During the 20th century, unprecedented levels of political and economic change were taking place throughout the world. In China, a wave of modernization swept the country, and the tradition of literati painting, developed over the millennia, felt a tremendous impact. The doors opened to exchanges between China and the West; some artists went abroad and experiences for themselves the turbulent changes taking place in the art world. They eagerly sought to establish their own atlas to guide them in this new artistic environment.
Zao Wou-Ki, born in the first half of the 20th century, is an artistic representative of that great era. Born into an aristocratic family who collected art, he moved to Europe early in life and later traveled frequently between Europe and the US, becoming a true 'citizen of the world' as his travels took him ever farther abroad. Each new phase of life brought new creative inspiration, to be documented on canvas as he translated his experiences into a new artistic vocabulary. Painting became the vehicle through which his personal thoughts and feelings found a voice.
The 1960s developed into a golden era in his career as Zao Wou-Ki artistically grew into confident maturity. Painting with unrestrained freedom, in the brilliant color of the oil medium rather than ink, a succession of outstanding, classic works poured forth, each canvas a concentrated expression that overflowed with moods and emotions. His personal style reached an early summit, which some critics have labeled his Hurricane period in a reference to the wild, flowing style of cursive calligraphy that is given that name in Chinese. If, as is said, 'to see someone's writing is to know them,' that is certainly true of paintings as well, and if any painting is capable of summing up the first half of Zao Wou-Ki's artistic career, 17.01.66 could easily be the one to do so. All the central features of his style can be found here, in the synthesis of Chinese and Western styles and the traces of both ancient and modern elements; the painting brings them together in a single work that represents well the totality of his techniques and concepts. For all these reasons, 17.01.66 was a work much loved by Zao Wou-Ki himself during his lifetime, one which he retained in his personal collection for many years. In 1992, almost three decades after its completion, it can still be seen hanging in the background of Zao's living room in a photo taken with Ho Cheng-Kuang, publisher of Artist magazine. A further testament to the importance of this work is the broad recognition it has received in academic circles and the sheer number of its appearances in published literature and exhibitions. Now, in this Christie's spring sale, this beloved work from the artist's own collection will appear at auction for the first time. Given its significance as a kind of milestone, an exploration of 17.01.66 can tell us much about the immense possibilities of Zao Wou-Ki's unique style.
Working in a principal palette of black, white, and ochre, the artist applies his paints with a combination of dry brushstrokes, rubbing strokes, and downward-pressing strokes, along with spots of pigment, producing a space with a sense of infinite energy and potential. As in other works from his Hurricane period, the brushwork here is grand, proud, and vigorous, moving both horizontally and vertically to convey strong motion and energy. Unlike other works of this period, however, many of which emphasize calligraphic structures, the focal point here is instead Zao's creation of spatial effects rather than the use of broad calligraphic brushstrokes. What seems to be a jumble of craggy, jutting boulders occupies the left side of the work, from which dense mist and vapor emanate, while a closer view might also suggest an interweaving of fine branches. These complementary structures produce intense contrasts between forms and empty spaces, guiding the viewer into an exquisite and otherworldly realm outside of time and the mundane physical world. To trace the methods by which Zao Wou-Ki creates such special realms ultimately reveals his knowledge of both ancient and modern art and Chinese and Western elements.
Embracing Western Classicism
The artistic path on which Zao Wou-Ki set out began with Western painting techniques: at the age of 14, he was admitted into the Hangzhou National Academy of Arts, and while receiving an orthodox education in Western classical painting he was also attracted by the diverse styles of Western modernism. In 1948, at the age of 28, Zao took up residence in Paris, the capital of the Western art world, and devoted himself to studying painting. He also traveled throughout Europe, visiting all of its major museums and viewing the classic works of Western art, which influenced him greatly: space, and the contrasts of light and shadow, had always been two fundamental, constituent elements in Western painting. During the Renaissance, painters used light, shadow, and color to structure and organize their works, often implying the outcome of events portrayed in their narrative compositions. By the 19th century, these techniques had already been developed to the utmost, and artists such as William Turner then arrived to push at the boundaries between figurative and abstract work. They captured the briefest moments of light and shadow, structuring the dynamics and spaces of their works around them, making them early proponents of subjective and abstract art. Looking at 17.01.66, the viewer is instantly struck by the artist's practiced control in portraying light, shadow, and space: the large areas of white at the right of the canvas ride above an ochre background and black brushstrokes; the intense contrasts between the two gives rise to a space of clashing confrontations with great breadth and depth. It was this ability to take the oil painting techniques for depiction of real spaces, derived from Western classicism, and bring them into the realm of abstract art that allowed Zao Wou-Ki to produce such grand imaginative spaces.
The Spark of Abstract Expressionism
By 1957, Zao, deeply familiar with European art after nine years in France, set out with friend and fellow artist Pierre Soulages on what would be a one-year trip around the world, visiting first the US and then Japan and Hong Kong. As was true with many of the political and economic trends of the time, the center of the world's artistic life was gradually shifting toward New York. Artists from around the world congregated there, trying to pierce the limits of pre-war formalism, experimenting with avant-garde vocabularies even as they reflected the basic humanistic impulses of art in their explorations. Of the various schools of art in vogue at the time, Abstract Expressionism exerted a particular attraction; rather than depicting real subjects, it made use of the basic elements of points, lines, planes, and shapes in paintings that conveyed powerful subjective moods. Arriving in New York, a chance encounter led Zao Wou-Ki to become acquainted with key figures in the abstract expressionist movement—Franz Kline, Philip Guston, and Mark Rothko. Their bold and uninhibited stance toward art surprised Zao Wou-Ki and expanded his vision. He assessed their work by saying, 'Their paintings are full of freedom, freshness, and rude energy. I like that rude energy, and the way they spray their pigments across the canvas. It seems they are not burdened by the past, or beholden to any tradition.' Ultimately this would lead Zao Wou-Ki to take a fresh look at the kind of free, lyrical expression he saw in the aesthetics of China's traditional paintings. His works in this period became more abstract, with greater attention to emotional expression on the canvas as he developed a more intense and uninhibited artistic vocabulary. Examining the white areas to the right of 17.01.66, we find the brushwork in this area less intense and urgent; instead, Zao uses a broad brush to spread the pigments vertically and horizontally, and to the left and right, with little concern for the boundaries of the work or any detail. Such a style is interesting as a kind of counterpart to the sometimes stiff brushwork of Willem de Kooning, which underwent no revision. Here Zao's composition too has great freedom and even a somewhat raw kind of beauty.
The Emergence of Traditional China
Zao Wou-Ki differs from the American abstract artists, who sometimes seem engaged in pure, total emotional outpouring with little connection to the past. Zao's work embraces spatial rhythms and a kind of ordered development of concepts and ideas, which he clearly inherits from the tradition of Chinese painting and calligraphy. During the '60s, as his insight into art continued to grow, the Parisian Zao Wou-Ki gradually became aware of the rich expressiveness of Chinese painting and calligraphy and its inner meanings. His compositions began to reflect more and more Chinese elements, as if reaching toward some profoundly deep and distant point of origin. In 17.01.66, as our gaze shifts downward from the large white area, the entire composition can be seen as one of traditional Chinese painting vocabularies: closely packed, short lines in brown-black recklessly overlap, each brushstroke strong and vital, stretching vertically and horizontally. Such brushwork recalls the wild cursive calligraphy of ancient China; it brings to the entire composition a kind of expansive and yet unifying kinetic energy. Introduced to calligraphy at an early age, Zao had a familiar grasp of its techniques, and while no recognizable characters appear in his composition, his brushwork is rich in calligraphic feeling. On this oil canvas he perfectly reinterprets the essential thrust in calligraphy of abandoning exact forms in order to express their spirit. As his energetic, expansive region of white meets the dense, calligraphic brushstrokes, we find that this opposition of white and dark tones corresponds to one of the guiding principles behind traditional Chinese paintings, which is the opposition of solid forms and empty spaces, along with their unification in the painting.
An Echo of Modern Chinese Painting
In 1985, as Zao Wou-Ki returned to the Hangzhou Academy to teach, he summed up: “A composition must have both tension and relaxation. When everything is tense, you can't breathe. When everything is relaxed, it just becomes empty....Painting is like breathing. People have to breathe. Without breathing you can't survive, and a painting too has to breathe. You have to put your feelings into it, so that the painting breathes right along with you.” Zao brings a special kind of structure to the pictorial space in 17.01.66, in which the densely packed and solid feel of the left-hand side is opposed, in a distinct and appealing way, with the looser and more expansive right-hand side. The work's center of gravity is seemingly pushed toward the left; the ochre background of the upper right, however, and the smaller region of white in the upper left, nicely balance this tendency with a push in the other direction. Zao gives us shifting centers of gravity, setting them off in a unique way; the result is an exquisite composition with a beautiful balance of lightness and weight, where forms and empty spaces grow from each other. Whether one chooses to view the work from left to right, or from top to bottom, one can feel that this is certainly a canvas that 'breathes.' The contest between left and right in 17.01.66, between its real and virtual spaces, is also a kind of experiment, in modern landscape painting, with the partial or narrowed views found in traditional Chinese works. It thus echoes in an interesting way the composition of View from Little Dragon Pond, a work from roughly the same period by Pan Tianshou, who had earlier instructed Zao Wou-Ki in Chinese painting at the Hangzhou Academy.
The viewer can find so much to appreciate in 17.01.66: the sense of spatial depth derived from Western classicism; the freedom and the wild release of Western, post-war expression in the 20th century; the connected, continuous kinetic energy of the 'wild' cursive script in calligraphy; and the structure, as in Chinese painting, of real, solid forms combined with implied, virtual spaces. In 17.01.66 we move between ancient and modern, from China to the West, across the centuries and the millennia of those civilizations; we see how Zao Wou-Ki absorbed and responded to those different artistic cultures. In 17.01.66, Zao Wou-Ki lets all his experience flow onto the canvas; he takes up the mission of the 20th-century Chinese artist, to speak with his art to both East and West and to embrace both the past and modernity. 17.01.66 is a work that fully confirms his status as a representative of his era.