Impressionistic Spaces and Reserved Ink-Wash-Style: The 1970s
Zao Wou-ki's work during and after the 1970s continued his thematic focus on the universe, space, and the sense of movement, while showing clear stylistic changes. 11-12-70 (Lot 1344) offers a representative look at the stylistic features of this period. Zao returns to the principles of Chinese ink-wash styles, their freedom and lyricism, but within the Western medium of oil. His handling of oil pigments reflects the ink tradition; they become more liquid, mimicking on canvas the manner in which ink washes over or splashes across paper, and his colours now bloom like dense, hazy patches of smoke and mist that curl and enshroud the canvas.
In 11-12-70 Zao continues to indulge his preference for using a single colour to organize the space on the canvas and produce visual effects through colours that brighten and fade, emerge and disappear. Unusually, Zao here adopts a palette based on black. Black pigments are especially effective for producing layering that depends on the degree of their thickness or dilution and the resulting feeling of lightness or heaviness. These effects tie 11-12-70 directly to the Chinese ink-wash painting tradition, in which artists created various shadings or "hues" within black through their application of ink. The viewer is reminded of the textured strokes of the ink-brush in those paintings and the feel of the craggy rocks and towering peaks they portrayed. There is also a strong sense of depth in the suggestion of layered rows of mountain peaks winding into the distance, making this a kind of abstract variation on the traditional Chinese ink-wash landscape. Ample areas of blank space are also a characteristic of Zao's 1970s style. Zao concentrates his beautiful variations in colour toward the center of the canvas, leaving a large area of more pale and diffuse colour at the bottom to serve as "white" space. In this empty space Zao once again displays subtle variations within his white tones, highlighting the expressiveness of the white, its visual beauty, and its ability to create spatial effects. Zao's proficiency with these ink-wash brushwork techniques brings to his white pigments an extra degree of floating lightness, diffuse light, and transparency. The hazy distance implied in these pale tones suggests the rolling mists and controlled shading of traditional Chinese ink-wash landscapes, and perfectly capture the same sense of compositional spareness as in the Eastern art, transporting the viewer into a meditative realm of rolling mists among rows of grand peaks. In contrast to the bold grandeur of some of Zao's earlier work in the 50s and 60s, 11-12-70 reflects a different side of the Chinese aesthetic.
Exploring the Depth and Diversity of Colour: From the '80s to the 2000s
Zao moved on, in the 1980s and afterwards, to even more startling developments, which are presented in dramatic fashion in 29-10-86 (Lot 1339) and 31-01-2001 (Lot 1384). The emphasis in these two works has shifted away from line and toward the free, unrestrained application of brilliant colour, frequently in shades of red, blue, yellow, and purple. Dappled with beautiful, multicoloured hues, the impression in these works is the feeling that colour itself is creating fantastic visual effects as it vibrates, spreads, and evolves into new shades and tones that roll in grand waves across the canvas. Zao's washes of colour spread more freely than ever and project a grand sense of scale. Brushwork moves both horizontally and vertically, even seemingly into or out of the canvas, for textures that are three-dimensional in their effects, like rugged, craggy landscapes, yet the colours still retain a lightness and fluidity of their own. The artist finds spatial relationships here in the way the different colours relate to each other. He devoted much thought and attention to this aspect of the relationships between colours, pointing out in 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.
Compositionally, these two works show Zao continuing to divide the canvas into three horizontal segments, with the richest variations in colour occurring in the central portion due, where the sense of movement within space and energetic transformation is also strongest. Pure monochromatic tones appear in the upper and lower parts of the canvas, merging into large, continuous clusters of hues and shades where the roiling energies of the earth seem to burst into the open, beyond gravity, and float with light and graceful elegance. The composition also works to convey exactly the sense of a traditional Chinese landscape scene, with mountains in the distance and the blue of streams and rivers in the foreground, so that it retains, even with its brilliant colouristic effects, the sparseness, purity, and ability to capture the essence of a scene that are so valued in the Chinese tradition.