Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
signed in Chinese, signed 'Zao' (lower right); signed and dated 'ZAO WOU-Ki 9.6.67.' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
114.1x 161.7 (44 7/8 x 63 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1967
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Private Collection, London, United Kingdom
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain. Documentation by Fran?oise Marquet, 1978 (illustrated, plate 128, p. 179).
Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, USA, 1979 (illustrated, plate 128, p. 179).

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Lot Essay

Zao Wou-Ki spent a period of 20 years in developing his own artistic style. The 1950s saw him moving from representative work to abstraction, and in the '60s, a more personal style began to mature. 09.06.67 (Lot 59) dating from 1967, displays Zao's characteristic use of line from that period. Lines that are closely knit and almost inseparable, and painted with great freedom and abandon. Beyond the suggestions of Chinese calligraphy inherent in the lines, they are the main element serving to unify different parts of the canvas while harmonizing visual contrasts.

Form and Emptiness in Juxtaposition

Most of Zao Wou-ki's works from the 1960s are painted on a very large scale, a factor that imposes special aesthetic considerations (Fig. 1). The horizontal composition of 09.06.67 is divided into upper, middle, and lower bands; pigments in the upper and lower areas have been thinned and their colours are relatively subdued. Pastel pigments are spread in broad strokes from left to right and back again, each stroke blending with the others into a dense haze that turns these upper and lower areas into an undefined space-'emptiness.' In traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings, the use of empty space was deemed very important-it could represent mountains, waters, or the sky, and could also suggest space in the abstract (Fig. 2). In the middle section of the canvas, quick, agile lines are woven together; their weight, power, and energy makes them 'solid forms,' creating a transitional zone between the top and bottom sections while highlighting the intangible spaces of the other areas. A zone of emptiness, and one of solid form; one still, the other in motion, and the two playing off of each other-together creates the majestic and imposing landscape that was the ideal in Zao Wou-ki's heart.

Chinese calligraphy defines 'solid form' and 'emptiness' even more directly: black represents solid form, and white is emptiness. Zao Wou-ki's lines have this kind of calligraphic quality; from the subtle turns and suggestions of lines in his early work, his lines evolved into an integral fusion of bold, free brushwork and compositional style. The lines in the center of 09.06.67 form a complex pattern, but never too dense or crowded. Near the left edge, Zao adds several 'flying white' brushstrokes (ink or paint strokes that partially scrape the surface); the texturing of their white pigments highlights the speed Zao's brush and adds a lively surge of movement. On the right, however, dark black pigments have been dragged across the surface, forming a small zone that seems to symbolize the powerful latent energies of the universe. The arrangement of white on the left and the black on the right follows the general movement from lighter colours to darker ones across the painting, and conveys the sense of form and emptiness arising out of each other. There is a pleasing and bracing flow of energy throughout the work, and the surging and subsiding of its dynamic, kinetic energy injects freshness and vitality into every inch of the canvas.

Nebulous Colour and Flows of Light

In addition to displaying Zao Wou-ki's ability to define space by means of line, 09.06.67 exhibits a dreamlike use of colour rarely seen in his work from this period. After his shift to complete abstraction in 1958, Zao reduced the range of his colour palette in any particular painting, while thinning his paints with large amounts of turpentine. By carefully controlling their spread and flow across the canvas, he was able to produce wonderful colour effects. The lustrous tints of deep blue-green tinged with black that spread across the upper right of this canvas are breathtaking. Viewed at close range, they possess a mysterious energy that seems to draw you into their own universe, forming a beautiful complement to the complex and densely built-up textures of the oils in the lower part of the canvas.

09.06.67 also includes the violet tones without which Isaac Newton's theory of optics would not be complete. In the course of its transitions to yellow ochre, orange ochre, and deep blue-green, this violet highlights the exquisiteness of those other colours. It further sets off the white light that seems to emerge from the center of the painting itself, providing another look at the relationship between light and colour that has come down from the Impressionists. They focused entirely on pursuing changes in light and colour, since objects must absorb and reflect light before they have any colour (Fig. 3). The light violet of the upper middle and the blue-white lower on the canvas in 09.06.67 produce the most beautiful reflections under illumination-gentle, smooth, and even, with subtle colour variations suggesting light emerging from within. Between light and shadow, Zao has created in 09.06.67 a boundless, mysterious space that seems to contain infinite possibilities.

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