Shining Stars of the Infinite Universe
'Vision remains redirected towards all possibilities—towards the primordial chaos before the world came into being. It is a path that does not lead to the end, but to the beginning halfway between form and formlessness. This is where Zao Wou-ki’s painting leads us—an amorphous world, a world suspended, impending, on the cusp of the formation of order.' (Excerpted from an essay on Zao Wou-Ki's exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York)
Zao Wou-ki’s painting evolved through several stages: the narratives and reminiscences of the ancient past in the 1950’s, the cursive calligraphy-inspired explosive expressionism of the 1960’s, the reengagement with ink the 1970’s, and the pursuit of a spiritual realm of pure emptiness, which has strong affinities with the Chinese literati landscape painting tradition. Infusing this tradition with the modernism of Western abstract art, Zao Wou-ki created minimalistic and refined images that are both ideal landscapes in the literati’s definition and pure embodiments of modernist painting. Like the moon, the unknown and infinitely expansive cosmos was also a frequent topic in Chinese poetry. In 20.12.85 (Lot 1019), Zao Wou-ki combines gentle and elegant brushwork with an unusual large-scale vertical format to evoke the immense energy of primordial chaos before the universe came into being, or before forms become an image. A representative work of Zao Wou-ki’s expressionist style of the mid 1980’s, it seems to direct our gaze towards an infinite distance in both space and time to witness the birth of stars and of light.
In 1981, Zao Wou-ki mounted a solo exhibition for the first time at the premier venue of the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris. In 1983, he mounted another solo exhibition at his alma mater in Hangzhou on the invitation of Chinese Ministry of Culture, and later at the Museum of History in Taipei. These exhibitions in the early 1980’s earned him widespread renown in Asia, and his travels throughout the region also brought him much artistic inspiration. Eastern philosophy and ideals about landscape became increasingly prominent in his work, and 20.12.85 is one of the finest representatives of Zao’s work of this period. In traditional Chinese landscape painting, there existed a genre of “true views,” typically panoramas based of observed scenes in nature. Depicting not only mountains, trees, and architecture but also amorphous mist and clouds, these paintings demonstrated the painter’s virtuosic technique. By contrast, after experiencing the essence of nature, Zao Wou-ki transformed it into an expansive and emotionally-charged abstract landscape. Just as the Jin-dynasty poet Xie Lingyun expressed his desire to return to a state of purity through his descriptions of nature, Zao Wou-ki reanimated the Chinese landscape painting tradition and created new ideal abodes in the tumultuous modern age.
20.12.85 is the only work from 1985 by Zao Wou-ki featuring a primarily orange palette. Here his delicate brush strokes begin at the centre of the composition. Ink-like darker passages extend towards the four sides, creating rich tonal variations with the orange. Although Zao uses oil pigments, he uses it with an eye to the classical ink effects of dryness, wetness, heaviness, and lightness, diffusing and diluting colours with ink-like black. The orange tones form a strong contrast with the heavy blacks and create an expansive space. The composition thus subtly suggests a sense of incipient movement and genesis of a universe. This compositional format, with its subtle dynamism, first appeared in the 1950’s in Zao’s first abstract paintings, and persisted for over three decades. Here, this dynamic structure animates the substantive ink passages in the foreground. With delicate, rhythmic brushwork and an expansive sense of space, Zao Wou-ki continues the fascination with and admiration for the cosmos in the classical Chinese poetic imagination, endowing this painting with uncommon artistic significance.
An Aesthetics of Fluidity
Zao Wou-ki was thoughtful about his choice of colours. He contrasts three of the five traditional Chinese colours—reddish orange, apricot yellow, and ink black—and transfers them in a modern composition on canvas. In this abstract composition, heavy and substantive colours become a fluid and lively landscape, and showcase Zao Wou-ki’s persistent explorations of the liquid effects of ink from the 1970’s onwards. In the post-war West, Yves Klein developed an oeuvre of monochromatic blue paintings, including having a naked woman impress her paint-soaked body on a large canvas to create a sense of dynamism. Zao Wou-ki arrived in Paris in 1948, in the heat of post-war abstraction, and his own abstract paintings evolved ceaselessly. Three decades later, he found a means to incorporate the Chinese cultural spirit in his work. In 20.12.85 it inheres naturally and organically, much like the primordial chaos he evokes.
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