"This marked the end of one creative period, or more accurately, the beginning of a new phase from which there would be no looking back. I want to depict the wind, the feeling of movement, the life within objects, colours unfolding and merging with other hues."
A Self-portrait of Zao Wou-ki
Zao Wou-ki’s creative career transitioned into abstraction in the late 1950s, with him no longer depended on symbols and forms but connected with his inner emotions to transform natural essence and energy into endless colour combination possibilities. Zao mentioned in his autobiography that he had discovered “boundary is not necessary between symbol and colour”, because colour is alive and the key lies in how to use the connections between colours to express spatial depth and dynamism and to spark both visual and spiritual feelings. This shift allowed him to break way from figurative limitations, allowing his abstract colour expressions to be imaginative and full of depth, projecting a vitality and organic quality that transcended beyond materialism. Zao began to see the art languages of other masters, such as Eugène Delacroix (Fig.1) from a different perspective, as he persisted with experimenting and exploring with colour, light, space, and movement well into the 60s (Fig.2 & 3). The artist’s confident and assured critical transition is clearly demonstrated in the electrifying and splendid light and colour expression on this artwork, 02.11.59 (Lot 24).
The thick and intense bright yellow oil colour on 02.11.59 is set against a surrounding blackness, with greyish white sandwiched in the middle resulting in distinct light and dark layers. The image appears like a “radiating central point”, with a burst of light spreading outwards into a space that is dark and unfathomable. Fluid lines gathering in and spreading out are created with dynamic brushwork, like rays of light bouncing in the atmosphere, guiding the audience into a breath-taking moment when light ignites in midst of darkness. Composed with the colours black, white, and yellow, the three colours are crisscrossed down the painting’s central axis and suspended vertically in mid-air. The intricately overlapping brushwork reaches its pinnacle intensity in the centre and gradually softens towards the sides. The backdrop is formed with subtly shifting layers of colours swiped with big brushwork, with the overall image appearing like majestic rolling mountain peaks, vigorously powerful and dynamic. Inspired by nature and with the descriptive brushwork found in Chinese landscape’s natural energy and movements refined (Fig. 4 & 5), Zao also further pursued a purer visual dynamic and a more liberated imaginative space.
The centre of art shifted from Paris to New York after World War II, and Zao also made his presence known during this new wave of abstract movement. He visited New York for the first time in 1957; active in the scene, Zao then held a solo exhibition in the city at the Samuel Kootz Gallery in 1959. The Kootz Gallery was one of the premier art galleries in mid- 20th century New York, and ahead of its time, the gallery relied on selling artworks by Picasso to support abstract expressionist artists such as Robert Motherwell. Full of creative energy, Zao sensed “it is necessary to detach paintings from reality and for them to naturally take shape.” It is apparent from his oeuvre from this period that he strived to create a boundless imaginative space within the limiting parameters of the canvas and used oil colours, a medium with strong material qualities, to pursue spiritual expressions.
During this time in the U.S., colour-field artists were also focusing on relationships between colours, seeking to convey their inner worlds and sublime feelings through art. Their paintings reflected personal longings for meaning in a material society, and many were heroic in their expressions. For example, Barnett Newman saw his paintings as independent subjects that were no longer connected to nature. He simplified his compositions into large surfaces with vertical and horizontal colour stripes, forming a vastness with contrasting spatial scale and poetic grunts and screams that were powerfully illuminating (Fig. 6). Clyfford Still also sought after expressions with colour, and created paintings filled to the brim with tattered and richly textured shapes of colours, with the artist’s experience of time and his resplendent and vast spiritual vision conveyed (Fig.7). Different from the ambition demonstrated by post-war New York-based artists in regards to artistic concept and the right to speak, Zao’s emphasis remained on the language of painting. Drawing from the essence of Chinese culture, Zao opened up a sense of depth on abstract planes with calligraphic-like strokes applied with speed, energy, and temporality. He also appropriated the concept of voids and solids, sparseness and tightness found in Chinese ink painting and integrated Western painting’s treatment of light and shadow. The masterpiece, 02.11.59, symbolizes a lightning bolt that has defeated darkness, representing the artist overcoming his internal cultural barriers and arising victoriously in life. The unique and exquisite abstract forms and colour application demonstrate the artist’s exceptional maturity with fusing Chinese and Western aesthetics, as the artwork radiates with a profound and awe-inspiring glow.