(ZHAO WUJI, B. 1920)
signed 'Wou-ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right); signed 'ZAO Wou-Ki' in Pinyin; dated '6.11.85' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
128.5 x 95 cm. (50 1/2 x 37 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1985
Acquired directly from the artist and thence by descent to the present owner
Yves Bonnefoy & Gerard de Cortanze, Zao Wou-Ki, La Difference/Enrico Navarra, Paris, France, 1998 (illustrated, p. 225).

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Lot Essay

6.11.85Recreating the Essence of Chinese Culture

In 1973 Zao Wou-ki once again took up ink painting. The absorptive quality of the xuan paper and the flowing washes of ink gradually produced changes in his oil painting style, though it would take time for a distinctly new style to emerge. By the '70s, the densely packed brushstrokes of his 1960s work had given way to broader sweeps of the brush, still reflective of an intense personal emotionality. By the 1980s, more changes were apparent; where once Zao's work featured an amazing variety of blacks, whites, and grays, in particular strongly layered grays, in the 80s Zao was applying dilute oils in combinations of warm and cool tones, which he either mediated or employed for their conflicting aspects. Zao's 1985 work 6.11.85 retains the ingenuous splashes and drips of color found in abstract expressionism, but exhibits at the same time the rich and subtly varied layering that can be seen in the haloes of spreading ink in Chinese ink paintings. 6.11.85, a concrete embodiment of Zao's artistic concepts and expressive forms at this time, represents yet another innovative step forward for this artist.

In 6.11.85, Zao divides the canvas into bold swaths of color, and while thinly applied pigments can easily seem flat or lifeless, Zao overlaps these highly transparent hues in such a way as to bring out all of their graceful, flowing character. The lighter tints in the right half of the picture space present a brightly lit and expansive space, while the purples on the left, diluted and then built up in layers, express a different kind of depth and distance than would oils applied more thickly. In the lower part of the canvas, the colors meet and blend, in a display of the fine brushwork characteristic of Zao's work in the mid-80s. This area forms a kind of clearly defined foreground, just as in traditional Chinese landscapes on vertical painting scrolls, with much the same sense of dense, enshrouding mists winding among mountain peaks. Zao's manner here calls to mind the comments on observing nature by the Song Dynasty's Guo Xi, in his treatise "On Painting," from the Lin Quan Gao Zhi ("Forests and Streams in the Lofty Manner"): "A distant mountain has no clefts; distant water has no waves; and a man at a distance has no eyes. It is not that they have none, but rather that they seem to have none." Zao's extreme simplification and his generalizing treatment of his painting subject recall the Southern Song painter Ma Yuan. Ma Yuan created exceptionally broad and deep spaces in his landscapes by directly juxtaposing foreground and extreme distance, without the interposition of a middle ground. The composition of 6.11.85, with its intense contrasts of shadow and brightness and its division of the canvas into two parts, evokes images from Tang poet Du Fu on the subject of Mt. Tai: "Here in nature is concentrated divine beauty, its north and south sides splitting dark and dawn." Beyond the concepts relating to landscape, the yin-yang relationship here and the mutual dependence of form and emptiness also show Zao Wou-ki reaching back to the traditional Daoist thought of China. The overlapping layers of semitransparent colors at the meeting of the dark and light regions are like the sky, dark on the one hand and bright on the other, at the moment the primordial universe is first divided into day and night-all things are waiting to come into being. The flow of color and the dynamics of the brushwork in 6.11.85 are brimming with vital energy and a sense that all of heaven and earth are charged with excitement. With his long years of experience as an artist and all the observations and insights it brought, Zao Wou-ki returned at last to the way of Yin and Yang. This links 6.11.85 with a fundamental mode of though stretching back to the Yi Ching, or Book of Changes; in addition, in terms of both its expressive techniques and the traditional culture that informs the work, it is a summation of much of Zao's work and his understanding of Chinese culture. In the four Zao Wou-ki works presented here, from his 2-11-59, to his 14.11.63, and 6.11.85, we can see Zao's exploration, at different levels, of certain aspects of Chinese culture. In works such as these, we see the transformations his art underwent as he explored the great theme of many Chinese artists, the union of Eastern and Western styles, and the great breakthroughs and successes he achieved along the way.

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