High expectations precede the auction of a large-scale work by Zao Wou-Ki on May 27. Presented at Phillips’ 20th-Century and Contemporary Art and Design Evening Sale in Hong Kong, the piece titled “04.01.79” measures 250 by 260 cm and represents a seminal work in the Chinese-Parisian painter’s stylistic shift from middle-period to late-period works in the 1970s.
The piece has the potential to attain a shatteringly high price. Earthen tones wash in violent motion across the canvas, with smatterings of black like ashes on a golden haze. The painting carries the dynamism of ink and the colorful abstraction of European Modernism. Regarded as a master of the 20th century, and praised by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Zao was among the first to adapt techniques in Chinese ink to western oil painting and vice versa.
Last year, Zao’s name commanded international attention by setting the record price of any oil painting by any Asian artist —$26 million for “29.01.64” at Christie’s. Another work also sold for $19.6 million last year at Christie’s, becoming Zao’s second highest-ever sale price. Although it remains to be seen whether the craze for Zao’s works carries into 2018, recent auction years indicate sizeable increases in Zao’s market value and sale volume.
Born in Beijing in 1920, artistically trained in Hangzhou, and living much of his life in Paris, Zao is celebrated for the seamless duality of Western and Eastern aesthetics in his work. Inspired by ancient Shang Dynasty oracle bone scripts as well as the New York abstract expressionists, Zao both embraced and was embraced by the East and West. In Paris, Zao became friends with contemporaries including Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti; he even famously won the admiration of the French President Jacques Chirac, who penned the preface for the catalog of a Zao retrospective in Shanghai in 1998.
Zao died in 2013 at the age of 92, leaving a legacy of work in the permanent collections of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern. As goes the perverse effect of mortality on an artist’s oeuvre, Zao’s works have accrued value substantially since his death, reaching new heights at major auction houses between 2013 and 2018.
A giant of Chinese art, Zao is one of four names that have consistently represented over 20 percent of the market share of all Asian artists since 2009. The others are Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, and Wu Guanzhong. While the market shares of Qu, Zi and Zhang all decreased between 2016 and 2017, Zao’s paintings grew in market value over the same period.
The artist’s total sale value in 2017 amounted to $142.8 million, the second highest year for the artist (after the year of his death in 2013, in which sales reached $158.9 million). Nineteen of Zao’s top 20 sales occurred between 2013 and 2017, all 20 of which reached more than $5 million in market value.
Nearly half of his works last year (45.1 percent) exceeded auction high-estimates, compared with 39.3 percent in 2016, and 28.6 percent in 2015. Before that, the percentage beating high estimates was fluctuating. Between 2011 and 2015, the percentage of works exceeding auction high-estimates had actually been decreasing. Between 2008 and 2011, the rate had been increasing.
“04.01.79” is one of Zao’s 10 largest works to be auctioned. Even so, sale price appears to be about timing as well as size. Of Zao’s other large-scale artworks, a 19- by-390 cm triptych sold for $11 million in 2013, and a 200-by-325 cm diptych sold for $4.8 million in the same year. Exactly a decade before, a 201-by-300 cm piece in 2003 sold for the relative bargain rate of $600,000.
While “04.01.79” is expected to garner a high price this May, only 0.2 percent of Zao’s works have sold for over $10 million — a handful of masterworks. Meanwhile, 9.1 percent (representing more than 200 works) have sold for between $1 million and $10 million, 18.4 percent (more than 500 works) have sold for $100,000 to $1 million, 29.3 percent (more than 800 works) were sold between $10,000 and $100,000, and the largest proportion, 43 percent (representing more than 1200 works), were sold for less than $10,000. Zao’s output over a career numbered in the thousands of works, yet his magna opera are far fewer.
With its quality, size and undeniable expression of energy, “04.01.79” has the potential to be one of Zao’s high marks at auction. Fixated on the essence of formless forces such as wind and light, Zao once said, “Space is the focus, the expansion and twisting of space. I often try to figure out, how to draw the wind? How to depict the blankness? How to capture the brightness and pureness of the light?”
As Zao’s body of works change hands time and again after the painter’s death, they carry his bold and vivacious depictions of elemental forces into the future. At Philips this May, Zao’s colorful winds continue to blow.