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Zao Wou-Ki was born in Beijing on 1 February 1920. An immensely talented student, with a passion for literature, he began to draw and paint from the age of 10. In 1935 he passed the entrance exams for the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, and in 1941 had his first exhibition in Chang-King. Throughout his life, the artist used a variety of techniques and media, including painting, lithography, illustration and stained glass.
In 1948 Wou-Ki decided to move to Paris, where he met Sam Francis, Riopelle, Soulages, Hartung, Giacometti and Vieira de Silva. In 1951, after viewing an exhibition of works by Paul Klee in Berne, the artist radically redeveloped his style, turning towards abstraction. From this period on, Wou-Ki ceased to give his works names, just signing the reverse of his pieces with their date of production. The French journalist Claude described Wou-Ki as: “A great painter, whose work contributes to around ten significant centuries of Chinese artistic production, and who is one of the West’s finest modern painters.”
Between 1957 and 1959, the artist travelled the world: living in New York, the same city in which his brother resided, he met artists including Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb and William Baziotes — members of the New York School with whom he became friends. Travelling with Pierre and Colette Soulages, the artist visited museums in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., before visiting Tokyo and Hong Kong. It was in the latter, in 1957, that Wou-Ki met Chan May Kan, who would become his second wife.
In 1957, during a brief return visit to Paris, Wou-Ki met with the American art dealer Samuel Kootz, whom he had met previously in New York. Kootz came to visit Wou-Ki’s studio and gave him a contract: the artist went on to exhibit at Kootz’s gallery until 1967. In 1980 he was appointed Professor of Mural Painting at Paris’s École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, and in 1981 a large retrospective of his works was presented in the city’s National Galleries of the Grand Palais. It was not until 1983 that the artist gained recognition in China, when he exhibited at the National Museum of China.
Contact with Western artists increasingly led Wou-Ki towards lyrical abstraction, and, later, Informalism and gestural abstraction. The artist commented: “Picasso taught me how to draw like Picasso, but Cézanne taught me to look at Chinese nature.”
Wou-Ki died on 9 April 2013 in Nyon, having moved to Switzerland. Conflict subsequently broke out between his son, Jia-Ling Zhao, and his last wife, Françoise Marquet. The latter created the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation in Geneva to promote her husband’s work.
The artist has been the subject of the highest number of exhibitions in France, followed by the United States, Germany, Taiwan, and China, his country of origin. He has been most frequently exhibited in Lin & Lin Gallery (Taiwan), Marlborough Gallery (United States), Simon Blais (Canada), J. Bastien-Art (Belgium), and the Musée Fabre (France). Exhibitons of Wou-Ki’s works have been presented alongside pieces by artist Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Antoni Tàpies, Pierre Alechinsky and Pablo Picasso.
Works by the artist have been predominantly exhibited in galleries, as part of group exhibitions.
At auction, works by Zao Wou-Ki have realised total sales figures of almost $520 million, with an average price of $143,000.
Amongst his highest-selling works is Abstraction (1958), which realised the artist’s record when it was sold for $12.441 million (hammer price) during an auction at Sotheby’s Beijing. Following this is the painting 15.01.82, sold for $9.675 million (hammer price) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2013. During the same sale, painting 16.5.66 (1966) found a buyer for $9 million.
Whilst editions by the artist represent the greatest quantity of lots sold at public auction (66%) with over 2,400 lots sold, at $3,900 their average hammer price means the medium only represents a small portion of their total sales figures. 95% of the artist’s total sales figures have been realised through auctions of paintings: 758 lots have been sold at auction, gaining an average price of $650,000. Sales of 439 drawings have realised average sales of $40,000, representing 3% of the artist’s total sales figures, whilst 20 ceramic pieces have been sold for an average cost of $26,000.
Over the last ten years, both the number of the artist’s works offered for sale at auction and the price of his works has increased significantly, as indicated in the graphs. The artist’s death appeared to prompt a rise in demand for his works, which saw a corresponding rise in their value — a trend evinced by the artist’s three highest sales in 2013.
Sales of the artist’s works have predominantly taken place in France, the artist’s adoptive home. Outside of France, auctions have principally taken place in Asia, Taiwan and Hong Kong, with China accounting for the greatest quantity of the artist’s sales by value (44%).
Whilst sales of Wou-Ki’s works have been held in auction houses across the world, the high cost of his pieces means that the majority of sales have taken place at major houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
It is also worth noticing the relatively low unsold rate for works by Zao Wou-Ki, at 11%.
Despite a recent increase in the cost of the artist’s works, this unsold rate has remained relatively stable in recent years.
Whilst the entirety of the artist’s periods of production are valuable on the market, pieces created during the 1970s have proved to be less popular than those realised between the 1950s and 60s, along with those produced at the beginning of the 1980s.