Internationally-renowned abstractionist Zao Wou-ki has led a life brimming with force and momentum, his art making its print upon the far reaches of the globe, cherished by museums and collectors far and wide. Throughout the artist’s career, the wellspring for his creative inspiration has never faltered. In his paintings, the artist expresses his worldview and spiritual state over various periods in his life. Zao spent the 50s in Paris, and roamed Europe and the Americas in the 60s and 70s, finally beginning his journey back to the East during the pinnacle of his career in the 80s. In 1981, the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais held a solo retrospective for Zao, the artist’s first solo exhibition at a public museum. From there began his touring exhibition. In addition to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea, where the artist was greeted with widely positive reception, Zao also returned to his motherland of China, from which he had long been separated. In 1982, the artist painted two large panels in Beijing for the Fragrant Hills Hotel, and in 1983, he held a solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing as well as the China Academy of Art (then called the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts). In 1985, the artist made another trip back to his alma mater, lecturing for a brief time at the China Academy of Art. During this time, his abstract paintings began exhibiting particularly pronounced Chinese characteristics. The lot on offer at the Beijing Autumn Sale, 27.01.86 (Lot 38) – in its composition, brushwork, color, and spiritual essence - embodies the creativity and spirit of the artist during this period.
Unrelenting Pursuit of Evolution
Zao Wou-ki’s abstract paintings have seemingly been under constant evolution. The different worlds he has created under his brush – from the poetic works of his Klee-influenced period, the mystery and depth of the “oracle bone” period, and the unbridled magnificence of his “wild-cursive script period” – have all reflected the artist’s rich spiritual realm, one that represents the artist’s growing experience and wisdom. After the 1970s, Zao’s works became ever more sublime, his paintings exhibiting vast and boundless space. Gone was the previous energy – bright and bold – in intense conflict; instead, his paintings had transcended into the realm of Eastern wisdom that embodied the concept of “emptiness” and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. By the 1980s, the artist had built upon this foundation of “emptiness.” The paintings were no longer simply a tranquil and harmonious presentation of nothingness, but now featured colors and lines rife with vitality. The first impression that 27.01.86 offers the viewer is one of its majesty and overflowing force. Although the artist had already reached his prime when this painting was created, his energy was unwavering. In this painting, his brush gallops across the giant canvas, glorious streaks of ink crisscrossing, as if entering the canvas from all directions, like extending vines or coils of horned dragons, woven into a dynamic network. The composition is dense, bold, and rugged, with the pulse of heaven and earth infused into the canvas, feeding and breeding new energy and life. Occupying half of the space of the canvas is a coral red, which serves to dilute the extreme dynamism of the painting, its transparent quality spilling out, substantially elevating the visual effect of the piece, evoking the traditional Chinese symbols of hope and fortune, and illuminating the never-ending power of the universe’s revolutions.
A World Changing and Invented Anew
Zao Wou-ki once said, “As a painter, one must be skilled not only with lines and colors, but there must be some sincere emotion, buried in the depths of the heart. A good painting must be unified in form and content. The painter is merely using lines and color to express his inner feelings. The ‘universe’ he creates should be his own, one that evolves along with his personal feelings. This ‘evolution’ is also a constant ‘reinvention.’” In 27.01.86, the energy is concentrated at the very center of the composition, an unusual arrangement for the artist’s works from the 80s. Yet this concentrated strength is fundamentally different from the forceful conflict between color and canvas displayed in his works of the 60s – instead, this energy is harmonious and at ease. In the Taoist view of the universe, “All things are produced by being, and being is produced by non-being.” It was during this period, in which Zao pursued a spirit of “emptiness,” that he completed 27.01.86, a piece that teems with vitality. It belongs to a realm described by the Daodejing as “Attaining complete emptiness / Abiding in the still depths / Everything arising together / In this, seeing their cyclical nature.” The artist has created the mystery of nature with a leisurely, roaming state of mind. In 1988, Zao was commissioned by the Seoul Olympic Committee to create an abstract painting to promote the spirit of the Olympics, a painting which stylistically echoes that of 27.01.86.
Western Form Igniting Eastern Spirit
If the quality of Zao’s lyrical abstraction paintings can be traced back to the influence of French lyrical abstraction, and his penchant for tackling large canvases can be traced back to the inspiration of the New York School painters during his time in the States, then the technique of his ink wash lines, the aesthetic choice of leaving white space, the appreciation of Zen philosophy – all manifested in 27.01.86 – can be credited to his Chinese roots. The abstract world portrayed here, rich with Eastern aesthetics, is the influence of Zao’s return to ink wash painting after the 70s, as he progressed from a focus on technique to a emphasis on the spiritual realm. With regards to this occurrence, renowned critic He Zhengguang commented that, “Our view toward the natural, unadorned world, toward the aestheticism of Zen philosophy, and toward the abstract rhythm of the movements of the Universe, are full of an energetic “vitality,” which contains in it a condensed quality of the Eastern aesthetic, and which forms the basis for the Chinese national aesthetic ideal. This broad and deep philosophical ideology can be concentrated into the highest state that a painting can achieve – one that possesses a vivid spirit. As Zao Wou-ki has said of his work, and what his works themselves display is this very “vivid spirit,” this precious, cultural pulse and blood, as well as the abstraction that Chinese painting aesthetics has pursued. Zao Wou-ki has taken the forms of Western abstractionism and the spirit of Eastern aesthetics, and condensed them into his personal thoughts and feelings, an alchemy of “Zao Wou-ki-ness”, mixed with an innovative abstract style, becoming crystallized pearls of the artist’s wisdom.”
As an international heavyweight in the art world, Zao Wou-ki’s works respond in a positive way to the traditions of Chinese art, his heroic undertaking of using Western form to activate classical Chinese aesthetics achieving perfect success. Following the completion of 27.01.86, the painting was exhibited in 1988 as part of the artist’s large-scale solo exhibition at the Galerie Artcurial in Paris, and later, in 2004, as part of a comprehensive retrospective exhibition at Tokyo’s Bridgestone Museum of Fine Art. It was also included in Oxford fellow and art historian Michael Sullivan’s collection, titled Art and Artists of 20th Century China. These recognitions are a testament to the charm and academic importance of Zao’s painting, one which bridges the East and West. A true museum-grade classic, its offering today in Beijing is a golden opportunity!
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