"How to represent the wind? How to paint emptiness? And the light, its brightness, its purity? I did not want to reproduce but to juxtapose forms, to assemble them in order to find in them the whispering wind over still water."
- Zao Wou-Ki
Starting in 1958, Zao Wou-Ki renounced objects and symbols in his painting; he turned to his inner world and moods as a source of inspiration, revealing them through the mix and contrast of colours. At this point, Zao had transcended the confines of theme and technique, as he had broken free from all rules. This free and spontaneous approach allowed him to fully immerse himself in artmaking, and to express his innermost feelings and states of mind. In 1963, Zao’s new painting studio was completed. With the only source of light coming into the studio from above, the natural lighting enabled him to better grasp subtle changes in colour. 05.06.63 (Lot 24), which was completed in the same year, illuminates the artist’s exceptional command of colour. From the transcendent composition, the viewer can feel Zao’s sense of ease and incredible confidence in his art-making at this point in time.
At first glance, 05.06.63 bears certain resemblances to Green on Blue by the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko in composition and colour. In the latter, the dark blue and white rectangles rendered in blurry lines and thin, semi-transparent paint seem afloat in the painting, as if they were drifting and rising. In 05.06.63 , Zao Wou-Ki hinted at a sense of motion along the horizontal line with intricate brushstrokes in pure colours. The faint smudges of Prussian blue along the bottom margins echo the dark blue and black in the upper half of the canvas. The circular flow in the composition instills a temporal dimension into the portrayal of space.
How to bring a sense of motion into paintings was a subject of constant exploration and experimentation for Zao Wou-Ki. The Impressionist painter Monet was masterful in depicting the rippling water surface that extends into the distance. In Chinese ink painting, texturing techniques, ink dots of varying thickness and shades, and blank spaces are used to create the heaving mountains and the clouds and mist. While there are no figurative forms in the boundless wilderness in 05.06.63 , the textures of raw and delicate brushstrokes evoke the tremendous swirl of Chaos, embodying the endless renewals of all lives in the universe.
Before it was acquired by its current owner, 05.06.63 was in the possession of the family of Vadime Elisseeff (1918-2002) for nearly 50 years. This work not only represents a milestone in Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic career, but bears testimony to Elisseeff’s impeccable discernment and his deep friendship with the artist. A renowned French sinologist and archaeologist, Elisseeff held the posts of curator at the Musée Cernuschi and Director of the Musée Guimet. In a reflection published in 1959, Zao called Elisseeff “someone who was a tremendous source of encouragement to me.” In 1938, the Hangzhou National College of Art relocated to Chongqing amidst the chaos of war. After his graduation, Zao worked as an assistant teacher at the school. There he met Elisseeff who was at the that time the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in China, and who held Zao’s work in high regard. With encouragement from Elisseeff, the artist began to ponder relocating to Paris. In the mid-1940s, Elisseeff was commissioned by the Musée Cernuschi to select artworks for the “Contemporary Chinese Painting” exhibition, and he picked 20 paintings by Zao despite controversy. In 1949, Zao had his first solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Creuze. Upon the recommendation by Elisseeff, Bernard Dorival, the then director of Musee Naitonal d’Art Moderne, wrote the preface to Zao’s exhibition catalogue. It cemented Zao’s place in France’s art circle.
By employing Western media in his paintings, Zao Wou- Ki discarded all external and formal elements of Eastern expression. The artist took the intrinsic nature of painting as his starting point, and conveyed the perception of the universe in traditional Chinese culture. In its quest to capture a flowing and infinite space, 05.06.63 becomes a medium connecting the viewer with the vitality of the universe and the infinity of time and space.