the painting, simultaneously revealing and concealing the numerous and subtle base layers of ochre and mustard yellow, the present work is a superlative archetype of the artist’s explorations into the compositional challenges of abstraction. Remaining in the same private collection since its execution, Phillips is pleased to be entrusted with 25.11.81 this season.


    To understand Zao Wou-Ki’s journey is to discover the artist’s relentless passion and determination for creativity. It is important to note that each of his artistic periods mark a notable stage within in his development. As the eldest son of a successful banker, Zao never felt pressured to follow his father’s footsteps in taking over the family business. He had his father’s full support in pursuing what he loved most, which was art. Upon graduating from the Hangzhou National Academy of Fine Arts in 1941, Zao went on to carve out his own path in the artistic scene in the years that ensued. Deeply inspired by works of the great masters that he had only encountered in books and magazines, Zao sojourned to Paris in 1948 in hopes to broaden his understanding and exploration of the Western world. This led to a progressive epoch in the early 1950s, which was defined by his curiosity toward personal growth and the absorption of European art. Upon returning from his ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, Zao befriended other artists of his generation namely, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Joan Mitchell, and Sam Francis. Their artistic exchanges with one another created a transition between old and new worlds – allowing Zao to carve his own path in the art industry by honing his own creativity and eclectic style.


    “Everybody is bound by one tradition—I, by two.”
    — Zao Wou-Ki

    A Quest for Infinitude


    The 1980s was considered a groundbreaking period for Zao, as he held numerous exhibitions and prominent collaborations in Asian countries such as Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan. During this decade, the artist continued his explorations of cultural synthesis with a renewed sense of joy, openness, and confidence. This epoch not only instigated a fresh beginning for the artist from all the turmoil and challenges that hindered his past, but more so ignited within him a profound sense of self-discovery. More importantly, 1981 marked a significant year for Zao in terms of his artistic career. Despite being the year that the present work was executed, he also received his first major retrospective in France at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais.


    During the same year alongside Asia’s rapid growth and China reopening its borders to the rest of the world, Zao also visited Taipei as his solo exhibition was being held at the National Museum of History. Concurrently, he sought to reconnect with the Chinese ink master, Zhang Daqian, whom he had last met decades ago. Influenced by each other’s cultural and artistic exchanges, this ‘grand summit’ engendered a stylistic transition within Zao’s oeuvre, signaling the launch of his Infinite Period. This new stylistic approach was characterised by brighter tones which often emitted a luminous glow, as is present in 25.11.81. Earlier in the 1970s, Zao had returned to experimenting with oil paint, utilising the Western medium to take on the characteristics of Chinese ink. To achieve the translucency of the present work, Zao employed diluted colours onto his canvas with flowing splashed ink techniques – creating a visual sensation where both the weight and focal point of his composition are masterfully balanced along a horizontal dividing line.


    Detail of the present lot 


    Black calligraphic lines gracefully twist and tangle across the picture plane. Congregated towards the centre of the canvas, a burst of formidable strength surges from beneath, creating a sense of dialectical tension between the heavily worked passages and the ethereal void that permeates the top and lower sections of 25.11.81. Upon closer inspection, these self-referential lines evoke the textured strokes (cunfa 皴法) which were utilised in traditional Chinese painting as a way to illustrate the forms of rocks and mountains. Seemingly taking shape as ancient characters, the act of mark making bears resemblance to Zao’s earlier works, revealing traces of symbols embedded within his renowned Oracle Bone series. The present work showcases a brilliant fusion of aspects of traditional Chinese calligraphy and shanshui painting, tinged with gestural cues adapted from the artist’s Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Although almost entirely abstract, Zao’s works were heavily informed by the formal structure of traditional Chinese landscape paintings from the Song and Yuan dynasty. As seen in 25.11.81, Zao skillfully encapsulates the peaks and troughs of endless mountain ridges and injects a mystical essence through his application of soft washes, which resemble a layer of fog dispersing into the distance.



    Attributed to Qu Ding(Northern Song Dynasty), Summer Mountains, c. 1050, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
    Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family, Gift of The Dillon Fund, 1973


    Focusing on the interplay of light and space, the present painting deviates from the explosive energy of Zao’s Hurricane Period and demonstrates his arrival at a more tranquil and sublime view of the universe. Suggestive of the artist’s own self-awareness, 25.11.81 presents a delicate balance between the natural elements, harbouring moments of spontaneity and poeticism within a single canvas. This work is a testament to Zao Wou-Ki’s creativity and further captures his unrestrained spirit from the 1960’s onwards, signifying his enduring legacy and power within the international art scene.


     Collector’s Digest


    • To commemorate the artist’s remarkable artistic achievements, the China Academy of Art Museum in Hangzhou held a major retrospective, The Way Is Infinite: Centennial Retrospective Exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki from 20 September 2023 – 20 February 2024.

    • With his charm and unquestionable talent, Zao cultivated an extensive circle of friendships with fellow artists and influential cultural figures during his lifetime, and is since become one of the most important Chinese painters of his generation.

    • Widely recognised for his reconciliation of Chinese traditional and Western aesthetics, Zao has received numerous accolades in Europe and Asia, as well as being one of the only Chinese-born artists to become a member of the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris alongside Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong.

    • Known for his works in oil, watercolour and ink, Zao has been celebrated with numerous museum shows at institutions including the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; Asia Society Museum, New York, USA; and STPI, Singapore. Showcasing the artist’s diverse oeuvre, a retrospective of his print works was exhibited at The Hospice Saint-Roch Museum in Issoudun.

    • As a truly global artist and cultural synthesiser, Zao’s works can be found in over 150 public collections across 200 countries, which include the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern, amongst others. His legendary legacy continues to inspire generations of creators that come after, proving him to be of paramount importance in art history with unprecedented levels of contribution towards shaping and defining the face of contemporary art today.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, France (acquired directly from the artist)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, 1986, no. 543, p. 351 (illustrated)




signed 'Wou-Ki [in Chinese] ZAO' lower right; further signed, titled and dated 'ZAO WOU-Ki "25.11.81"' on the reverse
oil on canvas
81.2 x 100 cm. (31 7/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted on 25 November 1981, this work will be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki after the sale. This work is referenced in the archives of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen. (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki.)

Full Cataloguing

HK$7,000,000 - 10,000,000 

Sold for HK$11,945,000

Contact Specialist

Anastasia Salnikoff
Associate Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+852 2318 2014

Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale

Hong Kong Auction 1 June 2024