Li Chung Pei Recounts Friendship Between I.M. Pei and Zao Wou-Ki

Celebrated architect I.M Pei was best known for designing beautiful buildings including the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Miho Museum in Japan. More than a renowned architect, I.M. Pei was also an enthusiastic art lover who assembled an exceptional selection of paintings, drawings, works on paper and sculpture, together with his wife. The collection will be offered through Christie’s major sales sites in New York, Hong Kong, and Paris this fall across various art categories. We invited Li Chung Pei, also known as Sandi, to talk about the art journey of his father, as well as his father's friendship with abstract master Zao Wou-Ki.

Li Chung (Sandi) Pei | Partner, PEI Architects

Li Chung Pei: My father had a fellowship to Europe in the early 1950s. I think that he met Wou-Ki at Galerie Claude Bernard, the gallery that represented Wou-Ki. I remember that gallery because I went there myself many years later. I’d like to refer Wou-Ki as my uncle, my father’s sibling because they were very close. I look back at the photographs taken in that period. You can see them smiling, sitting outdoors in nice courtyard, drinking wine. You can see there’s a wonderful, warm, almost intimate relationship between the two of them. 

Zao Wou-Ki (left) and I.M. Pei (right) were close friends

Li Chung Pei: One can imagine that both Wou-Ki and my father were immigrants from China so it must have been a recurring topic. Bringing their influence from Asia, China, and how did they integrate themselves, and how did they introduce Asian sensibility which they bring into their métier, which is art for Wou-Ki and architecture for my father.

When we are talking about the 50s and 60s, it was really the height of Abstract Expressionism. So you can see it was very fresh and fervent at that time in Europe and America. I was a teenager at the time. I remembered my parents visiting galleries, going to studios of the artists, having dinner with them. This was people in the art and architecture world were doing. It was a very exciting time.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Brown and White.|US$1m-1.5m

Franz Kline (1910-1962). Untitled | US$3m-5m

Li Chung Pei: We used to go to some of the great galleries you won’t know them – Castelli in New York, Emmerich, and Pierre Matisse who represented Miro and Wou-Ki in New York. Emmerich represented artists like Frankenthaler, Noland, Caro, Held and Pepper so I became very knowledgeable of these artists myself.

I’m sure Wou-Ki had very particular reason why he wanted my parents to have that painting (27.3.70). It's something that’s probably meant to Wou-Ki and my father. It’s a very good representation of the East and West. I feel that Wou-Ki had a strong affinity to traditional Chinese painting, which is reflected in this canvas.

Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013). 27.3.70 | HK$38m-48m

Eileen and I.M. PEI

Li Chung Pei: At the same time you can see the very strong abstract expressionist character, which is in the fluid, the active brushstroke, in the composition of the picture. He had many pictures of great quality. But this one is very atmospheric. The colours tend to dark, except for that bright area. I think my parents really like those colours. It was in a very special place in their living room. We didn’t have a very large house but the picture did occupy an important place in their home.

My father always said, “Architecture is life”. What did he mean by that? I think it does reflect people’s aspiration and value. It’s constantly responding to now. I think that he always wanted to contribute in a very positive way, towards raising people’s quality of life, experience of life, experience of his buildings.

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985). La Brouette (The Wheelbarrow)|€350,000-550,000

Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973). Man with Guitar.|US$700,000-1m

Barnett Newman (1905-1970). Untitled 4, 1950|US$7m-9m

Li Chung Pei: That’s something which I believe all his buildings manage to do. Whether they were a very small library, or an office building, a hospital or a museum. They all managed to elevate the human’s spirit to the way they were crafted and the way they reflected the need of the community. I believed that he really felt that art and architecture are one of the same, to raise the human’s spirit and to contribute something of value to people’s life.