Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed, titled and inscribed 'ZAO WOU-KI 10.3.82 200 x 162' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
200 x 161.5 cm. (78 3/4 x 63 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1982
Private Collection, Europe
Jean Leymarie, Editions Cercle d'Art, Zao Wou-Ki, Paris, France, 1986 (illustrated in color, plate 237, page 292).
Fuji Television Gallery, Zao Wou-Ki, Tokyo, Japan, 1987 (illustrated in color, plate 2, unpaged).
Noel Bernard, Edition Cercle d'Art,Zao Wou-Ki, grands formats - Au bord du vi1ible, Paris, France, 2000 (illustrated in color, plate 43, unpaged).
Aix en Provence, France, Galerie de la Prévô?té, Zao Wou-Ki. Oeuvres récentes, 1986.
Tokyo, Japan, Fuji Television Gallery, Zao Wou-Ki, 1987.
Paris, France, Artcurial, Zao Wou-Ki, 1955-1988, 1988.

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Lot Essay

Zao Wou-ki's 10.03.82 (Lot 60) marks the completion of a stylistic transition: from the 1960s - when bold lines and surging, agitated blocks of color dominated his canvases - to the 1980s when his use of color-wash effects from Chinese ink painting liberated the expressive qualities of color itself. At this point, there are no distinguishable objects to serve as reference or signifier, instead color have become the crux of his work. He plays with the color layout, the matching of various tones and their application on the canvas. . Light and color, in the 1980s, became Zao Wou-ki's vocabulary for his continuing explorations. As his focus shifted entirely toward color itself, his work recalled the Color Field Painting of the Abstract Expressionist movement around 1949 and the communicative power it sought after. A comparison of the two reveals the uniqueness of Zao Wou-ki's work in his handling of color and space.

Spatial Layering in Spreading Ink

Zao Wou-ki, in fact, was fully aware of the differences between his own abstract art and that of Western artists. He once commented on what he learned from the Chinese traditions: 'I love Mi Fu's arrangement of his space, and the way Ni Yunlin (1301-1374) handled the open, uncrowded spaces of his paintings. This is where Chinese landscape paintings differ from Western oils. A lot of areas in my paintings may look empty, but oils are not like ink-wash--they don't spread that easily, so I actually spend much more time on these seemingly empty spaces than on the solid forms of my paintings. In Chinese painting, solid forms and empty spaces have a rhythm, constantly in motion as each pushes at the other, giving the pictorial space a wonderful balance between lightness and weight. This was an area where I really gained insights from our tradition. If you say my painting is different from most Western painters, it probably has to do with my concepts about how to handle space.'

Put simply, Zao Wou-ki's handling of space borrows characteristics of Chinese ink-wash paintings. Taking up ink-wash painting again in the 1970s gave him a new outlook on handling color in the oil medium. He succeeded at transferring the layering effects of spreading inks into his oil works, and discovered novel coloristic effects. In American Abstract Expressionism, color fields tended to be hard-edged and defined geometrical shapes, where saturated blocks of solid color used in these shapes were often the norm, as in the work of Robert Motherwell. Mark Rothko, however, another representative figure of the time, distanced himself from saturated, solid color with his attentiveness to subtle shifts within the original colors of his palette. But Rothko's compositions, again, mostly featured abstract rectangular shapes with sharply defined contours. By contrast, Zao Wou-ki was eager to find color, to create the 'rhythms of solid forms and empty spaces,' 'constant motion,' and 'a wonderful balance between lightness and weight.' He said, 'I want to paint what cannot be seen: the breath of life, the wind, the various forms life can take, the birth of colors, and the way they merge.'

A Collision of Hues, the Birth of Color

10.03.82 is nothing if not a field of colors being born-new colors created from collisions of others. Zao's colors in the '80s became lighter, more graceful, and gentler. In ink painting, new colors are coincidentally created by the mixing of colors the moment colored ink contacts the absorbent, unsized Xuan paper. Zao's focus, however, was not just on new colors but on blending them together, making natural transitions between them of utmost importance. He deliberately increased the proportion of solvent when mixing pigments, and when applying them, he tried to spread them as evenly as possible to leave no brush marks, creating continuous colors that flowed, permeated, and spread. Like drops of color falling into clear water, they mix gradually to form new hues. The pastel violet at the lower right of 10.03.82, along with the light blue-violet, silver-blue, and pastel blue, creates distinct layers. In the lower left, beige, chrysanthemum-bud white, and waxy white flow across the canvas. Viewing 10.03.82 is like looking down on a lake from the air as the glowing rays of the setting sun are reflected in its surface. In the upper right, an area of hibiscus violet mixes with brown-violet, sending out tendrils of deeper brown that extend toward the painting's border, almost like reflections of trees in water at the lake's edge. An area of beige opens up at the lower left, occupying nearly half the area on the canvas, while a brownish violet and grey-violet fill most of the other half. An arcing line divides the two regions, between which a transitional area forms from a complex grouping of colliding and interpenetrating colors. Along that arc, Zao makes use of pigments drawn from the same basic color group but widely varied in hue, saturation, and brightness, brushing them on in fine, thin layers. This brings changes that weave through these floating, flowing colors, such as transition from the creamy yellows of the lower canvas into spots of light grey-violet and then greyish blue. The middle to upper left of the canvas is the point where his orange and violet tones come together. Their meeting produces orange-brown and violet-brown tones that vary in their brightness, as well as a cloisonné effect. Zao further adds touches of black and white, strongly opposing colors, with Chinese ink painting applications, further enhancing spatial depth. The painting's colors seem to emanate from this region, like the flow of water in a lake or mists moving across the mountains, undergoing fine and delicate shifts as they spread. Where deeper layers of background color show through, it hints at spaces of an unknown breadth and depth, spaces that may yet undergo new changes, in a conception that evokes a poem by Li Bai: 'The land stretches to the ocean as its limit; heaven's reflection lies on the emptiness of the river.'

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