In Conversation with Catherine Kwai: How a Dinner with Zao Wou-Ki Set About a Love Affair with Art Informel
Catherine Kwai, Founder and Managing Director, Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery. Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
Lalan, Untitled, 1995, Mixed media on paper, 234 x 151cm. Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
Zao Wou-Ki, 08.10.84, 1984, Oil on canvas, 200 x 162cm. Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
Pierre Soulages, Peinture 130 x 97cm, 1949, 1949, Oil on canvas, 130 x 97cm. Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
Serge Poliakoff, Composition Abstraite, 1956, oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm. Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
Preview dinner of Pierre Soulages’ exhibition at the Galerie de France, Paris, 1972 From left to right: Gustave Singier, Jean Pollack, Julio Silva, Mrs Pollack, Sin-May Roy, Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Myriam Prevot-Douatte, Gildo Caputo, Reynold Arnould and Raymond Herbet (photo by André Morain). Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
Nicolas de Staël, Composition en noir et blanc (Les pavés), 1951, Oil on canvas, 50 x 100cm. Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
Georges Mathieu, Composition, 1950, Oil on plywood, 69 x 194cm. Image courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.
The current exhibition at Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery in Hong Kong features representatives of Art Informel during post-war Paris. We spoke to the mastermind behind the exhibition, Founder and Managing Director Catherine Kwai, on how a decade of research and personal friendship has led to this occasion.
TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery
For Kwai, 2020 is the year to start anew. While moving her gallery from Hong Kong’s central business district to the industrial setting of Chai Wan may at first seem an unusual choice, she saw great potential in the larger, expansive space; particularly as international travel bans in light of the global health crisis have kept local collectors staying in the city. Greeting us in Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery’s 10,000 square feet space, Kwai, convivial and charming, walked us through the gallery’s impressive inventory. In her three-decade long experience as a gallerist in Hong Kong, she has seen the Asian collector crowd grow from merely picking out art pieces as decorations, to developing a more refined taste in art and making informed purchases. “Our move has signified more opportunities for the gallery to explore new ways of exhibiting and experiencing the artists’ works,” she explains. “We see art collectors being increasingly curious about the educational value behind each art piece. And so, I’ve been utilising the bigger space here to organise small lectures and guided tours.”
“[Collectors] are slowly realising that a scattered collection, based solely on impressions, won’t tell the inspiration of a serious collection,” says Kwai. “Period, genres, styles or inspiration will lead me to understand their favourites and tastes. Sophisticated art collectors would like to build a collection of which to reflect their life experience and knowledge.”
Recently, the gallery has mounted a showcase of rare masterpieces from the Art Informel period in their newest exhibition, “Signifiants de l’informel,” featuring heavyweights by the likes of Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu, Zao Wou-Ki, Lalan, Karel Appel, Serge Poliakoff and Chu Teh-Chun, in an assemblage of pieces borrowed from collectors and from the gallery’s own collection.
Informalism, or Art Informel, was the post-war, European answer to the American counterpart of Abstract Expressionism. French critic Michel Tapié published the book Un Art Autre in 1952 to describe this rising approach to abstract painting that advocated a highly gestural and almost improvisatory technique. Most of the time, artists seek to create, almost impulsively, something that looks accidental and unexpected.
A project more than a decade in the making, the exhibition echoes two shows curated by Tapié in 1951 and 1952 respectively, occasions that brought together both European and American abstract artists. To Kwai, instead of constantly picking up on trends and following auction house frenzies, she prefers approaching the art world in her own way—establishing close relationships with artists, and choosing to represent a small, yet highly refined roster in ways that both support the artists’ creative growth and preserves their legacies.
One such approach is the publishing of detailed, and painstakingly researched monographs for Chinese artists the gallery represents, under her own Kwai Fung Art Publishing House. Kwai’s penchant for publishing stems from her own appreciation for books. “The curiosity for an artist or an attractive painting will guide me to further research and reading. I think I am somehow considered rather ‘old school’ in that matter. I like to discover different aspects of life, and reading books is the best way to do so.”
Kwai’s fascination with Art Informel traces back to a particular dinner conversation with Zao in 2007. The artist shared with Kwai his wish to compile a publication that documents his creative journey, and Kwai jumped on the chance. “I didn’t know where that courage came from, but I made him the promise.”
For the next three years, Kwai went back and forth between Paris and Hong Kong, staying with the Zao family for extended periods of time, having conversations and scavenging through their collection of old photographs. The compendium, which encompasses more than 300 works created by Zao from 1935 to 2008, was created in collaboration with publisher Flammarion and launched in French in 2009 with Chinese and English editions published in 2010.
Although a labourious process, the making of this book opened up new possibilities and discoveries for Kwai. “When compiling Zao’s monograph I did a lot of research on his past exhibitions. I saw a lot of old photos of him amongst great masters, such as Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu, Hans Hartung, etc.” This planted the seed for the exhibition shown at her gallery today. “It became important to me to understand the historical background of a movement or the evolution of an artist. Each experimental change is meaningful. Like a lot of art collectors, I am very curious and have a lot of questions.”
“I have Zao to thank for introducing me to the paintings of Nicolas de Staël.” The Russian-French artist was highly regarded by Zao, and has become one of Kwai’s favourite artists of all time. What drew her to the works of de Staël is their affinity with Eastern art and philosophies, working primarily with light, space and the elements to convey nature and reality. Throughout his tragically short yet meteoric career, his works oscillate between figurative depictions and abstraction, seeking to transcend the apparent opposition between the two. “What I like most about de Staël is how simple his compositions are, but how they allow for so much imagination. His masterful balance of bold colours and texture makes his canvases pop, yet they never seem over-the-top. His paintings aren’t usually very big but they pack a punch. His minimalistic approach is a good reminder of how little we need to achieve great things.”
For Kwai, her quest is far from complete, “I don’t think I know enough about this period yet. I find great joy in taking my time to learn about these artists. I would love to expand my own collection of pieces from the period, although these artworks have become so hard to find.” She reveals that the gallery will be unveiling more paintings by Mathieu and Lalan for their participation in Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel, which will open at Fine Art Asia later this month.
While the unpredictability of the industry still looms overhead, Kwai remains unwavering in the importance of galleries to the art market. “While aesthetic preferences are each to their own, I always tell my collectors the importance of a curated selection, because with a focus, your collection will become interesting, and able to reflect a history and influence. The development of the collection is also fascinating to tell the individual’s taste, human touch and knowledge. Good galleries are so important as they help collectors make good choices. The professionalism of a gallery guides the collector to find artwork with excellent quality and rarity. The commercial value of an art piece will come naturally with time if you collect right. This is the philosophy and vision of my gallery.”