The Chinese-born French academician and writer Francois Cheng wrote of Zao Wou-Ki’s achievement, “Chinese painting stagnated for more than a century, but that impasse looks to be drawing to an end. The long-awaited, genuine coexistence between China and the West now appears for the first time.” Christie’s is honoured to present 15.01.82 - Triptyque, a large-scale triptych by Zao Wou-Ki. This magnificent masterpiece embodies the spirit of Chinese painting in its style, and a refinement of Chinese aesthetics in its content. In merging the expressions of ink and colour, the triptych illuminates Zao’s grasp of Chinese and Western art from across the eras.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Zao established his status in the postwar Western art world with his works from the Oracle-Bone Period and the Hurricane Period. Many of his works were collected by leading museums and institutions in Europe and the US. An artist who was on constant quest for breakthrough, Zao opened up a new perception of Chinese painting with his works from the 1980s. If Zao’s works from the Oracle-bone Period and Hurricane Period reflect his interweaving of Chinese and Western artistic languages, his works from the 1980s take this convergence further—they elevate Zao’s merging of Chinese and Western cultures and aesthetics to unprecedented heights.
A WORLD OF FREE FLOWING BRUSHWORK
In 1971, Zao returned to brush-and-ink on xuan paper, and immersed himself in the medium and technique that he was trained in during his early years. Starting in 1972, Zao took many trips to China, as the artist’s connection with his homeland fostered the shift in his aesthetics. In the 1970s, the artist rediscovered the thrill of working with the brush from Chinese ink. It inspired him to express the joy of life with brush-and-ink on canvas in place of xuan paper. By the time he created 15.01.82 - Triptyque in 1982, Zao had perfected his blend of the brushwork techniques of Chinese ink painting and Western oil painting. Zao’s works from this period resound with confidence and a coalescence of artistic influences.
Painter, calligrapher and critic C.C. Wang proposed three ‘orders’ for the appreciation of paintings. Wang believed the best works should possess impeccable technique, as well as a distinctive spirit and expressivity. In addition, every painting in an artist’s oeuvre should embody an original concept and a new perspective. In his view, paintings that fulfil these criteria are considered ‘superb’ and they are of the highest order. Based on his insights from reviewing thousands of outstanding paintings, Wang pinpointed and praised the concept of ‘absence of brushstroke’ in painting. What looks like perfectly ‘natural brush-and-ink’ is capable of rendering the ‘natural appearance of things’; in Wang’s words, it is ‘the definition of outstanding brush-andink’. At the intellectual level, there are echoes between Wang’s views and the realm that Zao sought to depict in his works from the 1980s. Through the unison of abstract expression and freehand brushwork, 15.01.82 - Triptyque presents the two sides of Zao’s technique and perspective on painting, while it conveys his reverence for both Chinese and Western cultures. It is a manifestation of Zao’s unique merging of cultural influences—the artist pondered the strengths of and differences between Chinese and Western art, and instilled the inspirations into his work. The 1980s style of Zao also highlights his role as pioneer and harbinger of a new epoch in modern art and aesthetic history.
AN EXPANSIVE WORK OF MONUMENTAL SCALE
Over the course of his life, Zao painted 20 large-scale triptychs. Of these, only four—including 15.01.82 - Triptyque —have appeared at auction. The large-scale triptych has a long history in both Chinese and Western art. In traditional Chinese art, most large-scale works were created in the form of folding screens or polyptych. They portray the grandeur of nature and hint at veneration of the Tiandao (the way of heaven). In the West, the triptych became closely related to religious painting since the start of the Renaissance, with biblical stories and legends of the saints being the most popular subjects. From the 1950s to the millennium, Zao created a number of large-scale works that pay homage to significant historical figures and artists, such as Hommage a Tou-Fou, Hommage a John F. Kennedy, Hommage a Andre Malraux, and Hommage a Cezanne. Some of these works are large-scale triptychs of tremendous character, in which Zao’s reverence runs through the detail and compositions.
In Zao Wou-Ki: Autoportrait , the artist recalls the excitement he felt upon rediscovering the large-scale format; he describes his emotional journey of wrestling and reconciling with space, and finally liberating space in his art: “The large surfaces inspired me to battle with space: I had to fill this surface, bring it to life, give myself to it […] I later realized that balance is more easily attained on a large surface rather than small: the excessive availability of materials always allows to compensate here or there […] Hence, I had transitioned from sentimental painting to painting space.”
In the 1980s, Zao was in his sixties. After a long journey of searching, discovery and affirmation, Zao arrived at an ever-deeper revelation of his self in art. He also entered the phase of refinement in his artistic conception, while his work garnered extensive acclaim
in the Western art world. In the 1980s, he presented several solo exhibitions of monumental oil paintings on the invitations of prominent museums such as Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi, Belgium, and the National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg. He also received commissions to create large-scale works from commercial organizations such as the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing. In the meantime, he was appointed as a professor of mural painting at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs.
In 1981, Zao presented his first solo exhibition at the Grand Palais National Galleries in Paris, which was held concurrently with the exhibition of Nicolas de Stael. It was a sign of official recognition from the Western art world for Zao’s achievement, after the artist had lived and worked in France for more than thirty years. 15.01.82 - Triptyque was completed a few months after the closing of the exhibition, and it encapsulates Zao’s surging creativity at that moment in time. In January 1983, Zao returned to his roots in the East and presented his first solo exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei. 15.01.82 - Triptyque was one of the works featured in this exhibition of historical significance. In September of same year, Zao travelled to China on the invitation of the Chinese Minister of Culture. He exhibited in the National Museum of China in Beijing, and in his old school Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou. It was the first time Zao exhibited in his native land since 1948, and 15.01.82 - Triptyque was included in the touring exhibition. The exhibited works represented the fruits of Zao’s decades-long immersion in Chinese and Western art, and they shaped the first impression of Zao’s aesthetics among the audience in China. The year 1980 was not only the golden era in the artist’s career, but also the zenith of his merging of artistic influences and creative breakthrough.
Zao was not the only painter who produced large-sized works of immense substance in the late years. The same aesthetic development is seen in the careers of masters of Western art such as Claude Monet, Gerhard Richter, Willem de Kooning. The Water Lilies series by Monet, which was exhibited at Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris, was a series of eight large-scale paintings that the artist created between the ages of 74 and 86. Among the ten highest records of Richter and de Kooning at auction, most of them were set by the artists’ late works from the 1970s and 1980s. It is testimony to the popularity of the late works of the three artists in the market, while their seminal works from the early years and later years of their careers are recognized by both the academia and the collectors.
A SHIFTING TIME AND SPACE BETWEEN INK AND COLOUR
15.01.82 - Triptyque is one of the rare triptychs within Zao’s oeuvre featuring a yellow ochre background and an ascending composition, where vibrant splashes of colour produce an imposing vigour and atmospheric charge, evoking the raw power and magnificence of nature. The painting’s composition, brushstrokes and splashes, resembling roaring waves or driving snow, embody the concept of transcending space and time expressed in Chinese scroll paintings. Zao applied the technique of rendering light and shadow in Western painting in this work. The structure of the composition is driven by the tension between the colours—which evolve between shifting and resonant textures—creating a splendid visual impact rivalling that of Monet’s Water Lilies.
15.01.82 - Triptyque takes the viewer beyond the immersive visual experience of Impressionism. It presents a dynamic perspective unique to Chinese landscape painting that extends beyond the canvas, while a shifting time and space unfolds in the interaction between oil paints and lighting. When viewed from a distance, the painting shimmers in a yellow mist. Upon closer look, the viewer sees overlapping washes of colour drifting in and out of the atmosphere. Washes of sky blue, emerald green, bitter orange, and ivory white coalesce, revealing a golden radiance like sunlight piercing through the clouds. The visual impact created by these colours, textures and brushstrokes is not seen in Zao’s works from the 1960s and 1970s. The layered media showcases various painting techniques: the dots, splashes and smears bring to mind the Western interpretation of the nature of colour, while the diluted paints create an ink-like quality. The treatment of colour and brushwork is almost traceless like the Dao (the way of the universe), and it echoes C.C. Wang’s interpretation of brushand-ink. Based on his review of thousands of Chinese paintings, he concluded that the ‘absence of brushstroke’ is the foremost criteria for appraising the substance of brush-and-ink. A brush-and-ink work should look completely natural—there should be no trace of technique or composition, and it should be spontaneous and plain like natural processes.
15.01.82 - Triptyque stands out from other triptychs by Zao where the unique atmosphere of the monochrome painting is achieved through the use of vibrant oil paints. The colour scales are extended and transformed through the washes of colours. It immerses the viewer in an astounding visual experience that is reminiscent of the monochrome painting in modern Western art. Artists who work with monochrome paintings seek to move beyond the concept of artistic elements such as colour and form, and elevate painting to the level of metaphysical and abstract discussion. Speaking of pure colour, Yves Klein vowed to “defend and deliver it, and lead it to triumph and final glory.” Mark Rothko said of himself: “I am not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions”. They hoped the appreciation of painting would no longer be limited to the experience of viewing, but it would be elevated to the level of intuitive perception. In 15.01.82 - Triptyque, the breadth of yellow ochre soars with tremendous momentum, bringing the viewer into the artist’s inner world—painting is no longer a portrayal of the external world, but an intuitive experience that connects the viewer with artistic veneration. The art critic Francois Jacob, who was a close friend of Zao, made the following comments on Zao’s late work: “Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings are always questioning the universe, and they always try to recreate. Some of the paintings depict the furor of the origin; the ripples of energy clashing and the turbulence that occurs before the scenery take form and shape. Some others display the obstinacy of nebulas, the birth of light, the invention of water, or the first dawn. They represent the emergence of life out of the indistinct, beyond the material turbulence.”
AN INFINITE UNIVERSE BETWEEN FORM AND EMPTINESS
By the 1980s, Zao’s worldview had been refined by his experiences throughout the decades, where the artist no longer battled the canvas like he did in the 1960s. Rather, he transformed the confrontation into a new creative impetus, where he sought to liberate space and the self in his art. This spiritual transformation is reflected in the spatial arrangement in his work. In its composition, the triptych departs from the vertical or horizontal unfolding from the centre in Zao’s previous works. The imagery traverses freely across the massive canvas, like the universe glistening between rays of light and harmony. This goes back to Zao’s travels to Shanxi in the autumn of 1981. The artist and his friends visited the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, where the yellow sand surging across the rugged landscapes made the most glorious sight.
The landscapes of his homeland must have been imprinted in Zao’s mind; they permeated his aesthetic conception and fostered the birth of 15.01.82 - Triptyque the following year. There is no distinct perspective in the 15.01.82 - Triptyque —the lines in the lower section and the colours in the upper section complement each other, creating an open and ascending composition. Compared to other triptychs, 15.01.82 - Triptyque is distinctive for not presenting a point of collision in the painting. The focal point shifts between different elements of painting such as colour, brushstroke and form. They come into convergence and contrast at unexpected moments, immersing the subject into the chaos in the background before bringing it to light. It recalls the feeling of transcendence in Rare Views of Xiao Xiang by Mi Youren. This interaction between the physical and the metaphysical — or the dialogue between emptiness and form — liberates painting from the depiction of the real world. It opens up the viewer’s imagination and inner world, while it elevates art to the realm of abstraction. In illuminating the endless possibilities of space, the work echoes Ma Yuan’s painting Water Studies: Clouds Unfurling and Waves Rolling Up. Standing before 15.01.82 - Triptyque, the viewer follows the calligraphic lines at the bottom and enters into the painting, where they find themselves basked in golden sunlight. It is as if the viewer had been painted into the cosmos by the artist, where they were free to roam the boundless universe.
As it says in The Mirror of Painting: “One discerns the beauty of creation in the existence of mountains and water, and experiences immense pleasure while taking a stroll through changing weathers. It would be extremely difficult to depict the scenery, if there were no mountains, valleys and oceans in one’s mind.” A late work that encapsulates the merging of artistic influences in Zao’s oeuvre, 15.01.82 - Triptyque is a perfect illumination of the realm that Tang Hou, Yuan dynasty critic of painting and calligraphy, spoke of in his critique. The artist must have an extraordinary character and aesthetic foundation in order to develop such an exceptional vision, and create a masterpiece such as 15.01.82 - Triptyque. The artist glimpsed into the mystery of the universe as everything converged in his mind. It points to Zao’s singular aesthetic world — one that has opened up new possibilities in modern art.