Abstract Variations on Chinese Landscape Painting
Zao Wou-Ki's Hurricane period (1959-1972) not only marked the artist's crucial transition towards a more grand and majestic style, but also bore witness to his acceptance in the West. In 1957, he signed with Galerie de France, and the following year, with Samuel Kootz in New York, securing representation from two illustrious and storied galleries. International exhibitions of his work traveled the world; Zao Wou-Ki's prestige in Western art circle was now beyond a doubt. Zao also visited New York for the first time along with his friend, the French artist Pierre Soulages. He met with a variety of New York artists, exposing himself to fresh aesthetic perspectives. After divorcing his first wife, Lalan, he met and fell in love with his second wife, Chan May-Kan, in Hong Kong, another development that contributed to Zao's breakthroughs in both art and life.
Zao Wou-Ki's works from this period reflect the influence of Western Abstract Expressionism, but more than that, they harken back to the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art. Zao revamped his personal creative vocabulary during this period, transitioning to a more purely abstract style between his Oracle Bone period (1954-1959) and the peak of his Hurricane period. He ceased to include concrete symbols (like oracle-bone inscriptions) in his work; instead, he more deeply explored space and structure in his canvas. The vertical composition of 15.12.60 (Lot 1003) seems to express the creative concepts of Chinese landscape painting: clouds and mist swirl together in the background, forming a contrast with the mountainous towers and crags in the foreground. The result is a union of empty and full: a poetic tableau in which shades of red, black, and white blend together like sky and sea to create a majestic effect. Viewing this painting, one is reminded of the vertical scrolls of traditional Chinese painting, and in particular, the classical landscape styles of the Song Dynasty masters Mi Fu and Xia Gui. Zao Wou-Ki fused the techniques of Western Abstract Expressionism with the creative concepts of Chinese traditional landscape painting, a milestone achievement in postwar Chinese abstract art. 15.12.60 is a representative masterpiece of Zao's consummate combination of Western Abstract Expressionism and Chinese traditional aesthetics.
The rising tide of Abstract Expressionism in postwar Western art led artists around the world to simplify their imagery and explore non-narrative styles. The masters of Western Abstract Expressionism at the time included the French painters Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages, as well as Americans such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Line is an extremely important aspect of Western painting that is used to depict objects or express an artist's aesthetic vision, and the move towards Abstract Expressionism was particularly evident in the lines of these painters' works. Simple lines can express abstract beauty, and they are also a means of conveying the artist's emotions and feelings. The use of line in Western art is largely based on rational principles, generally expressing form or structure with an emphasis on shape. In contrast, in Eastern art, line represents a higher degree of aesthetic value. Artists and calligraphers alike draw written characters with coarse or fine lines, and heavy or light brushstrokes, as a means of expressing their emotions and their aesthetic sensibilities. In 15.12.60, Zao Wou-Ki does not outline mountains and trees; instead, he uses a combination of intersecting and interwoven lines to suggest the feel of a landscape. These concise brushstrokes gradually form the distinctively uneven shapes of traditional Chinese painting: jagged, rocky mountains and rivers with fanciful forms, and robust brushstrokes reminiscent of ink calligraphy. At the same time, Zao uses Western methods of oil painting to create a layered texture, producing the visual effect of a vigorous modern landscape: an abstract variation on Chinese traditional landscape painting.
A major European collector purchased 15.12.60 from the Kootz Gallery in 1961 and retained it in the collector private collection for more than fifty years. Now this painting is available for auction for the first time, a truly golden opportunity for collectors who are interested in rare works by Zao Wou-Ki.