The abstract art of Zao Wou-ki has deep roots in the great landscape painting tradition of China's Sung and Yuan dynasties, but his work also belongs to the Western oil painting tradition. With fresh ideas and new derivations of abstraction, Zao has brought together the traditions of the ancient East and the modern West and forged them into a powerful synthesis. These two great traditions-modern Western abstraction and the Chinese tradition of freely impressionistic landscape painting-are clearly related. What Zao has accomplished by drawing on those two sources goes beyond his unique, personal success as a modern Abstract Expressionist; he has also helped reaffirm the serious aesthetic values embodied in traditional Chinese art. His art is in fact a testament to a renaissance in modern Chinese art that he helped bring about: two generations of the finest Chinese artists, from the time of Lin Fengmian to the present, have sought to unite Eastern and Western aesthetics, and their ideals converge and find their finest realization in Zao Wou-ki's work.
Viewed in terms of regional character, Zao Wou-ki's art blends Western forms with a special Eastern ambience that has brought an added dimension to his abstract work. It conveys an Eastern character of elegance and profundity and gives voice to Eastern perceptions, thoughts, and insights in works that move us with their imposing energy and vision. Zao has also brought the kind of free expressiveness found in Chinese ink-wash painting to a new state of development, in the process establishing himself as a singular voice among Western artists; this has also made his art a bridge through which the Western artistic community gains access to the philosophical and aesthetic sensibilities of the East. Thus the historical significance of Zao Wou-ki's art and its aesthetic value, for China and for the world, is best understood in the context of the development of China's modern art and its relation to the rest of the world.
By the mid-1950s and the 1960s, Zao Wou-ki had begun to create art with an unequivocally individual character, giving two of the works presented here, 14-3-59 (Lot 1007) and 02-01-65 (Lot 1006), their special aesthetic and historical significance. Later, in the mid-'80s and '90s, Zao turned toward an in-depth synthesis of his earlier styles and creative approaches, a period of integration that resulted in the third work presented here, 25-10-90 (Lot 1008). This "rich, perfect colouristic expression" is one of the representative works of this later period.
The late 1950s are now understood as a critical transitional phase for Zao, a period characterized by some degree of uncertainty and creative obstruction, yet which in some respects marked the summit of his work in the 1950s. Zao Wou-ki was returning to tradition, and by applying artistic concepts and a view of the universe deeply rooted in Chinese culture, he began to reshape his creative approach. As the artist recalls it, this stage "marked the end of one creative period, or more accurately, the beginning of a new phase from which there would be no looking back."As he entered into this new creative genesis, Zao moved beyond the narrative focus of his earlier works concerned with landscape or early Chinese artifacts, his observation and creativity now emerging from a different point of view. He wanted to depict the unseen: the energies of life, the feel of the wind, the sense of movement, the life within objects, and the unfolding and merging of hues and colours, and by taking this creative leap he created a new world with infinite artistic possibility. This was a richly creative period for Zao, in terms of both the quantity of his output and its sheer artistry, a period in which he showed great facility in his use of lines and motifs drawn from calligraphy, oracle-bone inscriptions, and sculpture.
14-3-59 is an exceptional example of Zao's expressive outlook and creative approach during this period, more than in other works of the period, the surface of 14-3-59 reveals a profound sense of line in the finely textured, densely woven, and twisting, curving lines that spread across its surface. Their direct visual effects suggest the falling strokes, pressures strokes, and dotting strokes of calligraphy as well as oracle-bone writing and bronze inscriptions, and there is an unusual aesthetic appeal in the lines and shapes that wind and metamorphose across the canvas. Zao's lines of pigment collide, split, merge, and enfold each other rhythmically, creating visual tension as if writhing, suppressed life forces hidden deep below the surface are beginning to emerge and break through the earth. Thick, concentrated pigments build up in a palette of earthy browns, blacks, and greys, a combination that is featured in many works during this period. Different hues of the same basic tone overlap, while weighty lines and motifs seem to flash out of nothingness then sink back into the mist, evoking the rise and fall of civilizations. The work in fact seems filled with a vast sense of history, suggesting the grandeur of a world emerging from original chaos. The vital energy that courses through it seems to connect with great rivers of time within the depths of the earth, while also reflecting the breadth of mind and the philosophical outlook behind the work. While the work is composed of many different shades of certain basic tones, those basic tones nonetheless here produce visual layering by virtue of their relative density or lightness, blending and joining in a natural and well-controlled style that gives 14-3-59 tremendous variety within its strongly unified whole.
Zao's fine control of colour is demonstrated to the full in 14-3-59. The central portion of the canvas appeals through the pleasing texture of its interlocking lines, which, turning and twisting as they vary from thick to thin, evoke the jagged, lofty mountain peaks of Chinese landscape paintings. Western oil paints possess a unique richness of colour and feeling of weight, but like any medium, they have expressive limitations as well, their very thickness making them less suitable than ink for creating the varied shadings and textures achieved through relative degrees of dampness or density. Zao Wou-ki seems to move with ease between the aesthetic traditions of Eastern ink-wash painting and Western oils, a feat likely made possible by his dual identity and his access to both of these aesthetic traditions. In his work a single colour tone often produces an amazing range of shades; the addition of any single brushstroke produces change and motion within the surrounding tones, softening or intensifying their original hues or creating contrasts that alter their original effect. In 14-3-59, a suppressed tinge of white breaks through in the center and creates sensational effects, sometimes veiling and sometimes highlighting the adjacent black motifs, or making them leap out of the canvas altogether. The white is also enlivened by these interlacing tones, filling it with brightness and movement, and reminding the viewer of mists drifting along mountain slopes or the light and shadows within rising vapors. These touches add an appealing imaginative dimension and liveliness to the work. Zao Wou-ki devoted much thought and attention to the relationships between colours on the canvas, pointing out in his lectures that both his lines and his colours are "deep in some places, light in others, sometimes hot and sometimes cool, and always related to what is before and behind them." The interdependency of line and colour generates structure and visual context, and it is these pure artistic elements that produce aesthetic pleasure in Zao's work, informing the spaces he creates with a truly individual sense of style. Zao Wou-ki's achievements in the Western oil medium can be partly explained by the fact that he exerts a degree of technical control over these pure, fundamental elements that makes his work striking even compared to Western artists.
14-3-59, with its suggestions of oracle bone and bronze inscriptions and its finely worked lines, might be characterized as somewhat reserved and moody, a densely textured and rhythmical work. By contrast, Zao's 02-01-65 is a burst of energy, an unstoppable whirlwind of Chinese "cursive script" calligraphy lines that shoot across and subside back into its surface. Each of these two works, in its own way, is a reflection of Zao's personal fortunes and the changes in his aesthetic focus during the respective periods of their production. In 02-01-65, brushwork and colour expand on a broader scale, lines and brushstrokes leap from the canvas with surprising strength and energy, as if documenting the artist's shifts from calmness to agitation during this period. Clear breaks in the texture of the oils in the sweeping left-right brushstrokes reflect the energy and abandon of brushwork in the cursive calligraphy style. The strong sense of movement implicit in each stroke brings the canvas alive and envelops the viewer in a whirling sandstorm of motion. The center of visual focus expands broadly, seemingly extending beyond the confines of the canvas into the imaginative spaces beyond. The work's abstraction and the tension within its colours are amplified in the vastness, rough energy, and imposing feel of this work, which shows its breadth and expansiveness through both its conception and its actual physical scale. Zao Wou-ki's fondness for calligraphy helped develop his sensitivity to line and symbol and a capacity for imagination, all of which were qualities he found in the work of Rembrandt, "who lets you see his brush in motion." This particular line of aesthetic development is clearly on display in 02-01-65, in which Zao's dexterously wielded brush conveys the rhythmic motion of calligraphy. His lines blend naturally into the colours of the background, affecting the depth and density of adjacent areas of colour and heightening their expressive effects, in a perfect blend of lines from Chinese calligraphy and the use of the Western oil medium.
A major shift took place in the decade of the 1980s, when Zao's work moved away from a focus on line and toward an emphasis on broad areas of colour. His bold application of pure, brilliant colour resulted in the wonderfully rich layering of works such as 25-10-90, which relies solely on colour to transmit its mystical atmosphere and subtle feeling of space. The work is a testament to the creative manifesto of Paul Klee, who said the purpose of art is "to make visible what is invisible, " though Zao embodies that manifesto here with an individuality of style and depth of feeling completely his own. Rather than the thick application of dense oils as in the 1950s and 1960s, or a canvas covered with closely managed brushstrokes, Zao made a total leap toward treating his oil pigments in an ink-wash fashion, producing some of the same free-flowing, spreading effects and finding a sense of pure, flowing lightness within single colour tonalities. The three colours that appear on the canvas, the deep blue, inky black, and clear white, each display this sense of flowing lightness and create an unusual sense of visual depth and penetration.
Zao creates the powerful effects seen in 25-10-90 through his concentrated, well-controlled application of pure blue, producing richly varied spatial layering. Zao sets the dark blue colour against brighter white tones for areas of intense contrast where the blue seems to surge and leap in radiant pulses. Areas of white surround the blue, blending and penetrating into it and producing new blue-green and grey-white tones. The painting projects an overall impression of a radiant blue that pulses, expands, and evolves inside of a fantastic realm, demonstrating Zao's accomplished technique in managing his picture space through controlled areas of brilliance and luminosity.
While the composition of 25-10-90 displays more rigorous control than many of Zao's other works from this period, its ideal handling of space and its ingenious suggestion of form, or implied forms, imparts a rich sense of movement. Zao's blue-white-blue arrangement produces a wonderfully agile and flowing feel, with staggered layering that calls to mind the jagged shorelines in classical Chinese landscapes that recede into the distance and enhance the effect of depth. The cadence of the flowing colours and the rhythm of the overlapping spaces in 25-10-90 impart a sense of grace, lightness, and ease. The flowing, mutating blues above and below gradually overflow and seep toward the white in the middle, while the white, unwilling to let itself be swallowed up, gathers itself to pulse, push, and coalesce in response. Points of conflict or explosion where colours meet look like beautiful nebulae, glowing in the depths of space, spreading out on a grand scale and leaving behind visual traces of their births and deaths. Zao Wou-ki's grand vision here indeed places us in a universe where the transitory visual stimuli that reach our eyes speak to us of the countless light years of distance and vast cycles of rebirth in the deep misty reaches of the firmament.