Chu Teh-chun began his "abstract composition" series in 1956, in which he gave direct expression, through points, lines, planes, and colours, to the elements of form hidden within nature. The year 1960 marked a high point in the artist's career, when he was invited to participate in the prestigious Paris School Exhibition. Composition No. 23 (Lot 1321) is a rarely seen work from this period, documenting the artist's transition from representation to abstraction in a work that embodies the finest elements of both; the work's dimensions, which are patterned after traditional Chinese vertical scrolls, make it even more unusual. Its composition too has the flavour of a Chinese landscape painting, confronting the viewer directly with views of high mountain peaks, tinged with black in the distance but sharp and precipitous in the foreground, giving the scene a fully developed foreground, middle distance, and background. Reflecting the characteristics of this creative period, Composition No. 23 also gives special prominence to the beauty of calligraphic line. Chu uses both paintbrush and palette knife to produce lines recalling the powerful cursive script of famous Song Dynasty calligrapher Zhang Xu, and the energy of their graceful, lively movement fills the canvas. The outlining of the foreground in particular displays calligraphic-style lines, wonderfully evoking dense forests, deep clouds, and steep mountain paths, and transforming the brush movements of the dotted, slanting, and pressure strokes of calligraphy into visually pleasing forms. Areas of white enliven the work and hint at mists drifting across mountain slopes, or perhaps the shifting light and shadow of rising mists. These effects help convey a sense of imposing weight and energy making this scene a kind of modern, abstract variation on works by the Northern Song painter Fan Kuan, such as Sitting Alone by a Stream (Fig. 1) or Travelers Among Mountains and Streams. Chu Teh-chun once pointed out Fan Kuan's influence on his work, admiring in particular the imposing scale and sense of lively energy in the earlier artist's work. Composition No. 23 makes clear how Chu Teh-chun both continued this tradition and also transformed it. It perfectly melds landscape elements with those of pure colour and abstraction. While the lines and blocks of colour here possess an independent beauty and structural feel of their own, at a deeper level Composition No. 23 is informed with the feel of Chinese landscape painting, its deep spaces filled with high mountains, flowing streams, and rows of jagged peaks winding into the distance. By the late 1960s, as Chu Teh-chun developed greater freedom and maturity of expression in abstract forms, he moved completely beyond the kind of representation or scene-painting that can be found in Composition No. 23. Works of this kind, therefore, with its half-hidden landscape forms, are more rarely seen, and its uniqueness and special aesthetic significance testify to an important transitional phase in Chu Teh-chun's career.
Chu's No. 275 (Lot 1320) and his Untitled No. 350 (Lot 1325) represent, respectively, the artist's aesthetic outlook and expressive modes in the mid- and late 1960s. Compositions in brown, black, and burnt umber frequently appear during this period, evoking jumbles of mountain peaks and boulders stretching over great distances, giving a prominent sense of spatial depth and distance. No. 275 clearly exemplifies these features. As Chu once again took up ink-wash painting in the 1960s and later, his oils tended toward tonal palettes of black and brown. Chu's precise application of simple inky blacks creates rich and subtle layering of the painting's visual structure. Combined with the ink-like suggestion of a variety of shades, he successfully projects within the oil medium a colouristic beauty tied to the effects of ink-the spreading haloes and variations in density and dampness on dry paper. Untitled No. 350 (Lot 1325) employs a composition similarly centered on black, while spots of bright colour in dark or light tones appear in its middle and upper portions. We also see the first hints of the "flying white" strokes that would appear in his work in the 1980s: sweeping strokes of white with a broad brush that add extra fullness, depth, and layering to the colours of the painting. Untitled No. 350 thus exhibits the beginnings of subtle changes in Chu Teh-chun's developing style, with many of the brilliant colour effects of his later work in the 1970s and 1980s traceable to this work.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Chu's expressive focus shifted away from line and toward colour and composition. He no longer limited his compositions to the somewhat square structures of the Paris School or the compositional views of Fan Kuan or other Chinese landscape painters, but instead created new, previously unimagined ways of structuring space that possessed powerful, dramatic tension. In 06.10.1974 (Lot 1322) and L'ombre s'eclaircit II (Lot 1324), colour and brushwork both seem to lead from the top to the bottom of the work, then explode upward again in surging waves, creating a startling visual impact like flashes of lightning or thunder or roaring waterfalls. In both works Chu applies his oils with "flying white" strokes whose swift, powerful energy breaks into the quiet, luminous space of the background, with a similar manifestation as that in Rembrandt's paintings (Fig. 2). The contrasts of movement and stillness, strength and softness, create visual tension within works, whose breadth suggests the reawakening of life energy within the vastness of the universe. Brilliant images surge together, searing across the canvas and rhythmically marking out the traces of time's passage. Line and colour merge, their inner life energies in turbulent conflict, drawing together or spreading apart again in an image of explosive life and birth in the universe; the viewer, too, is caught up and moves in unison with the powerful, natural rhythms of this universe. The space of Composition in Red (Lot 1323) spreads laterally across the canvas, its horizontal swathes of brilliant red and deep black mixing and flowing together, while shapes like stellar clouds in red and patches of brilliant light mingle in the middle and upper spaces of the painting. Their swirling masses seem to spread into infinity, while colours flash and explode at points of conflict within them, in a dramatic and moving composition.
The colours and brushwork of all three works, 06.10.1974, L'ombre s'eclaircit II, and Composition in Red exhibit wonderful freedom and bravado in their agile flow, along with a variety of brilliant colours, which set Chu Teh-chun's work above that of other artists of his generation. In Chu's paintings oils seem to lose their thick, viscous character and gain a new gracefulness and fluidity, and also seem to suggest the weightiness of charcoal-black ink applied with a dry brush. Each of the three works is based in a particular tonal palette, but the washes of colour within that single tonality produce a variety of visual effects corresponding to the black and white, dryness and dampness, or density and lightness of inks. In these compositions Chu replaces his earlier brushes and palette knives with wide brushes, sweeping them across broad areas, and filling the canvas with brushwork of great freedom and dexterity. The brushwork conveys a sense of movement from left to right, up or down, or even inward or outward; surging waves of colour rise and fall, leaving the impression of colours that vibrate, expand, and generate incredible visual effects. In these works and others of this same period, Chu presents us with wonderful expressions of light that is interwoven in graceful and powerful rising and falling rhythms.
Chu Teh-chun is an artist with the unique ability to range freely between two very different systems of thought-Western abstraction and the freely impressionistic style of Chinese landscape painting. Adopting elements from both Eastern and Western art, he melded them into a single aesthetic, making possible the rich implications contained in his work since it becomes a meeting point for modern abstraction and traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. To enjoy one of this artist's abstract landscapes, or his more pure and lyrical expressions of abstraction, means entering into a dialogue with the universe itself, to probe its source and the source of life's energies. At the same time, we are provided a route toward this artist's inner universe of feelings and a glimpse of his breadth of spirit.