Details
ZAO WOU-KI
(ZHAO WUJI, French/Chinese, B. 1920)
Untitled
signed 'Wou-Ki ZAO' in Chinese & Pinyin (lower right); titled 'II.51' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
59 x 72.4 cm. (23 3/4 x 28 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1951
Provenance
The Contemporaries Sculpture and Graphic Art, New York, USA
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1956

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Lot Essay

Reading is too rigid; you will have to follow the one and the only path without the freedom to wander around. On the contrary, paintings provide an all-encompassing view in which you can turn left or turn right as you wish. You may choose the path with no constraints, there is nothing can stop you.
Zao Wou-ki

In the beginning of the 1950s, Zao Wou-ki began to gradually simplify the realistic appearance of visible objects on his canvases. The individuality of these subjects becomes vague as they reshape themselves into suggestive combinations of lines. In this Untitled (Lot 4), painted in 1951, the lively grass-green background contrasts with the dark tone that dominated works from this period, revealing a genuine and primitive flavor of the East. Zao focuses on extensions of the composition and layout to grasp the consistency of the pictorial atmosphere. Instead of a single-point perspective, he places shapes together through a type of combined panorama, which creates a sense of broad and extended space. Lines become the predominant language ruling the pictorial space; they expand and spread in structure, shaping the visual flow of the work. In Zao's work, the lines themselves have little substantive reference except for their role as an expression of the artist's current inner state. Therefore, the lines acquire an abstract character, documenting the action of the artist. They enable the viewers to follow the paths in the canvas, empathetically wandering in this idyllic scene composed of lines, featuring temporality and dynamism.
Art, for Paul Klee, was not a direct reproduction of what the eye sees; he employed a conceptualized expression of forms and shapes that in fact was influenced by Chinese traditions in symbolism. In the works of Paul Klee, Zao Wou-ki was able to find something he had long sensed inside him, something that was very difficult to define. It was like a glimpse of something leading towards the pictorial scenes of an inner world. Paul Klee's works are fundamental in Zao Wou-ki's fervent search of the essence in paintings. For Zao Wou-ki, Western art proves to be a critical influence in his career, opening up his search for harmony and poetry in paintings as well as leading him on his pursuit of abstraction. Interestingly, Zao Wou-ki's exposure to Western paintings is due to a Western artist who had fallen in love with Chinese art. More importantly, while deviating from Western style back to the Eastern, Zao gained a greater awareness of his own root and began to incorporate elements of the Chinese painting traditions into his own abstract works. In Untitled, Zao abandons the specificity of any individual figure and employs lines to suggest the shape and form, bringing out a sense of semblance rather than the mere depiction of the appearance. This marks a further step away from figurative paintings and is a prelude to Zao's symbolic series of Oracle-Bone paintings in the mid-1950s.
Untitled embodies the artist's worldview in which all matters coexist in harmony. It creates an imagined space that is transcending and surreal. Zao himself described his work from the early 1950s this way: "I painted a lot of scenery, buildings, and aspects of nature with human and animals depicted in them. But they are not the subject of my work; they are particles that built up the whole universe, these particles and the universe are all in one." Perhaps at this stage, the achievement in "dismissing both the objective world and the self" is best reflected in Zao's works to express natural landscapes in their abstract form.
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