“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
Luminous and dream-like, Zao Wou-Ki’s 13.02.92 conjures up images of water and wind, deep pools and shifting clouds. Distant mountains seem to rise up out of the mist, while a glowing central form recalls the pearlescent hues of a full moon rising at dusk. A mature piece by the artist, 13.02.92 perfectly showcases the complex hues and translucent layers that characterize Zao’s best work from the period. Instead of filling the canvas, Zao has skilfully applied washes of pigment that settle softly around a central space, framing the composition in a way that showcases the radiance of the work’s natural energy. 13.02.92 showcases the results of Zao’s lifetime of dedication to the pursuit of artistic transcendence, and his deep understanding of both his native and adopted artistic traditions.
In 1991, Zao spent almost half a year working on a large triptych entitled “Homage to Claude Monet”. Featuring layers of pink and blue pigment counterbalanced by shadowy forms of deepest indigo, the work paid tribute to Monet’s paintings of the lakes and water lilies at Giverny, and demonstrated Zao’s masterful control of colour that drew direct inspiration from the Impressionists. The current lot, 13.02.92, was painted barely a year later, and is imbued with the same romantic rhythm as its predecessor. Gauzy layers of lavender, lime, pale yellow and cerulean express a Pointillist-inspired approach to colour, as these tones offset and emphasize the rich blues that dominate the composition. Influenced by Impressionism, colour is permitted to take precedence over line and contour, and flecks of discrete, unblended colour is combined by the eye to create a more luminous whole.
The Impressionists were fascinated by the idea of transience, and sought to capture a sense of nature’s most fleeting of moments in their work – sunlight glinting off of water, a plume of rising smoke, or the hazy shape of a monument glimpsed at sunset. Many of Zao’s best works from the 90s grasp at the same concept, seeking to convey the essential elements of nature in an abstract form. Viewed up close, the painted details of 13.02.92 take on the form of mountain peaks, breaking waves, and mist rising up out of valleys. Microcosmic worlds open up, showcasing the varied surface treatments where Zao has alternately splattered, poured and dragged paint across the canvas to create areas of thin pigment contrasted with patches of thick glossy impasto.
The shifting sense of scale that can be found in Zao’s works – where details are often as compositionally complete as the whole – is drawn directly from the tradition of Chinese classical painting. Comparing 13.02.92 to Song Dynasty painter Xia Gui’s Mountain Market, Clear with Rising Mist, both works blur the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, skilfully making use of negative space to separate and define discrete compositional elements. Yet while the Song Dynasty painters anchored their works with minuscule houses, bridges and travellers in order to provide scale and imbue the work with realism, Zao sets viewers frees to wander within his works, and discover fractal-like details that are as beautiful close-up as they are at a distance.
Yet it is the glowing centre of the work that truly draws the viewer in. As described by Dominique de Villepin, “[Zao] Wou-Ki does not hesitate to welcome emptiness in the heart of his paintings to make the infigurative, the unrepresentable loom-up.” In fact, by constructing his works around negative space, Zao increases the sense of openness and depth in his canvases, just as Matisse’s paintings of doorways and windows offer the viewer a tantalizing sense of spaces beyond. By concentrating the weight and mass on the bottom and edges of the canvas, then allowing them to rise upwards like mountain ranges, Zao places the moon-like void at the centre of his work, framing, in the words of scholar Jonathan Hay, "a luminosity extending from infinite softness to enveloping darkness." This sense of envelopment, and the creation of light framed by darkness has its roots in Zao’s early oracle-bone paintings, but the expression only reaches full maturity in his late works from this period.
The Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai wrote, “The water of Peach Blossom pond reaches a thousand feet in depth, / But still it's not as deep as Wang Lun's feelings seeing me off.” Indeed, 13.02.92 reflects the depth of Zao’s commitment to art, and showcases the lessons learned over the course of a lifetime spent in pursuit of artistic transcendence. Echoes of the glowing spaces depicted in Zao’s oracle bones paintings are combined with the expressive techniques of works from the 60s, tempered by an appreciation for ink-like washes developed during the 70s and 80s. In 1967, Claude Roy noted that "[Zao Wou-Ki’s] roots are everywhere, beautifully long and slender, deeply embedded in some faraway place, nourished by at least two different continents." Nowhere is that more apparent than in Zao’s late paintings, the culmination of a long and diverse artistic career.