Award-winning Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, in the foreword to a Zao Wou-ki exhibition in New York, wrote: "I found his paintings and lithographs very attractive. In a way they reminded me of the mystical side of Klee and also the arid landscapes of Ni-Tsan. I can say now, without any risk of exaggeration, that Zao Wou-ki is one of the greatest artists on the European Fine Arts scene." Pei's words simply and accurately reflect the judgment of the international art world towards Zao Wou-ki, whose art reflects a decade-long exploration into the artistic thought of both East and West. Zao's work has opened new pathways for Chinese art, and has at the same time claimed new and important territory in the art of the world.
Zao Wou-ki's paintings leave behind any preconceived images and erases visual barriers, bringing the viewer face-to-face with the original, primeval chaos-and its eternal serenity. Like ancient Chinese characters that reflect the images of external things and the inner movement of the heart and mind. The distances of empty space, the rhythms of life, the thoughts, desires and drives of the subconscious, all these elements are ingeniously blended into the mystical, yet natural spaces of his canvases, enlivened by the energies flowing throughout. The Chinese painting tradition aided Zao with the process of abstracting various elements he wanted to depict; and the art of East and West often drew on the same source.
Having arrived in Paris in 1948, previous exposure to great modern Western artists such as Cézanne and Matisse enabled Zao to recognize and correlate their works with his own artistic aspirations at the time. During 1949-1952, he travelled around France and other European countries; at the same time he created a new simple oil painting technique by mingling the art of line drawing and flat painting skill together, with its image tend to be symbolized and abstract. With the use of perspective scatter, the color was disassociated from the image. Printemps Clair (Lot 558) created during 1953 and 1954 was the turning point for him from depicting real objects or symbols. The outline of identifiable landscapes appeared in the drawing, as if it were composed of non-materialized symbols. We can clearly sense Zao Wou-ki's connection to the ancient literati painters of China and their depiction of an intimate dialogue with the natural world. Like an imaginary illusion, Zao successfully built a poetic spring scene for us, which also reflected the impact by Paul Klee. The artist's experiences at this time indeed enabled him the space and objectivity to reflect on Chinese art and his identity. When referring to Klee's works, he once stated "From these small signs, drawn on a ground with multiple spaces, a dazzling world emerges. So, Occidental painting, of which I had a pure example before me, made me see something that I already knew so well and that had a restrictive influence on me." In studying the works of Paul Klee, Zao found he was able re-discover and come to understand his own culture. During Zao's childhood, his grandfather drew hieroglyphic characters to show him in older to teach him writing. We can clearly see the clean lines and the precise composition in Zao's painting, just like the structure transformation of the evolvement from hieroglyphic symbols to word character. From then on, Zao gradually developed his highly spiritual and purely abstract trend, just like the art of calligraphy, inside which the abstract love and passion for writing embodied the artist's unique temperament.
After 1958, Zao Wouki no longer wrote subtitles for his paintings, instead he simply put the finish date of his work on the back of canvas. This change started from his visit to America in 1957, his exposure to the abstract paintings enabled him to turn into a much direct manner in his work to express the spirit and release the emotion. Ridding all factors outside the painting, the factors that would create an effect on the viewers' understanding; very similar to the "un-titled music", the author doesn't tell the objective reality by means of titles, what he does is let the music itself communicate feeling and convey the spiritual concept, and what he concerned most is its own beauty of format and the uniqueness of patterns. Thus, the creation pattern and concept of work 25-10-59 (Lot559) and 23-1-60 (Lot560) can be regarded as another change of Zao's artist career. Like he said, "There is no boundary between symbols and colors, I also seek solutions to the question of space depth from various combinations of colors."
The oracle-inscription-like-symbols from his work among 1956-57 has been closely combined with his flowing brushwork of the painting 25-10-59, with its movement just like a totem has been blended into the red background, which reminded viewers about the splendid art of ancient painted pottery. The artist's dancing linear shapes reflect his deep understanding of space and form, a skill that undoubtedly stemmed directly from his traditional up-bringing in China. The free forms and variations of color in Cézanne's depictions of nature helped Zao further appreciate the unique freedom of expression in traditional Chinese landscape painting."I used to admire Monet, Renoir, Modigliani, and Matisse, however, it was Cézanne who helped me to become a Chinese artist again." Zao proceeded from the viewpoint of Cézanne toward Picasso, and then to Klee, at a time when art was also proceeding from presentations of an integrated, structured, whole world and transitioning toward a phase of more random, spontaneous creation. Viewers could no longer define the content of a work based on the direct perception of visual images within it. With Zao's drawing space full of depth, viewers use various viewpoints, and perspectives to explore the different content of his work. The multiple viewpoints that existed within a single traditional Chinese painting were not entirely like the multiple viewpoints of Cubism: Cubism was still built on a foundation of true, linear perspective; it took views of a single object from multiple viewpoints and assembled them into one, as if a papier-maché model had been cut up, disassembled, and laid out on a flat space. Cubism is thus an extension of traditional linear space, even if at the same time it is a rebellion against it. Traditional Chinese landscapes, however, had a kind of distributed perspective with no single vanishing point, and they combined views of scenes that the artist had seen from different vantage points and at different times. This naturally resulted in continuity between these differing viewpoints, and for the viewer to appreciate the work as a whole, it was necessary to visually roam through the painting and appreciate the perspectives presented one by one. Viewing a work therefore became a somewhat more active process of switching between different scenes and perspectives. What the artist was concerned with was the relationship between elements within the flat spaces and the communication of feeling: the balancing of forms and empty space, a pleasing distribution of lines, the variations in the ink's density and wetness, and the feeling of a poetic atmosphere. And this is the unique oriental expression in his work of Occidental paintings.
During the 1960's, Zao transformed his symbols further, to achieve a state of pure lyrical abstraction in space and form. His works during this period mostly featured cool tonalities, heavy blacks and browns applied with intensive, forceful strokes, indicative of the emotional release of the creative process. The work 23-2-60 featured highly splashing structure by means of the combination of whites and browns. Zao's work has escaped from the restriction of external form. He further abandoned the use of highly variegated colours, which created an effect of fiercely concentrated simplicity. With a practiced, flowing brushwork purely his own, Zao expressed the depth of his feeling for China. Zao was spontaneously filling his canvases with free expressions, not tied to preset rules, but using any combinations of innovative ideas possible to reflect his inner feelings and directions. Zao gained his creative inspiration and formed his lyric abstraction style from the variety of nature. Besides the movement of oil paint for work 23-1-60, he created the "empty spirit" of nature from the Chinese philosophy with ingenious tonal variations. Just like Mark Rothko injected strong spiritual layers into his abstract paintings, you can often find two or three rectangular color blocks with softened outlines and dim radiation in his work, they lined up together weightlessly as a free idea floating on top of the canvas. This is very close to the expression of inner emotional and spirit by Traditional Chinese landscape, with a simple and pure characteristic, in order to place the viewers to the spiritual space of the painting instead of the real canvas. The displayed sacred spirit came from the Chinese Daoist philosophy. The Daoist philosophy of Zhuangzi also held great meaning for him. His name (in Mandarin, "Wu Ji", or "without extreme") was chosen by his father, a believer in Daoism. "Wu Ji" means the original universe, the famous astronomer during the Xi Han Dynasty, Zhang Heng had a perspective of infinite universe, he said "Yu means without extreme, while Zhou means extremes". ("Yu Zhou" is Mandarin, it means universe) And Zao's philosophical outlook informs his work at its very core.
Zao's comments on poetry and painting are also revealing about what he gained from his Chinese background: "In the Chinese tradition, poetry and painting were so connected that the empty spaces in paintings were often filled with verse. I loved poetry as a boy and began writing it as soon as I learned my first Chinese characters. Poetry and art are essentially the same as they both express the 'chi' of life, whether through the flick of the brush over the painting or the motions of the hand as the characters take shape on the paper. These movements cannot be reproduced because they originate with us; they reflect our hidden thoughts and the hidden thoughts of the universe. Since 1950, I've always agreed whenever a publisher or a poet wants to make my painting part of such a combination. What I like most in poetry is the feeling of freedom when every word finds its own place as part of an ordered whole; the words amble carefree, then stop, turn and take a breath. When we pause at some point in our reading, that moment is a moment of peace and beauty, just the same as the spaces in a painting." Zao reflects this point of view everywhere in his work: whether in his early representative paintings in a style akin to Klee's, or in the surging, exhilarating works of his later abstract expressionist style, the beauty of the poetic conception is always present. The term literati paintings was first used by poet Su Dongpo, describing a form that had actually been created by Wang Wei. Artists such as those two sought to create a semblance of their subjects and to strongly link their poetic subject, the style of calligraphy used in the poem, and the content of the painting. One of Wang Wei's great poems in the five-character form, "In the Mountains", reads: White rocks in blue-green fields, sparse leaves of red maple by the jade river; no rain on this mountain road, but the air dampens our clothing. Su excitedly noted how Wang Wei's poem contains a painting; looking at the painting, we see a poem. Zao Wou-ki, in his more modern way, succeeded at creating painted images and forms that similarly suggest the special atmosphere of a Chinese poem. The viewer is always free to inject himself and his imagination into the creation, making it part of his own meditations on life-precisely as art is meant to affect human beings, touching us and purifying us.