“I spent ten years at full speed, like driving a fast car.”
- Zao Wou-Ki
The 1960s is universally recognised as a new phase of achievement in Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic career, which 23.03.68 very successfully represents. By 1968, Zao Wou-Ki had completely transitioned to abstraction and had found his signature mode of expression. The 1960s marks a very prolific period, and out of all paintings from 1968, 17 have appeared on the auction market, this one being amongst the largest and by far representing the most iconic composition, in particular because of the high quality of the brush stroke, the intricate nuances of colour, and the balanced composition.
23.03.68 depicts a very balanced composition where areas of large washes of colour contrast with areas of dense brushstroke activity at the centre. Cloudy strokes of white frame the work, which break down into fractional elements in the centre of the work, thus unveiling a dark backdrop gradually taking over to fully burst in the lower right corner. Bright turquoise spots strategically make an appearance in the composition, which brilliantly balances out the composition, drawing the eye while providing a dynamic character to the painting. The appearance of a heavy dark corner with a contrasted relatively light central brush strokes in the composition however identifies this painting as the beginning of a transition for the artist. From then on, he gradually liberated his compositions from a centre of gravity. 23.03.68 anticipates such a shift, which will come to define his work from the 1970s onward.
Zao Wou-Ki came back from a trip to the United States in 1957 full of his encounters with the American Abstract Expressionist movement. The movement’s liberating quest to challenge the conventional rules of art making led Zao Wou-Ki to infuse his own artistic expression with more freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of medium, freedom of subject, resulting in deep and personal abstract compositions, which he fully embodied, regardless of size. This is a relatively intimate format for this period of his career, and like many works from this decade, it adopts a discrete central core, used as source of light diffusing across the composition, reminiscent of 19th century painters such as Turner, where the centre of his seascapes would be the source of the overall flow of the painting.
Both spatial composition and painting technique refer to the artist’s knowledge of classical Chinese ink painting. Bearing direct reference to calligraphy and the tradition of blue-green landscape painting, his colour palette and brush pattern provide a delicate visual rhythm. His central brushstrokes modulate into several shades with various saturations, each inclination of the brush produces shifts in technique and colouration, all of which encourage the composition to smoothen, expand and condense, turn dense and light, to dry and saturate.
This intense continuous motion is further enhanced by large sweeping strokes of white and brown framing the composition. These successive thick layers of paint explore the materiality of the paint, where nuances of colour are revealed by a subtle play on pressure of the brush, and dilution of the oil, directly referring to the practice of ink. These vast areas of pure thick oil application also suggest a variety of dimensions and depths of field, as a direct reference to the organisation of Chinese landscape paintings, where unpainted bare areas were used to reveal and complement painted elements of the landscape. As full components of the artist’s mind, they precisely suggested the essence of the painting.