"[Zao] had discovered his heritage: the rhythms of nature, more important than nature …"
THE RHYME OF NATURE
5.Août.67 (Lot 424) is seemingly an expression of vast and misty landscape. In fact, it is the nature itself to which Zao goes for inspiration and his works have a highly distinctive character. Henri Michaux commented the relationship between nature and Zao, "[Zao] had discovered his heritage: the rhythms of nature, more important than nature …".
Henri Michaux, "Jeux d'encre," Zao Wou-Ki, Encres, Paris, 1980
In 5.Août.67, the swirls of lines, simultaneously delicate and rough, drawn with extreme high-speed brush movements, circulating the air. Vibration from the center and floating surrounding compose continuous movement, reflecting the rhythms of nature and vast landscapes are then evoked. Zao deliberately increased the proportion of solvent when mixing oil paint, and when applying them, he tried to spread the paint as evenly as possible to leave no brush marks, creating continuous colours that flowed, permeated, and spread as if the light reflection depicted by Turner. It is interesting to note the ink-wash-like treatment of black colour as if wet Chinese or Indian ink brushstrokes with gradations of shade which are absorbed by the background. The layering of blue colour together with absorbing black shades blend different tones of blue – sky blue, light blue and grayish blue, vibrating and floating in the air. The layering of colour as if coloured ink contacts the absorbent Xuan paper, reminding us the far away misty landscape depicted by Song dynasty painter Chen Qingbo.
"I aspire to paint with colours to express subjects that can be represented in the most simplest way."
SENSE OF FLUTTERING
Zao Wou-Ki's journey to abstract painting began in the mid-1950s when he embarked on an exploration of the symbols and patterns from pictographs, along with other visual symbols borrowed from ancient Chinese cultures. His free spirit and pursuit of spontaneous expression, inspired by both Abstract Expressionism as well as Song and Tang dynasty Chinese landscape painting, is manifested in his paintings from the 1960s. The reintroduction of ink on paper as medium in his oeuvre in the 1970s directed Zao's abstract painting down a new path. Throughout this period, the artist gradually enhanced the subtle changes of colour in his compositions, while reducing the bold and heavy calligraphic strokes. Moving onto the 1980s, Zao began to focus on the energy and rhythm, as delivered by colours, and his exploration of colour in the 1990s became even more adventurous and unrestricted.
24.03.89 (Lot 425) is a work that deeply embodies Zao's shift toward colour field painting during this later period of his life. It is a painting that breathes and flows, a masterful coexistence between tension and unbridled reverie. The violent, vigorous, and feverish spirit with which the paintings of the 1960s were imbued, is no longer present here. In place of those brooding and fomenting strokes, is a realm of freshness, vitality, and dynamism.
24.03.89 is completed with fresh and vibrant palette— violet blue, light purple, grayish blue and silver white blend and spread across the canvas with a gradation reminiscent of Chinese ink in the foreground, and expand out into a dream-like space, interacting with the heavy linear motif on lower left. Comparing this 1989 work to an ink on paper piece from 1971 shows clearly how the two media are interconnected within Zao's body of work. It was probably via his India ink works that Zao Wou-Ki went on to earn the right to be called a true colourist.
"From afar the mountains are coloured, from close by the water is quiet.
Spring has passed but the flowers still bloom, man approaches but the birds are calm."
Painting by Wang Wei
In 1963, Zao Wou-Ki's new painting studio at Rue Jonquoy had just finished construction with studio light shone only from the north, giving the artist consistent lighting which helped him grasp and perceive minute changes in colours. Zao also filled the studio courtyard with Chinese flora, including maples, birch, an orchid he brought back from China, and a few orange trees. Gardening is a distinguished and cultivated Chinese pastime, and doing so also reminded Zao of his father and his childhood. The title of 04.03.63 (Lot 426) indicates that the work was finished in early March, when Winter was passing, and hints of Spring could be discerned from the treetops. The garden in the new studio naturally became the artist's muse and subject, bringing his abstract creations to new rarefied heights. This masterpiece also marked the cumulation of his six years of travels throughout places such as New York, Japan, and Hong Kong, and the canvas is imbued with Zao's ruminations and insight over this extensive journey.
The sense of space and expansiveness in 04.03.63 comes partly from Zao's grasp of the dichotomy between the evanescent and the physical, while the other half can be attributed to his treatment of lighting. Zao said that, "Many of my paintings seem sparse. But oil is more difficult to render a wash effect than ink, so I spend more time conveying an empty space than I do in the other parts. Chinese painting has been tremendously significant for me in this regard, because of the rhythm created by form and empty space." Zao clearly grasped how to handle the relationship between the virtual and the corporeal from his study of traditional Chinese paintings, and he also drew from Western artistry to inform his expression of abstract light sources. Zao employed an expanse of snowy white and silvery grey as the backdrop of the painting, while using the calligraphic lines in the centre to enhance the tension of the overall piece and to evoke the traces of Chinese characters. Those same black strokes also remind one of the "ink-wash muscularity" of Song-Dynasty painter Ma Yuan, as the powerful strokes show off the consonance of ink. In this work, Zao deliberately uses white space to establish the scene. Placing the subject matter amidst an expanse of space, Zao creates the sense of infinity.
This work's provenance can be traced back to the collection of the famous gallerist Morgan Knott, and the previous owner kept this piece in the family collection until today, making this a particularly rare opportunity. Zao's works in the 1960s are generally agreed to be created at the height of his artistic career. His record-setting oil painting sold from last year is also from the same period, completed just a year after this work.