Painted in 1959, when Zao Wou-ki was on the cusp of entering one of the most productive and energetic decades of his career, 14.12.59 (Lot 23) is a spectacular testament to the artist’s achievements as a pioneer of modern Chinese art. Amidst shimmering layers of vermillion and black, a burst of white light seems to explode from the centre of the canvas, diffusing outwards in roiling, feathery strokes. Bold in colour and structure and masterfully executed, this work exemplifies the best qualities of Zao’s important transitional period in a large format, and is at once triumphant and violent and meticulous in its execution, evoking the power of elemental energy and primeval forces.
The colour red is associated with life, fire, blood, and passion, symbolizing the energetic forces that are regarded as fundamental elements of both nature and human civilization. Red was one of the first colours to appear in surviving examples of early art; in the caves of Altamira in Spain, bison and horses painted over 15,500 years ago are rendered in rich shades of red and black, achieved using natural ochre and charcoal pigments. In ancient China, the Yangshao culture used ground cinnabar to decorate ceramic vessels, cover the walls and floors of interior spaces, and add symbolic power in the form of colour to ritual ceremonies. Across all these cultures, red was associated with life, being not only the colour of blood but also of fire, the element that most differentiates humankind from other species on earth.
When Zao Wou-ki began to explore the possibilities of abstraction in the early 1950s, he drew heavily upon prehistoric art as inspiration. Many of his early paintings created throughout the fifties incorporate signs and glyphs that resemble the proto-writing found on Shang Dynasty oracle bones, an early form of divination. In these elegant yet powerful pieces, Zao already displays a masterful control of colour and light, as well as brush technique, depicting delicate forms suspended in a dreamlike haze through which one might read prophetic visions of the past and future.
During a trip to the United States, Zao Wou-ki was exposed to Abstract Expressionism at the very peak of its influence. Almost immediately upon his return to Paris in 1958, Zao began to make dramatic changes to his stylistic output. In 1959, he ceased naming his works, stating that he no longer wanted his creations to be confined by preconceived ideas, striving instead for a purer abstraction. His works also gained a new energy, evolving to incorporate sweeping brushstrokes, greater use of impasto, and a sharp, gesturalist rhetoric.
1959 is often viewed as a transitional year in Zao’s artistic career, a halfway point between the evocative mystery of his oracular paintings from the ‘50s, and the dramatic elemental energy of his expressionist work in the ‘60s. Yet it is precisely because of that state of flux and change that the work produced between 1958-1960 is so critical to the artist’s development. Within 14.12.59 we find all the elements of Zao’s work from the 50s and 60s combined into a single composition – the confident brushwork and dramatic colour contrasts of the 60s, as well as the strong lines and figurative detail of his early work.
The key to understanding Zao Wou-Ki’s achievements lies in grasping the subtle way he combined elements of both classical Western and Chinese painting, drawing upon two disparate artistic and aesthetic traditions to produce paintings that transcended both cultures. According to Jonathan Hay, a historian of Chinese painting at New York University, within Zao’s paintings “a use of colour that comes out of the Western oil painting tradition is – most often – complicated by the recourse to a black that recalls ink. Brute mark-making is reconciled with an aesthetic of the trace that derives from the sharp-tipped Chinese brush.” In this way, bright colour and dramatic gesture – elements of Western art – are combined with a distinctly Chinese sensitivity to layered compositions, the dichotomies of black and white, and the power of strong yet delicate gesture.
To an eye attuned to Western art and modernist aesthetic, Zao Wou-ki’s 14.12.59 immediately brings to mind associations with the work of Rothko and Clyfford Still, artists who also loved the colours red and black, and revelled in its power to evoke intense emotion. Yet Rothko and Still’s paintings focus on the painted surface, while Zao’s careful delineation of colour instead evokes a strong sense of spatial depth. Placing a field of black against a fiery background, Zao seems to be tracing the outlines of a mountain landscape or great plain, like the great painters of the Song dynasty who used reverse perspective – rendering closer things smaller than further things – as a means of emphasizing the grandeur and magnitude of dramatic peaks and mountain ranges.
Zao’s painting also differs from his contemporaries in his treatment of surface and emphasis on mark-making. Viewing 14.12.59 up close, one discovers a surface of such rich complexity that it’s impossible not to wonder how the artist created such a microcosm of movement. Twirling lines of white and black spin off from the chaotic centre, recalling the frenzied exuberance of grass-script calligraphy. Scrawls and scratches were executed with some hard-tipped tool – possibly the pointed handle of a paintbrush – creating deep grooves and causing the then-wet paint to pool in patterns reminiscent of marbled paper. In Richterian form, Zao scraped aside wet paint to reveal layers of colour underneath, layering ivory black, titanium white, and a cadmium red, adding just a few hints of cool phthalo blue for balance.
Equally present – though perhaps more hidden and encoded within the details of the painting – are the impressionistic elements of Chinese painting: the deconstructed dashes of pine needles, the dots that evoke a mossy stone or cliff-face, and the looping curlicues of abstract calligraphy. Viewed as a whole, the resulting riot of gesture evokes the energy of Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan yet is uniquely “Zao” in its execution and form. Though the symbols and ideographs that characterize Zao’s oracle bone series are no longer identifiable, they are present in the flicking motion of his brush, in the barely-visible swirls of black-on-black, and the lingering sense of half-hidden forms evoked by Zao’s masterful layering of hues.
Perhaps more than anything else, Zao’s 14.12.59 resembles a burst of light emerging from darkness, a primordial moment of creation captured in perfect, chiaroscuro glory. According to Hay, Zao is “Faithful to a fundamental Chinese aesthetic assumption, he paints an experience of the world in which he himself is implicated; the world he summons up is never entirely separate from him. For this reason, his paintings can always be read in two directions, either as evocations of the macrocosmic environments of experience or as articulations of a deeply private emotional topography.” If red represents the energy of life, then the white starburst that dominates the centre of the canvas represents hope and possibility, exploding outwards with expressive exuberance.