It might not be known to those who aren’t involved in the art market, but some of the biggest collectors of Willem de Kooning are based in Asia. This is the kind of detail you’ll discover when talking to Brett Gorvy, the new principal, alongside Dominique Lévy, of Lévy Gorvy, about their collaborative debut: “Pairing the Abstract Landscapes of Willem de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki.” With artworks spanning from 1949-1981, the inaugural exhibition (open through March 11) brings together the two painters in a museum quality, comprehensive survey, an iteration of which will later travel to Christie’s new Hong Kong space in the fall.
“Knowing that we started in New York, we would be able to get very important museum loans from MoMA, the Whitney and the Hirshhorn,” explains Gorvy, who began working on this show with his Christie’s team in collaboration with Lévy two and a half years ago. “Once we achieved that, the next step of taking the show to Asia would be easier.”
The former chairman and global head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s left the auction house after 23 years on a high note: just one month prior to his November departure, Christie’s set a record with a sale of a de Kooning painting for $66.3 million, which he spearheaded. “This was how Dominique and I initially started working together and it was a nice coincidence that the actual timing of the show in New York then coincided with my decision to leave Christie’s and to join the gallery,” he says. “It wasn’t the reason why I left but it was a nice to know that one of the projects I’d been involved in, would be something I could still be a part of.”
The earliest works in the New York exhibition, Sail Cloth (1949) by de Kooning and an Untitled (1949) an oil painting by Wou-Ki, reveal evidence of draftsmanship as both of the artists had interest in calligraphic language. Not unlike the history of these two gallerists, says Lévy, “You can see that though the brushstrokes were very unique and different.” But they had two trajectories that echo each other. Zao Wou-Ki (d. 2013) had the ambition to re-engage historical Chinese landscape from a distance and moved to Paris in 1948 while de Kooning (d. 1997) traversed abstraction by scrutinizing the body, immigrating to New York from Rotterdam in 1927.
“Over the years we witnessed, that a number of the high prices paid for works by de Kooning—whether they were works from the 70s or 80s— had been bought by Asian buyers,” explains Gorvy. “It was a naturally occurring trend but something we wanted to encourage further. It’s not just about China, there’s always been a strong interest in de Kooning from Korea and Malaysia. In the same way that Asian collectors have responded to Mark Rothko and Gerhardt Richter’s abstract painting, it’s very much about large-scale abstraction and in many ways an ability to understand the sensibility, of that type of format and style. De Kooning is appealing to an audience that was already used to the tradition of abstraction in their own artists dating back centuries.”
On the heels of a stunning show of Yves Klein’s work at the FOG Design + Art Fair in San Francisco, where they also reproduced the artist’s Monotone Silence Symphony at Grace Cathedral, Lévy Gorvy’s gallery debut puts a new spin on creating curatorially rigorous shows in a commercial context. It’s a similar perspective shift to that in “Pairing the Abstract Landscapes of Willem de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki”—a fresh vantage for considering two contemporaries mining the same veins via worlds apart.