"Winds blow and clouds swell in this small space; the universe is overwhelmed with bright radiance. Seas are dark, the steely mountain splits apart; atop the peaks, a shield of snow and ice." - Chen Rong (Southern Song Dynasty)
In 1959, Zao Wou-Ki bought a warehouse in Paris to convert into a working studio, completing renovations in 1963. The studio was designed as an isolated structure, with no windows opening to the outside; light entered instead through a glass roof. Zao believed such a space would provide a solitary working environment where he could avoid any contact with the real world just outside — a kind of hidden chamber for meditation where he would not be disturbed. He hoped to distance himself from the mundane world, even from the influence of natural images, to create new possibilities by pouring his mind and heart out onto the canvas.
On several trips to New York during the late '50s, Zao Wou- Ki began to appreciate the ideas behind American Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting. His assessment was, 'Their paintings full of freedom, freshness, and rude energy. I like that rude energy, and the way they spray their pigments across the canvas. It seems they are not burdened by the past, or beholden to any tradition.' In another area, Japanese avant-garde calligraphy also enjoyed flourishing development during the 1950s. Zao Wou- Ki found himself moving in a similar direction, making use of ancient forms to explore new creativity with a more modern spirit.
In his later years, as he recalled the course of events during the 1960s, Zao said, 'For me it was full speed ahead during that decade, like I was driving a race car.'
In the larger spaces of his new studio, Zao had enough room to position his easel as he wished and could handle larger canvases with ease. The largest standard-size canvas that could be bought in Paris at that time was a No. 120 (193 x 130 cm.); larger sizes had to be special-ordered. The work featured here, 22.07.64 (Lot 4), completed at the height of summer in 1964, is a stunning work Zao Wou-Ki finished after moving into his new studio, using a grand, specially ordered canvas with dimensions of 161.5 x 199.5cm. He once said, 'Painting means battling with the canvas, physically battling with it. With the larger canvases in particular, you have to bring into play a great deal more of your physical energy; you have to really project yourself into it.'
Zao's principal palette in 22.07.64 consists of only three colours: bright yellow, inky black, and pure white. Various gradations and hues, derived from combinations of these colours, mix and overlap, spilling out onto the canvas to create a space full of tumultuous color and action. The visual layering that results from these pigments, alternately thick and thin or heavy and light, offers a perfect illustration of the 'less is more' outlook. Similarly, in the Chinese aesthetic tradition, a great deal of simplicity and symbolism lies behind the techniques and concepts where 'ink itself is a color.' Brushwork is of central importance in that tradition. Deriving from simple black ink the six variations of 'black, white, thick, thin, dry, and wet' poses a challenge even to painters with refined technical skills, and when successful, they can create a deep visual harmony. Zao Wou-Ki already had a skilled grasp of this tradition. He reflected it in his work not merely in the choice of pigments from a narrow range of colours, but also in his varied handling of closely related hues and his great range of brushwork techniques. With these he produced rich, clear, pellucid spatial structures and landscape conceptions of great breadth and depth.
In 22.07.64, Zao Wou-Ki loads his brush with black pigments tinged with ochre and lays down broad sweeping strokes. With strong wrist action he forms resolute lines in inky black, producing a rough 'Z' figure that snakes upward in the center of the canvas like a dragon flying through clouds and mist. This figure forms the central theme of the work, setting up the central motif from which the overall dynamism and visual structure of the painting grows.
The dragon has been an important theme in Chinese art since ancient times. In Chinese mythology, it was a magical animal that benefitted all things, capable of stirring up wind and rain, and the king of all creatures with scales. It would rise up to the heavens in the spring winds and hide in deep pools in the autumn; it could show itself or remain invisible, and was chief among the four divinities (the dragon, phoenix, unicorn, and tortoise). At the same time, it symbolized bravery, honour, and imperial power. Song Dynasty painter Chen Rong, in his Six Dragons , used spattered ink techniques to depict clouds, waters, and strangely shaped stones as the setting among which his dragons appeared and vanished.
Zao Wou-Ki came from an illustrious family; his ancestry can be traced all the way back to the Song imperial family. Having been schooled in Chinese culture as a child by his grandfather, he was no stranger to the symbolic meanings attached to the dragon. In 1954 he produced a painting, Dragon, drawing upon Chinese pictographic characters for the central motifs of the painting and depicting in fine brushstrokes the dragon as known to the Chinese in antiquity. In 22.07.64 , he adeptly borrows from the aesthetic traditions of the Song and Yuan dynasties, building the imposing energy, dimensionality, and spatial variations of the work. As a result, he transcends any sense of producing 'likenesses,' 'figuration,' or 'imitations of nature'; instead, he depicts in abstract terms the movement, life energy, and harmonious 'qi' of nature and its spirit.
Zao Wou-Ki once said, 'With oils, it's not as easy to get those spreading washes of color as it is with ink, so I actually spend a lot more effort on the empty spaces in oils than on the other parts. In Chinese painting there's a rhythm between the solid forms and the empty spaces, each in constant movement and pushing against the other, bringing a perfect balance of lightness and heaviness. In this respect our tradition has really been an inspiration for me.' In 22.07.64, yellow, white, and black interlace in the foreground in delicate lines and rough stokes. Behind them, the broad background stretches away, pulling the viewer into a deep and transcendental realm and expanding the infinite possibilities of the space. While the visible dimensions of the canvas might seem to limit such a space, its depth and distances appear immeasurable, an effect arising not just from the contrasts of solid form and empty space, of foreground and distance, but also from the juxtaposition of dynamic lines with tranquil, motionless spaces.
in a manner similar to ink-wash painting, thinning them with extra turpentine to produce a more watery consistency. The pale, hazy shades of these pigments wash across the canvas, forming spreading haloes and sprays of paint, suggesting dense shrouds of mist or vapour. In the work's central region, Zao's brush tip dances quickly across these splashed and dripping pigments, adding extra weight and thickness to the textures, and producing intriguing rhythms within the larger blocks of color as his brush pauses, scrapes, twists. Such an approach recalls the manner of the Abstract Expressionists, who left marks and traces on the canvas that testify to their physical movements. At the same time, the gestural brushwork of classical 'cursive script' calligraphy also seems present as an influence, along with the 'forgetfulness of self' that was part of the avant-garde calligraphy movement.
Zao Wou-Ki once said that 'calligraphy is a very selfrevealing technique.' With his calligraphic brushwork, he developed a dynamic sense of time in his paintings and constructed their spaces. The dynamics of his brush, the pulse of his thoughts, and his mood as a painter echo and resound through the painting as he borrows calligraphy's energetic motions and the spirit of Abstract Expressionism. With each of the varied calligraphic strokes he employs, Zao brings out greater contrasts in hues and techniques, producing dense visual rhythms between the areas of chapped strokes, spreading washes, thick and thin areas, and dry and wet pigments. In his fine brushstrokes, with their twists and turns, and his intermingled, broken, splice, and pulsating lines, a variety of intricate, interwoven rhythms and visual tensions form. Like stars vibrating in deep space, or like life reawakening in a refreshed earth, about to burst out of the ground, a sense of thriving, roiling energy hides beneath the surface here. Strokes in oil pigments both collide and echo each other, full of visual tension, generating excitement in the unending flow of energy in the chaos between the heavens and the earth. In the surging movements of Zao's brush, between peacefulness and passionate agitation, 22.07.64 perfectly embodies the painting concept advocated by the ancients, 'First the concept should be well-formed, and the painter one with his subject.'
In Chinese philosophy, nature and the universe form the macrocosmic world, and man the microcosmic world; because man and nature are intrinsically connected, human affairs should follow the laws of nature in order to achieve harmony. Laozi said, 'Humankind follows the Earth; Earth follows the heavens; the heavens follow the way of the Tao; and the Tao follows the way of nature.' Here, the 'Tao' is an abstract realm, of image without form, embracing both the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small. What is conveyed in the art of Zao Wou-Ki is a grand comprehension of the flow of 'qi' throughout the universe, and his meditations on it. As the noted Swiss writer Jacques Chessex put it, 'In an amazing fashion, a kind of meditation on the sublimity of things appears here, in the spaces of his canvas which are a spectacle of sweetness and delight. While no human figures appear, a powerful strength is concentrated here, evoking traces of humanity and the memories of the artist — the memories of all of his experiences, from the ordinary to the extraordinary.'