"Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic destiny is not only individual, it is intimately related to the becoming of pictorial tradition developing over more than thousands of years. […] For the first time, a true symbiosis between China and the West is taking place in the form of his art." – François Cheng
18.11.66 characterises with passion and vigour a decade in the artist’s career which is best defined as an intense period on both artistic and personal levels. Dominated by numerous shades of blue, from deep dark cerulean to warm turquoise, the painting offers a dramatic battle of large dark brushstrokes structuring the composition combined with overlaying and delicate splashes of brilliant white. Large ink-like washes of oil around the edges give place to a detailed intricate network of small lines expressing the turmoil of the universe. The dynamic composition is a projection of the artist's inner emotional agitation, the act of painting occurring as a salutary relief of the enclosed energy, as the artist testifies in his autobiography Self-Portrait . Zao draws the viewer into an imaginative and highly spiritual realm above our earthly reality, only accessible through the vector of abstraction and the mastery of inner forces.
The late 1950s are marked by a revelatory trip to New York with Pierre and Colette Soulages, where the artist encountered a Post- War abstract expressionist art scene, free of standard technique and compositional rules giving way to liberated movement across large surfaces. After reaching out into Western modern art in the early 1950s, with his Paul Klee-inspired figurative paintings, and a return to his Chinese heritage in the closing years of the decade, exploring the realm of abstraction with the Oracle-Bone series, Zao Wou-Ki found the right distance between China and France. He sought to purify his paintings of any narrative element, so as to better capture the feeling of wind, scent of a season, or memory of a far mountain, and lay only its impression onto the canvas. He starts exploring nature and the universe in an ambitious painting apprehending its unique essence. While materializing a new form of abstraction and pushing to its extreme the emotional interpretation of reality, Zao positions himself in a revolutionary style as the heir of a long Chinese tradition of literati painting stemming its inspiration from nature and of the European Impressionists who had triggered the movement of subjective painting in the West.
The late 1960s represented tumultuous times in the artist’s personal life, as his second wife, May, struggled with illness. Zao’s artistic production was deeply affected by these personal struggles, and his painting would sometimes help as a refuge. 18.11.66 is one of the most powerful works resulting from this period, with unique colours depicted in such a format.
The horizontal format of 18.11.66 is quite rare for this particular period of production. While its composition references European mid-19th Century paintings with a central focal point from which emerges swirling brushstrokes suggesting dynamic movement, its elongated format profoundly resonates with the Chinese tradition of horizontal handscrolls. Such scrolls reveal detailed painted scenes, as the hands of the viewer slowly unfold the painting, in an intimate setting. In this context, the painting portrays a continuous narrative, which can be picked up from any moment within the work. The viewer’s imagination is set free to roam beyond the limits of the rolled paper. In 18.11.66 , it is easy to imagine the artist’s sweeping movements beyond the frame imposed by the canvas. The focal point of white light is used here to release the artist’s inner energy, which can no longer be stopped in action. With this format, 96 x 195 cm, Zao Wou-Ki projects onto a larger scale the intimacy and imagination enclosed in traditional handscroll painting.
The painting’s composition also refers to Chinese traditional painting in its representation of space. With a focus on lighting and precise brushstroke in the center of the composition, Zao Wou-Ki reveals a landscape of the mind through a subtle representation of positive and negative space. While traditional Chinese landscape painting suggests space, dimensionality, and subjective perspective through unpainted areas, a parallel can be established with Zao’s sweeping brushstrokes framing the composition. With a play on colour, some spaces painted white in the lower part of the canvas, gradually getting darker as our eye moves upward in the composition, the artist suggests a depth of space beyond the boundaries of the canvas, and brings the attention to the “positive” space that is the core of the painting, a source of light in combustion, ready to explode and release calligraphic strokes.
It is in fact impossible to ignore the calligraphic quality of 18.11.66 . His Oracle-Bone period in the mid-1950s allowed him to accept and reconnect with his Chinese heritage. This painting thus undeniably reveals the artist’s mastery of the brushstroke as a fluid movement on the surface of the canvas. The delicacy and precision of each stroke suggest full control of the body and mind, as well as motive to convey meaning through measured pace of movement.
The artist’s life in Paris is also characterised by intense artistic exchange and influence. Paris in the mid-20th century was considered the centre of the artistic world, and Zao would spend his time exchanging passionately with other prominent artists such as Pierre Soulages, Alfred Manessier, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Helena Vieira da Silva. Innovative painting methods were being explored, new modes of expression were emerging, a different artistic language was being created. While Pierre Soulages sought to reveal colour by scraping through thick layers of black paint, Georges Mathieu was exploring oil painting as material that could be worked with various types of instruments, and Joan Mitchell would use her entire body to apply paint on canvas and create chaotic yet controlled compositions. Zao Wou-Ki would feed from this creative emulation to depict his own artistic purpose: while his brushstroke certainly refers to his formal calligraphic training, the three-dimensionality of the painted surface, the nuances of blue, green, and purple revealed through a complex juxtaposition of layers result from such artistic conversation taking place in Paris at the time.
18.11.66 perfectly captures Zao Wou-Ki’s essence where Eastern and Western tradition merge in the artist’s pioneering style. The 21st century continues to celebrate Zao Wou-Ki as a major artist, with multiple museum exhibitions and retrospectives across the United States, Europe, and Asia. This work quintessentially symbolises the artist’s highly expressive and powerful style, and it is no wonder it has been recognised as such in international exhibitions in Paris, Tokyo, and Switzerland.