In middle age I'm quite drawn to the Way.
Here by the hills I've built a home. I go
—Whenever the spirit seizes me—alone
To see the spots that other folk don't know.
I walk to the head of the stream, sit down, and watch
For when the cloud rise. On the forest track
By chance I meet an old man, and we talk
And laugh, and I don't think of going back.
Zhongnan Retreat, Wang Wei
Flames of the Universe
Blazing with a singularly lustrous intensity and coruscating resplendence, 10.1.68 is an exceptional masterpiece exhibiting one of the most strikingly hued palettes ever employed by Zao Wou-Ki. Searing crevices of pearlescent blue pierce through ardent chasms of cavernous fire, manifesting a formidable heaving maelstrom of colour and light. The ravishingly majestic orange tones are reminiscent of the flaming hues of Juin-Octobre 1985, which holds the artist's current auction record, while blue is a colour that Zao Wou-Ki used in all of his stylistic periods. The artist once explained that his deep understanding of the colour blue originated from his earliest days in Paris, when he encountered a painting by Giotto depicting the Virgin Mary wrapped in a blue robe. Pure and sublime, gentle yet exquisitely fierce, Zao Wou-Ki's blue in 10.1.68 reverberates with a transcendent aura, especially when juxtaposed against consummate structural and tonal modulations of orange and umber. Across the iridescent breadth of the canvas, Zao Wou-Ki's emotive gestural vocabulary orchestrates a tempestuous symphony between line and form, colour and contour, manifesting an intoxicating vibrating aura defined by concentrated intuition and deadly meticulous precision. Confidently and brilliantly executed, 10.1.68 summons the same overpowering immediacy and potent visual authority as it did exactly half a century ago.
Zao Wou-Ki's artistic career reached a new pinnacle in the 1960s. During the late 1950s, he decided to reject his previous artistic achievements by forsaking realistic representation, this change being inspired by Northern Song master Fan Kuan's axiom: "It is better to learn from Nature than from ancient masters; it is even better to learn from your own heart than from Nature". Zao plumbed the depths of his inner being for inspiration, extending and fusing colour palettes in pursuit of an infinite, abstract world on canvas. He contemplated the many-faceted issues surrounding the universe, portraying things that are not even visible to the naked eye: elements such as qi (energy), winds, the power and physicality of life, as well as his own personal feelings. All these contribute to Zao's Abstract Landscape series of the 1960s.
Numerous artists and critics have praised Zao's output of that period. For example, during the early 1960s, Alfred Manessier (1962 winner of the Venice Biennale Grand Prix) wrote in a letter to Zao, "I listen quietly, opening my heart, grasping those important messages you're communicating through your drawings ... your works are beautiful, they've surpassed your fluid technique. I think I can say this: your paintings now are ever more realistic, they have surpassed everything you've painted before" (Zao Wou-Ki & Françoise Marquet, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Autoportrait, Artist Publishing Co., Taipei, 1992, p. 120). It is very rare that painters heap praise on their peers, as in the case of the literati circle, yet Chinese-born Zao has sustained life-long friendships with many internationally acclaimed artists. The fact that his works are prized by others is testament to how his art and aesthetics have successfully crossed the barriers of nationality, identity and language.
Zao's fame also reached unprecedented levels in the 1960s. His French agent—Myriam Prévot from the Galerie de France—organized exhibitions in galleries and museums at home and abroad, boosting his international profile. Zao was displayed along such abstract expressionists as Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages; and the artist himself recalls vividly how these events catapulted him as a member of that generation as they came to the fore. Apart from Galerie de France, other celebrated agents, such as Samuel Kootz and Pierre Matisse, also vied to establish long-term working relationships with Zao. On one hand, Zao inherited the aesthetic tradition of Chinese landscape paintings and calligraphic art of the Song and Yuan dynasties. On the other hand, he fused them with techniques of Western drawing, emphasizing the play of colour and light, creating a fresh, new abstract art that conjoined the best of East and West. Not only did his paintings rejuvenate Chinese art, he also stood tall in the international art milieu. All of these contributed to his popularity and success among the most respected gallery owners and agents.
At the same time, Zao began to receive offers to exhibit abroad. In 1967, he was invited to participate in the Maeght Foundation's retrospective entitled Ten years of Living Art 1955–1965, which included such stars as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein among the 246 featured artists. In 1968, Zao's work was included in the travelling exhibition Painting in France 1900–1967 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Françoise Marquet & Yann Hendgen, ed., Zao Wou-Ki 1935–2008, Kwai Fung Publishing, Hong Kong, 2010, p. 351), proof that Zao had attained recognition in the international art world. That same year, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibition solely devoted to Zao Wu-Ki. Among the most outstanding works in that exhibition is the present work, 10.1.68.
Zao deliberately worked against the prevalent style of that time, when painters applied similar colour schemes on a monochrome background. He was bold in choosing highly contrasting colours of blue-green and orange-red, juxtaposing them on the canvas, producing electrifying flashes and explosive radiance. Southern-dynasty literatus Liu Xie, in his chapter on sound and rhythm in his critical tract Dragon-Carving and the Literary Mind (Wen Xin Diao Long), posited that "harmony is created by the coexistence of different tones, while resonance is created when the same tones are in dialogue" (Chiu Kwong Chiu, ed., No Mere Chinese Painting, Joint Publishing, Hong Kong, 2003, p. 73). Colours that create strong dynamic contrast are similar to the coexistence of different pitches. Zao treats his colours as skillfully as a musician displaying his well-honed technique: pitches coordinate and correlate through conflict and contrast, creating powerful energy and resonance on the canvas. Through his broad and uninhibited brush strokes, Zao created an imaginary space that is as glorious as the rebirth of heaven and earth before our eyes. We detect from his strong brush strokes rhythm and movement that epitomize the implicit spirit and strong, ever-flowing vivacity. The finely textured black lines are analogous to different pulses that throb within a living being. Not only do they epitomize the painter's passion for life, but they also invite the viewers to revel therein. The entire canvas is imbued with a spirit in ascendance that is striking to the viewer.
But if we look back at the year 1968, the exact period when Zao created 10.1.68, we see a time marked by unrest and turmoil, when China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Zao's father was criticized and denounced because he used to be a banker (therefore a capitalist). This sudden change in the fate of his country and family had dealt a serious blow to him both psychologically and emotionally. But he refocused his attention to his painting, recording his responses onto the canvas. What is most amazing is that the essence of 10.1.68 was not of despair, pain or bitterness, but of a positive, head-held-up-high stance. Wang Wei's poem Zhongnan Retreat comes to mind; just like the poem's protagonist, Zao Wou-Ki makes his own solitary journey into the mountains. Within the mountain there is unknown danger, awesome beauty, and a wide range of experiences from sweet to bitter for one to savour. Perhaps life will be a smooth ride, or dotted with tortuous footpaths, but there is always a wondrous vista awaiting somewhere along the way. Life is limitless: nature has its own way to nurture and destroy life. As long as one is steadfast, there is no fear of being alone. As long as one is confident, there is no fear of danger. At once profound and deeply personal, 10.1.68 bears testament to Zao's own life and his emotional turmoil during that time.