As Zao Wou-Ki's career advanced in the 1960s, he envisioned new and bolder conceptions and possessed the technical ability to achieve them, gradually turning to a deeper exploration of abstraction (Fig. 1). He fused the essentials of abstract style in the Western oil medium with the sense of space and the philosophical outlook of Chinese painting. However, this fusion could only achieve its deepest expression after he abandoned his earlier motifs and semi-representational images.
In 5.11.64 (Lot 23), Zao develops on his square canvas a deep and remote realm where the real and the insubstantial meet and mix, a vast world of tumultuous, shifting atmosphere. This is exactly the kind of work Zao Wou-ki was uniquely capable of producing — a depiction of the fearless and vital energies of life. Like a movement from a symphony, the interweaving play of his pigments describe the converging torrents of Yin and Yang in the world; at the same time, this work displays the ease and facility of the artist's maturity, and his great accomplishment in melding Eastern and Western aesthetics to produce such a mysterious and fantastic visual world.
Space on the canvas: returning to the source
The influence of Song Dynasty landscape painting can be clearly seen in Zao's handling of space in 5.11.64 in particular. From his treatise on painting, “The Elegance of Woods and Springs, in a chapter entitled “Secrets of Painting,” the great Northern Song painter Guo Xi wrote, “Whoever undertakes to pick up a brush must join heaven and earth. What do we mean by heaven and earth? We mean that in a work, one and a half measures high, a space should be left above for heaven, and below a space for earth, and only in between should you develop your composition and define the scene.” Looking again at Zao's painting in light of Guo Xi's admonition, we find that the upper and lower compositions of the canvas are covered with spreading washes of white tints, whereas the ochre, blue-green, and yellow-brown tones that play off against each other are concentrated toward the center. Zao treats these elements like the undefined, empty spaces in ancient Chinese landscapes: like floating mists or gushing mountain springs, they guide the viewer's eye into the painting, providing an unlimited space for the imagination and expanding the scope of this world, with its difficult-to-define forms and spaces (Fig. 2).
Light and shade in an ever-changing landscape
In 5.11.64, Zao Wou-ki employs the transformations of color, light, and shadow to delineate the natural scenery of his imagination. The composition takes shape in deep marine blue and reddish purple in the upper right, juxtaposed against each other vertically like striated cloud formation; his spreading oil pigments shimmer like the Northern Lights high in heaven. But the colors colliding in the lower left interrupt these more orderly brushstrokes, like small streams that enter from the distance and then converge, mingle, and blend into one. A strong contrast emerges between these two broad areas of color, one set out in wild, heavy lines and the other in broad stretches of more diluted pigments. Through them Zao captures the different forms of movement and power alive in nature — just as Turner did 100 years ago when he captured the thin mists, the sunlight, and the wind, and the shimmering of light and shade in the ocean's surges and swells (Fig. 3). Today, in the same way, the thoughts of viewers find release within the play of light and shadow in the mental world beautifully projected by Zao Wou-ki on his canvas.
Within the scene Zao creates in 5.11.64 can be found all the brushwork, color, perspective, and handling of space he absorbed from Western art. From these, he naturally extracted his own blend, with which he produced works capable of speaking to anyone about the great beauty of the universe. A noted French abstract artist Alfred Manessier once wrote a letter describing his feelings about Zao Wou-ki: “The world of his mind, his unique personal past, his ethnicity, his scenic world, and his light — those are all unknown to me. Yet somehow, viewing his work, something already known to me, something identifiable, still takes hold of me and gives me a moving experience.” And how could Eastern viewers, finding themselves enfolded again within that same seemingly familiar landscape, not feel the richness of expression the oil medium brings to it. As Zao Wou-ki painted the world of 5.11.64 — tightly knit, yet vast, open, airy, and deep — he ultimately created an outstanding work in which he weaves together the subtle secrets of Chinese classical painting and the beauty of modern Western Expressionism.