Wu Guanzhong's art receives an accurate assessment in the 1998 essay, "The Painting of Wu Guanzhong," by noted critic Professor James Cahill and Professor Hsing Yuan Tsao: "Wu Guanzhong's art is not in itself especially difficult to understand, for anyone familiar with the difficult progress of art and society in twentieth century China. His works are full of the features most characteristic of Chinese art of this century, features deriving from the meeting and interaction of western and eastern art. As China confronts the rest of the world, her long and rich traditions can sustain her artists, but can also be a heavy burden on their backs. For them, it has been a period of transition: straining, pausing to ponder, and rising with new force. Aware of standing before the whole twentieth-century world, China's artists must address the problem of how to continue in their own tradition while learning from foreign ones, how to fuse Western and Eastern art into some kind of unity. Among these artists Wu Guanzhong stands out as one of the leaders. He himself exemplifies the unceasing distress and constant searching of recent Chinese painting, and his art is a crystallization of that distress and searching."
In 1979, Wu published Formal Beauty of Paintings, in which he addressed, "in formal art, besides what to express, how to express it is indeed the major issue that has been painstakingly explored by numerous artists and also a clear benchmark for art history." For Wu Guanzhong, oil as a medium is good at expressing the ever-changing quality of nature, but their rich textures fail to capture the Eastern grace and charm delivered by smooth water ink. Wu was not content with the ink lines that resemble paper-cut silhouettes found in the paintings of ancient masters such as Shi Tao and Ba Da Shan Ren and aimed for a breakthrough. Later on, in his article of "On Abstract Aesthetics", Wu expounds the idea of "abstract beauty being the core of formal beauty". His intention was to rethink the traditional notions of Eastern and Western art, and to promote the union of the two traditions through a fusion of their virtues. The pursuit for abstract aesthetics is not a major milestone in the discussion of abstract and formal beauty in Chinese modern art but, significantly, formulated by the artist himself.
Painting of pure abstraction is forever at risk of seeming insubstantial, and the reason that Wu's paintings are so well received is because his are endowed with an Oriental vision unique to the artist. "Vision" is a term which has been clearly explained in 1936 by Tsung Bai-hua, a scholar of aesthetics, in The Making of Chinese Artistic Vision. He thinks that seeing is the union of nature and sentiments, the blending of objective natural substances and subjective sentiments of life, i.e., a union of feelings and substances. Landscape is the main subject of Wu's work. They comprise of natural sceneries depicting mainly animals, plants, and human activities in Chinese towns and villages or exotic lands. The glorification of land and nature is undoubtedly inherited from the ancient Chinese philosophy of life, which regards the universe and the world as a dynamic living entity. But Wu's works contain messages of life that are beyond the limits of time and space and transcend into a spiritual experience. Created from 1980 to 1990, the Singing of Swallows (Lot 1319), Reflections (Lot 1320), Secondhand Book Stall (Lot 1318) and Zhou Village (Lot 1321) featured here perfectly illustrate Wu's vision of life and humanistic sentiments expressed through the mature style and multiple media.
Dubbed the "Father of Modern Painting", Cezanne declined to capture meticulous details but focused on simplified and stylized objects. In Singing of Swallows, Wu is able to display succinctness in form using large blocks of colours to separate the sky, black tiles, white walls and the silvery walls at the foreground to produce a vivid sense of formal beauty, of lines and surfaces. Artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) mentioned that quadrilaterals are the form of modernity. The echoing quadrilaterals of the houses and windows in Singing of Swallows are reminiscent of Suprematist concepts. Malevich's representative work, Suprematist Composition: White on White (Fig.1), created in 1918, portrays tilted white quadrilaterals in different white tones that separate themselves from the background and each other, creating an intriguing spatial change. Furthermore, the boundaries of the squares are not absolutely clear: the irregular brushstrokes and textures express the realistic sense of weight of the geometric forms. Wu similarly makes use of minimal addition and reduction of cool and warm hues to re-structure geometric forms, where the balance of denseness and sparseness, emptiness and fullness give full play to the ancient Chinese principle of composition. Dong Qichang says, "Use both of emptiness and fullness. But if sparse, it has no depth; if dense, no rhythms. The key is to judge the emptiness and fullness with ideas; the paintings will then be wonderful." This is the best description of Wu's paintings.
The pure and simple picture of Singing of Swallows primarily uses black, white and grey tones deriving from the "five hues of ink" of the Chinese ink paintings. The swallows resting on electrical wires in the above are chattering, adding a natural enjoyment to the serenity, and highlighting the vision of endless life, reflected by the contrast of emptiness and fullness, serenity and liveliness, and black and white. In his article, Xiong Bingming the artist praises Wu as a "painter of fortunate paintings". But Wu said, "No, the paintings on Jiangnan pastel-white walls not only capture the beauty but also the bitterness, sadness and nostalgia. I have been greatly impressed by the vision of "underneath the old wearing sky that lies closely and distantly the few desolate deserted villages" described in Lu Xun's Home Town." Not only can we find rational interpretation of formal beauty in Wu's work, but also deeply feel the enjoyments of glorification of life, and the deep attachments to the hometown.
Also created in 1990, Reflections blends Wu's visual elements of forms, colors, dots, lines and surfaces together, resulting in a more complex composition. The lines of branches on the left extending horizontally have broken the tiny circular pond. Through the reflection on the water surface, the viewer's gaze returns to the above. Furthermore, the interlocking lines of the foliage enrich the visual contrast with the circular banks of the lake. Incorporating simple and static geometric layout, the converging and dispersing dots, the dynamic lines, the dissected surface and contrasting surfaces are filled with rhythmic beauty. Although Wu does not emphasize capturing light and shadow, or conventional three-dimensionality in the conventional, formal arrangement, the painting emits an open sense of space which seems to project into the distance. This can be said to best illustrate Wu's principles of artistic creation: "In oil paintings, I pursue a full exploration of the nature of pigments and forms. For example, the variation of color, modeling of surfaces, enriched spatial depth, and especially the multiple factors in the form of modern art. I will not damage the virtues of oil painting and will combine it with the romantic concepts and literal vision of the traditional Chinese composition, and with the amicable images beloved by the modern Chinese."
On the other hand, the "amicable images" found in Wu's work also derive from his use of folkloric colors. The vibrant colored dots in Reflections seem casual, but their arrangement produce specific rhythms against the grey background. Although the traditional literati paintings prefer subdued elegance, Wu boldly applies colors of folk costumes and domestic decors to his paintings. The Chinese folk colors have rich symbolic meanings, which imply prosperity and stability aspired by the people. For example, green stands for youth; red for luck and good fortune. This overlaps with the aesthetic preferences expressed in Chinese popular culture, different from the theories and analysis of contrasting and complementary colors of the West, and also from the quietness and serenity pursued by literati paintings. Wu abandons a simple depiction of naturalistic colors but choose the folk-inspired colors expressing the subjective sentiments to reveal the China's long history and cultural implications that have been inherited for thousand years.
The ink paintings created after the 1980s by Wu emphasizes on the use of brush. Although Secondhand Book Stall is a street scene, its focus is the old tree that occupies four-fifth of the picture. Since the artist excels in extracting abstract elements from natural substances, the interlocking branches are transformed into dynamic lines, and the new green is represented by converging and dispersing dots; as such, the serene scene is endowed with a rhythmic composition. From the distant buildings and broad river to the close-up bookstall and figures, all the elements show clever spatial divisions and compositional ties, following the artist's own prescription of "wasting not an inch of a picture". Through Wu's interpretation of formal beauty, the actual scenes reappear before our eyes to show the artist's unique vision.
Wu studied in Paris in his youth, returning to China in the spring of 1989, forty years after his departure. Secondhand Book Stall is not only the painter's youthful memory of his overseas study, but it also laments the passing of the decades. As he writes in the article of "The Paris Notes", "Forty years passed, I am getting older. Came back, I use my oriental hands and eyes to paint the old Paris-new Paris. There are much to feel about, not least to paint!" Wu was born in Jiangsu, and the Jiangnan landscape had always been a recurring subject of his paintings. From his saying of "Zhou Zhuang represents the beauty of Chinese water villages", it is not difficult to know why the artist loves the place so much.
Created in 1985, Zhou Village features hustling crowds. Next to the interlocking white tents are the white houses familiar to us. Through the semi-representational and semi-abstract color planes and lines, a new spatial illusion emerges in which the strong and vivid colors and the voids are outlined by refined lines interlocking with each other. The striking contrast and rhythms is what Wu describes as, "the beauty lies in the beauty of crowdedness and irregularity". The black tiles and windows in the distance have the function of stabilizing the picture. Wu's painting style derives from his life experience. For Wu Guanzhong, traditional art is intrinsically possessed of multiple formats and elements of modern art, and modern art only serves to reveal and accentuate the pattern of these artistic formats. In Yi Tu Chun Qiu (Record of Artistic Life) he concludes his fifty years of creative life as "Seeking for the East and West".