“I lean toward the term "nature." It makes one think of a larger universe: multiple, overlapping spaces … where the atmosphere and the breath of life can flow freely.” -Zao Wou-Ki
During the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki earnestly studied Western art. But as the decade ended, he gradually returned to his own Chinese traditions. This led to his first period of full artistic maturity in the 1960s, in which he found an ideal stance somewhere between East and West. Returning to tradition, for Zao Wou-Ki, meant succeeding to the age-old spirit of Chinese literati painting, in which the artist extracts poetic inspiration from contact with nature. Even more, as he attempted to capture nature's unique essence, he freed himself from the limitations of figurative art. In the work presented here, he unlocked new concepts of abstraction in a push to interpret reality in purely emotional terms. The full-bodied indigo hues of Zao's 09.03.65 and its free-ranging brushwork, resembling the "wild cursive style" of calligraphy, all reflect the limitless blue of the ocean. The painting puts on grand display the artist's passion as well as his confidence, both of which are woven deeply into the boundless and majestic feel of the work. 09.03.65 is the ultimate expression of Zao's series of works in blue in this "wild cursive" style. An infinite variety of changes occur within his pure, deep blue tones, elevating Zao's insights into nature to highest realm sought by the ancient literati painters: "Outwardly, take Nature as your teacher; internally, find the spirit's source."
During the post-war period, as Western artists used colour to explore the dynamics of beauty and presented their vivid, abstract structures to the world, Zao Wou-Ki increasingly became aware of the deficiencies of that artistic approach. He returned to the rich inner meanings of another tradition, one that connects the artist's inner self, nature, and the canvas, and began moving away from objective images and toward subjective mental imagery. Ultimately, pursuing the use of Western elements, in terms of abstraction and colour, only brought him closer to the fundamental realities of Chinese traditions. Painting, for Zao Wou-Ki, was not something intended to replicate reality, but a search for correspondence between the truths of the artist's inner spirit and the outer natural world. Thus, despite having left concrete depictions behind, viewers often still sense the natural universe in the suggestive imagery of his works and the feelings they inspire. 09.03.65 hews closely to the pulse of nature. We see the surge of great waves and the sky meeting the vast ocean as a giant storm moves in, perhaps in the form of a sea dragon dancing across the waves. The fleeting scene of one transient moment has been frozen on the canvas, just as in the famous Japanese Ukiyo-e painting, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa . This sense of the ocean's power, released from its depths, finds an echo in Zao Wou-Ki's imagination, and a bold and dazzling expression on the canvas.
Yves Klein once held that blue was the only colour that could take us to the spiritual realm: "All colours brings concrete forms, a material feel, and tangible thoughts; blue evokes the ocean and sky, the most abstract elements in the tangible world of nature." Blue fascinates us by seeming so close at hand, yet so distant, because the deep blue of the ocean and the azure sky above us seem forever beyond our reach. For these reasons, blue seems endlessly stimulating to the artistic imagination. From his "oracle-bone" period to his "wild cursive calligraphy" period, blue remained a colour very close to Zao Wou- Ki's heart, evolving into new derivations along with his changing style. From his 1956 Voie Lactée , to his 1964 29.09.64 and then the later 09.03.65 presented here, his manner in the use of blue developed from an elegant and meticulously controlled hue to one completely unrestrained in application. At the same time, blue became not just a background colour but took on a very conspicuous leading role, a development that reaches its culmination here in 09.03.65 . It is both the most important element of the composition and the source of its deep appeal: the lighter and darker shades of blue, intermixed with Zao's "wild" calligraphic lines, produce a unique and powerful tension. 09.03.65 represents the pinnacle and the purest expression of Zao Wou-Ki's series of works in blue, embodying his exceptional proficiency in the use of that monochrome hue.
Though dominated by a single colour, 09.03.65 fully displays Zao Wou-Ki's fine control in the oil medium. Comparing his blue oil pigments to ink perhaps lets us better understand how he could create such great variations in a single tonality. Traditionally, the Chinese spoke of how "ink has five colours," depending on how dark or light, or how wet or dry it is when applied; this, combined with the force of the brush, produces an endless variety of flavours. Zao Wou-Ki, steeped in traditional Chinese studies as a child, was very skilled in these techniques, and looking back at the sources of his own traditions in the late '50s, he began to feel that such a simple but rich mode of expression could best convey the inner world he sought. Thinning his pigments with turpentine, as inks are thinned with water, he gained fine control of the textures that could be produced with his own dark, light, thick, or diluted pigments. As he applied his diluted oil pigments broadly across the canvas, their hues gradually changed with repeated layering, becoming thicker and deeper and building up dense structures. Zhang Daqian once used similar techniques to control his inks, producing classic landscape works in his "splashed ink" style; William Turner likewise built up layers of transparent watercolour to create the changeable light and shadow in his works. On this same basis, Zao Wou-Ki here builds intertwining layers of oils that resolve into solid masses and empty spaces, in a painting uniquely conceived and rich in rhythmic movement.
Looking closely at the structure composed of inky blue brushstrokes at the centre of 09.03.65 , we discover detailed linear elements similar to those of his "oracle-bone inscription" period, but more simplified and abstract in manner. While rare in his mid-'60s works, it reflects the continuing evolution of his style and his ease in the use its elements. The broader and more powerful brushstrokes around the work's outer edges, recalling the streaky feibai style of calligraphy, also call to mind the wild cursive style of the calligrapher Huai Su. Zao's fine, meticulous handling of the centre, set within the more free, unrestrained brushwork around it, creates a gravity that pulls inward even as the work simultaneously wants to expand outward. 09.03.65 thus implies complex layers of emotion along with its thrilling dramatic effects.
Beyond the uniquely imposing and majestic aura of Zao Wou-Ki's 09.03.65 , the blue tonality of his oils also exerts a strong pull on the viewer. In Zao Wou-Ki's brushwork, in the sense of floating clouds and flowing water, or grand, tumultuous waves, he reveals to us his insights into the natural world and the depth of his feeling for it. In 09.03.65 , the pinnacle of his work in the blue series, he presents us with an intoxicating vision, one in which the artist's heart and mind achieve complete union with his colours, his canvas, and nature.