LIMITED COLOURS, UNLIMITED VISTAS
"In the Tao of painting, inkwash surpasses all; it begins with the essence of nature and completes the work of creation." said Tang Dynasty artist and poet Wang Wei in his essay, “On Landscape Paintings ,” pointing out the importance of ink in Chinese aesthetics. Because the tonality of traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings was primarily centred on black, Chinese painters for generations engaged deeply in the study of its structures and combinations, and derived from black its "six variations"—black, white, thick, thin, dry, and wet. These became the fundamental elements of ink-wash paintings, which allowed the painters, despite the limitations of colour, to create impressions of deep and vast landscapes. A visit to the 1956 Nicolas de Staël exhibition at the Musée du Petit- Palais was a watershed event for Chu Teh-Chun shortly after his arrival in Paris. The exhibition greatly inspired him to depart from the restrictions of realistic depiction and set out on a brand new path of infinite exploration. While devoted to the modernist approach of Western abstraction, Chu’s work remained closely attached to the metaphysical connotation from the Eastern landscape and ink-wash expressions.
No. 81 (Lot 27) is an early Chu Teh-Chun work from 1961. Its surging, criss-crossing black lines, some heavy and dense, others slender and graceful, bring together the sophisticated layers and expansive splash of oil in this exuberant work. Chu's handling of the brush reveals signs of strong pressure that flattens the brush against the painting's surface. In each turn of the brush, in the uptake, continuation, turning, and completion of each stroke, Chu reveals the solid calligraphy skills he began acquiring in childhood (Fig. 1). The profusion of powerful, energetic lines in inky black, running both vertically and horizontally across the pictorial space, guides the viewer’s eye through a composition whose visual focus runs along several different axes. The result is a work that from a modern perspective, in the medium of oil, recreates the vast and majestic space of Song Dynasty landscapes. With each assured brushstroke, Chu builds up forms and spaces that blend and converge, floating in an ambience where they seem on the verge of disappearing at any moment—not unlike Guo Xi’s Landscape in Early Spring (Fig. 2), whose rocks and mountains rise proudly in the midst of vast and hazy spaces.
In a rare departure from his generally more ebullient use of colour, Chu’s palette here is dominated by browns and reddish-browns in addition to its fundamental black tones. The deliberate choice to limit himself to such a basic palette is one sign of the artist’s deep affinity with Chinese ink painting and calligraphy and his outstanding skills with those forms. From a Western point of view, Chu’s brushstrokes certainly exhibit the stylistic rendition of Abstract Expressionism (Fig. 3). However, his choice of the pure simplicity of a limited colour palette shows how close he comes, in both concept and vocabulary, to the approach of Minimalism and its decision to abjure any representative images. From this point of view, Chu was able to find a kind of sustenance in returning to his cultural roots that placed him well above the fray in the contentious battle between “hot” and “cold” abstraction, and allowed him to find a very finely judged point of balance and harmony between the two.
Important and valuable works by Chu Teh-Chun from 1961. In which we can witness that, early in his career, Chu has already developed a deep attachment for the many different aspects traditional Chinese aesthetics. Each of those aspects is explored by Chu to the full extent, whether in the depth and flowing quality of his inky black tones, or the combination of strength and spontaneity of the "wild" cursive calligraphy style. In addition, Chu finds the ineffable poetry of the brush and ink techniques handed down through generations, and transforms it, in the Western medium of oil, into works of great freedom and vividness—works that stand side by side with the best produced by Western practitioners of abstract art forms in the 20th Century (Fig. 4). The difference, however, is that Chu Teh-Chun's abstract exploration roots from years of sophisticated skills in calligraphy, combined with a greater sense of cultural depth and aesthetic meaning. In these respects the art of Chu Teh-Chun has enhanced the essential spirit of abstract art in both the East and the West, opening it up to entirely new dimensions.