Trained in both the Chinese and European academic traditions, Zao Wou-Ki was initially inspired by Matisse and Picasso and their innovative forms of artistic expression. But, like his contemporaries the Abstract Expressionists, he later sought to free color and gesture from its traditional representative function and create a new language of artistic expression. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Zao established his status in the postwar Western art world, with many works from this period now housed in major museum and institutional collections in both Europe and the U.S. But with his works from the 1980s, he was reaching the height of his creative powers and unlocked a new perception of painting; if his earlier works were a weaving together of Chinese and Western artistic languages, his works from the 1980s take this convergence further—elevating this combination to unprecedented heights.
I paint to show the ruptures of life and, if possible, life’s vibrations themselves.”
Painted in 1981, 10.2.81 is a work which blends traditional aspects of Chinese landscape painting with the liveliness and exuberance of abstraction. Clouds of moody sfumato appear to subsume schisms of darkness that stretch out horizontally across the canvas. These lines, evoking the horizons of Western landscape painting are then interrupted by more substantial pools of pigment. These intermissions in the horizontal nature of the surface, range in tone from smoky blacks and grays, to more delicate soft mauves. Strong dominant hues sit in contrast to the delicate whites and creams that surround them, an opposition that offers up a dichotomy that forms the very heart of this work; light versus dark, and surface versus depth. It was the artist himself who once said that he wanted to show not only the ruptures of life, but also the vibrations too.
These sensations are due in part to the duality of Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic influences. An exponent of both the Western and Chinese artistic traditions, he was born and received his formal artistic education in China, but then spent much of his professional life living and working in Europe, and travelling in the U.S. He initially studied calligraphy and was accepted into the Hangzhou School of Fine Art, later the prestigious China Academy of Art, but in 1948 he moved to France where his earliest exhibitions were met with praise from Joan Miró and Picasso. Influenced by the work of artists such as Paul Klee, he began to incorporate Western ideas of abstraction into his work, a theme which only increased following visits to the United States, and his exposure to the work of the Abstract Expressionists.
Compared to the immense intensity in his work from the 1960s, Zao’s brushwork from the 1980s embodies a sense of ease, together with deeper, more intricate investigations of surface. This present work presents a departure from that fierce brushwork of earlier decades. In 10.2.81, the lines possess a fluid quality and seem to extend beyond the surface of the painting, creating and opening up a boundless sense of space. Against a backdrop of clouds of whites and creams, bands of dark gray and mauves intersect and evoke images of the ocean, mountains and rivers in a mystical world. A closer look at 10.2.81 sheds light on glimpses of nature depicted in the delicate brushwork; in the lower left corner, a sea of subtle drips and trails of liquid brushwork nestle between dark grey oil paints.
The painter’s life is a journey.”
A later work that encapsulates the merging of artistic influences in Zao’s oeuvre,10.2.81 is the culmination of a lifetime of influences. Throughout his life the artist developed an extraordinary artistic vision. One of the few global artists of his generation, he glimpsed the mystery of the universe as everything converged in his mind. The result is Zao Wou-Ki’s singular aesthetic world—one that has opened up a whole range of new possibilities within twentieth century art.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).