ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
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ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)


ZAO WOU-KI (ZHAO WUJI, 1920-2013)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘WOU-KI’ (lower right); signed in Chinese, titled and dated ’24.1.63’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
115 x 88 cm. (45 1/4 x 34 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1963
Blair Lang Galleries, Toronto, Canada
Acquired from the above in 1963 and thence by descent to the previous owner
Anon Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 25 May 2013, lot 2
Private collection, Asia
Acquired from the above by the current owner
This work is referenced in the archive of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonne prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki).
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Lot Essay

The crackling of firecrackers sends off the old year. The spring breeze makes the wine warm for the New Year.
- New Year’s Day by Wang Anshi

“Day in, day out, I occupy myself with the challenging task of conquering space. Every sunrise brings a new battle. It gives me strength and what it takes to go on…This is how I move from painting emotions to painting space.”
- Zao Wou-ki

It is believed that 24.01.63 was painted 2 days before the Chinese New Year in 1963. This painting, distinguished by its abundance of red, sends messages of hope and wards off bad luck in the most celebratory spirit. For an artist who has been away from home for so long, the decision to travel to Paris have marked a brand new chapter in his artistic journey. One even wonders if this timely painting does not depict the New Year filled with the clamorous sounds of firecrackers and wonderful sights of red as the artist has remembered it.

In prehistoric China, the legendary Flame Emperor (Yandi) and Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) both worshipped the sun as their god. The Flame Emperor, also known as the Red Emperor, was seen as a manifestation of the sunbird; whereas the Yellow Emperor earned his name because of his association with the rising sun. Even the ethnic term “hua”, used to refer to the Chinese people, also connotes bright red. During the Zhou dynasty, the worship of fire and its corresponding colour of red was common. As a result, those who obeyed the rites of Zhou and worshipped their dynastic colour were generally referred to as the “hua ” people. In modern times, this colour has taken on an extra meaning conveying nationalistic sentiments. Li Keran’s icon series of Red over the Mountains as if the Forests are Dyed, for instance, not only sings the praises of the subliminal landscape of his motherland, but also taps into the colour’s rich cultural history and symbolic significance. Furthermore, according to the Chinese philosophy of the five elements, the convergence of red and black brings yin-yang harmony and rejuvenates our cosmos of the highest order.

It has been estimated that fewer than 15 predominantely red paintings from Zao’s Hurricance period exist. Such a vividly rendered masterpiece as 24.01.63 is therefore only all the rarer in the market. Its generous red paint applied in the boldest fashion sways across the surface and splashes out a mesmerizing scene of evening mists, like a writhing dragon lurking beneath layers of glorious waves. It is at this very moment of intense motion that heaven and Earth splits apart from each other as described in prehistoric tales; here is where the most ferocious of all sun storms hits our universe. Yet, this aweinspiring range of cosmic dynamism all originates in one place: Zao Wou-ki’s heart. No longer satified with ordinary landscape subjects, the artist strives to return to the origin of the greatest teachings and ideas whereby he reaches the center of the entire universe. Through finding the equilibrium of the dual colours, he unlocks the full potentials of his paint and brush and begins to see the logic behind all things. As a spectator, we throw ourselves right into this realm of restless energy and witness for a moment the full panoramic vision of life with no end in sight.

In the late 1950s, Zao Wou-ki embarked on his year-long trip to New York with Soulage. In the bustling metroplitan, Zao befriended the avant-garde group of Abstract Expressionists. This trans-national journey and the many resulting friendships proved to be significant to his later artistic development as they continued to feed into his works. Paintings from the 60s are characterized by how he let his brush roam free on the surface.As the artist himself has also said, “I wanted to express movements, their nagging slowness or violent outbursts. I wanted to calibrate the canvas with visual contrasts and vibrating shades of a single colour. I needed to find a radiating centre.” (Self-portrait) This “radiating centre” he was pursuing later expands further into a kaleidoscopic vision during his Hurricane period. 24.01.63, nonetheless, remains to be the only example from this time that dwells in its myterious heart of blackness. Contrary to the common approach, his treatment of this negative space pushes the yin-yang spatial harmony to the extreme, and thereby challenges our pre-existing knowledge of the macrocosm. Much like volatile sunspots bursting out energy stronger than one can possibly imagine, this painting explodes as much as implodes into perpetual flaming emotions of the artist.

Zao’s interest in rendering space using a simple monochrome palette parallels that of the German artist Joseph Albers. In Albers’ Homage to the Square, the green square in the centre is encased in varying shades of red, creating a multi-dimensional facade that resonaces with its vibrating tonal gradations. These interlocking pigmental relationships in turn guide the viewer through a most adventurous journey pertaining to the eye.

This visual journey does not stop here, however. It goes on until the spectator has arrived at the centre in which various forms of red thrust from all corners, like troops charging at their target. Guarding this very centre in solidarity is the sombre yet potent colour of dark ochre. Here, this second primary hue of the painting, interwined occassioanlly with touches of white, presents a swirling energy that activates its core. Every single turn of the stroke marks an ever deepening spational relationship with its counterpart. Together, these strokes orchestrate a symphonic interplay of colours as the artist sees it. This symphony of paint then quickly escalates into an never-ending battle between the bright red and the dark orchre. Standing in front of the painting, one is pulled immediately upstream to the beginning of time when the legendary battle between the anicent Flame and Yellow Emperors took place. Perhaps, this time-transcending battle is one that ultimately belongs to the outer space, where the entire solar system clashes against the all-powerful back hole.

These two colours in the background pulsate with endless potentials as they wait for the right moment to stir up yet another storm that will swallow everything in its path. Remarkably, at the top of the painting is a monochromatic band of reserved space. Not only does it suggest depth, it also brings out a rare moment of total silence amidst the chaos in distance. By no means delineating the boundary of depth, this band forms a crack through which one either falls deep into the centre of the Earth, or rises up to the great beyond above. This is the crack that divides heaven from Earth. This is the genesis of all battles.

Behind Zao Wou-ki’s abstract art forms are the thousand miles of rivers and mountains originating in the Song-Yuan landscape traditions. Regardless of their vast temporal distance, Zao’s 24.01.63 and Guo Xi’s Early Spring are in fact just two sides of the same coin, both governed by the same logic of verticality. In the Northern Song example, its high-distance view amplifies the monumentality of the central peak covered with heroic trees. In addition, Guo Xi’s approach to ink, as grand as it is delicate, emphasizes the changing degree of spatial depth as rendered on an essentially flat silk surface. In the same vein, Zao captures a panoramic vision that recedes deep into space. Yet, he takes another step forward; freed from figurative representations, he ventures into the abstract mode of expressions. In other words, he has successfully conjured up a space of remote distance through the agency of formal and compositional arrangement alone.

During his trip to southern Europe, the artist remarked, “I have spent a great deal of time admiring the murals in different churches. I wanted to understand how space is rendered in linear perspective and how figures are arranged.” (Self-portrait, p. 11.) In 24.01.63, the line-based treatment in the upper and lower registers, together with its radiating centre, reminds the viewer of Massacio’s Holy Trinity, a revolutionary painting that laid the groundwork for future Western compositional principles. This notion of compositional order may well be the key to grasping the charm of Zao’s painting. For his ever-changing abstract landscape revolves precisely around this nucleus of great harmony.

Besides his composition, the twentieth-century master’s calligraphic approach to painting also injects much motion as well as stillness into his pictorial world. Like a meandering stream, the traces of his brush flow across, at times stagnate, but ultimately converge toward his picture plane. The 1950s signals the beginning of the artist’s calligraphic exploration; and the following decade witnesses the apogee of its influence, as evidenced by works from the 60s. “Calligraphy,” as the artist once proclaimed, “is a self-manifestation of movement.”

Half a century has already passed since Zao Wou-ki created 24.01.63. Yet, it never ceases to enthral its viewers as they stand, pause, and contemplate in front of this tour de force today. In this respect, this ground-shattering painting has not only stood the test of time, it will also most certainly continue to sail through the rising tides of globalization just as art historians work to challenge their Eurocentric narrative in today’s fast-changing climate. Furthermore, this painting with its unabating splendour also doubles as a guiding light for us to see our position in this grand journey of time. The true master from the twentieth century has successfully translated the struggles from his engagements with the two age-old civilizations of the East and West into a unified vision of tradition and innovation. And 24.01.63, a marvellous feat in its own right, is the exemplar such a singular vision.

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