NO. 167

NO. 167
signed in Chinese; signed CHU TEH-CHUN (lower right); signed in Chinese; signed, dated and titled 'CHU TEH-CHUN 1964 No. 167'
(on the reverse)
oil on canvas
65.2 x 81 cm. (25 5/8 x 31 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1964
Collection of Madame Legendre, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Private Collection, Israel (acquired from the above collection)
Anon. Sale, Christie's London 1 July 2009, Lot 193
Private Collection, Asia
This work has been submitted to Chu Ching-Chao for authentication

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Lot Essay

Tyger Tyger,
burning bright, In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies, Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?"

- William Blake, The Tyger, Songs of Experience, 1974

With its glimmering golden palate and ruby gem-like swatches that glow from within, Chu Teh-Chun's No. 167 (Lot 3) pulsates with a burning vitality and force. The bright colors clash against areas of darkness that dash across the canvas, in some areas receding gently and in others dropping into void-like holes in the composition. Chu once said, "Oil painting is about building up brushstrokes of paint, that is not the case with ink painting, because of the marvellous nature of ink, except my own subjective expressions, there are always 'heaven's working.' As I painted and painted, I naturally thought, why don't I introduce this 'heaven's working' into oil painting? From then on, I entered into an experimental, challenging and exotic realm, what I got is as the Chinese saying goes, 'there are brand new worlds.'"

Chu attended the National College of Art in Hangzhou (today known as The China National Academy of Art) and was taught by the modernist master Lin Fengmian, studying alongside peers including Zao Wou-Ki, Chao Chun-Hsiang, and Wu Guanzhong; however, it was not until events at home prompted Chu to depart for Taiwan and then later France that he began to develop his distinctive style of painting. It is no doubt that the dynamism exhibited within No. 167 is in some part due to the artist's multifaceted interests and influences, as Chu drew inspiration from both East and West, old and new, tangible and abstract. His lyrical compositions which read like visual poetry continue to captivate viewers from around the world.

After moving to Paris in 1955, Chu Teh-Chun spent two thirds of his time drawing 'things with forms' and the remainder on those without. The inspiration for his shift from the figurative to the abstract came in the spring of 1956 after he visited the Nicolas de Staël retrospective at the Musee d'Art Moderne National, Paris. He suddenly realised the 'invisible hand' confining his creativity was actually 'form', and that it was only through discarding form that the meaning of a work could be expressed to the fullest. Chu's artistic transformation from representational to abstract painting reached its height in the 1960s. The artist spent the earlier years during that decade exploring the use of dark tonalities in his compositions. Conceived as the artist was emerging from this period in 1964, Chu's simply titled No. 167, can be seen as a transitional composition. The work emotes a raw energy as the artist began to play with light once more. Of the Chu's paintings from the 1960s, No. 167 is rare in its yellow-gold dominated palette and decisive brushwork. While Chu's other paintings from this period smolder and brood, No. 167 blazes and flares, with its carnelian swatches and goldenrod hues that leap up in flame like licks against a dark and somber sky. This key transition establishes the important role that color would play in Chu's work over the ensuing decades.

In the lower register of the composition, strokes of black, some slender and others bold, dance among the fiery tones, harkening back to the Chinese calligraphy the artist had practiced in his childhood. Meanwhile in the upper reaches of the canvas, the brushwork evolves into swift and forceful blows, carving out the peaks and ridges of a craggy mountain range that recedes into the distance. Amidst all this, hues of emerald and cerulean peek out and provide some respite from the molten glow, evoking the lush and vivid tones used by Zhang Daqian in the surreal and fantastic landscapes he was creating at the time. Partially due to his failing eyesight in the late 1960s, Zhang left behind his meticulous gongbi style, instead opting to reinvent the "splashed ink" and "splashed color" style which minimized any references to human life, leaving behind only azurite blue, malachite green, bright red, and a few strokes of white against deep field of black, a magnificent, agitated surge of color.

Meanwhile the brazenly painted areas dark black and brown, particularly the void-like swath that dominates the center of canvas, belie the deep influences of Western Modernism on Chu Teh-Chun's work. There is a textural quality to the way in which he has worked the paint over the canvas's surface. In some areas, the paint is thin—applied in washes that reveal the support behind, similar to how ink was used to create form and depth in traditional Chinese painting. By 1964, however, Chu had forgone the singular vision of achieving variations in ink-wash, instead suggesting his intent to make paintings a vehicle to imply mood and atmosphere outside the confines of the canvas. The stiffened hairs of the artist's brush are evidenced in the areas which appear to have been raked over with one color while the layer below was still wet, giving these strokes a nearly sculptural quality. This development brings Chu even closer, at a metaphysical level, to early Chinese painters and the lyrical, poetic imagery they produced with their emphasis on protecting feelings while also tying his practice in with those artists such as Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, who sought to redefine the boundaries of a canvas.

At the threshold between Western abstract art and the poeticism of Chinese painting and calligraphy, extracting essence from both and integrating them into his personal style, Chu's No. 167 skillfully draws upon a universe of philosophies and ancient Chinese concepts to create sustained, turbulent imagery that mirrors one's most unsettling inner conflicts. The poet and art critic Jean-Clarence Lambert once described Chu's compositions as "unlimited space[s] filled with vitality and unceasing change, a space that is alive." To look at No. 167 is to take a step into the artist's psyche—we see his hand pulling the brush through the paint across the canvas's surface, we admire his defiance of the confines of tradition, and above all else, we can still feel Chu Teh-Chun's undeniable exuberance in the moment he created the work, even now more than half a century later.

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