Excerpt from Zao Wou-Ki’s Autoportrait Chapter 7
Zao Wou-Ki’s creative journey reflects the very path of East Asian art’s arrival into the era of contemporary art. Among East Asian artists of the post-war era, Zao Wou-Ki was both the earliest to achieve artistic maturity, and the earliest to be rewarded with international renown. Each of Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic periods marks a stage in his development, leading to an eventual arrival at absolute artistic freedom and mastery. This journey began shortly before the artist’s move to Paris, with the National School of Fine Art Period (circa. 1948), a time defined by the artist’s curiosity toward and absorption of Western art. This was followed by the Paul Klee Period (1951-1954). During these years Zao Wou-Ki became well-versed in modern minimalism, as his self-understanding as an artist also steadily increased. In the Oracle-Bone Period (1954-1959), Zao Wou-Ki began innovating from ancient materials, growing more self-assured in his merging of East and West. Finally, in 1959, the artist embarked upon a series of travels around the world, beginning in Paris, landing in North America and Asia, before returning to Europe. His understanding of contemporary and post-war art grew deeper and more profound, but even more importantly, it was then that an expansion occurred in the artist’s perspective, an awakening to a panoramic view of the world. These changes culminated in the Hurricane Period (1959-1972), the artist’s Golden Age. It was during this time that the artist’s painting exhibited a new and extraordinary grandeur and vigour, one that invoked a splitting of the sky, a parting of the seas, the seething passion of creation churning and leaping across the canvas. Today, the Hurricane Period remains the artist’s most widely recognized period, and the period of his paintings most sought after by collectors around the world.
In the late 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki was living in New York. There, he began an enduring collaboration with the Kootz Gallery, a gallery known for its support and championing of the abstract movement. In the humming and vibrant city, the artist was enlightened through exposure to the free and unrestrained spirit of abstract expressionism, and influenced by American artists’ fondness for large-scale paintings, the attitude that “bigger is better.” The visual impact of these large-scale paintings from Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period is undoubtedly made all the more exhilarating and spiritually immersive by the size of the canvas. According to the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, the largest standard canvas available in Paris at the time was No. 120 (195 x 130 cm); a larger canvas would have required a custom order. Thus, Zao Wou-Ki’s works on No. 120 canvases were considered “large-scale,” and those paintings on larger canvases belonged, instead, to a rare “extra large-scale” category. The artist’s Hurricane Period produced no more than twenty-five of these “extra large-scale” pieces, with seven belonging to institutional collections in France, Switzerland, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and the remaining eighteen belonging to private collections. The lot on offer at this evening sale, 23.05.64 (Lot 1005) is one of these coveted flagship pieces. At an astounding 200 x 162 cm, it resides in a league of its own. This piece originates from the Kootz Gallery, and was included in all of Zao Wou-Ki’s most important monographs from the 1970s to the 1990s, a testament to the painting’s special importance in the artist’s eyes. 23.05.64 has not been publically exhibited since the 2000s. Now, after twenty years of concealment, it is finally being unveiled in all of its glory, in a once-in-a-lifetime offering.
Vigorous and Undulating, A Rushing Vitality
By Zao Wou-Ki’s own recollection, it was Sammuel Kootz of the Kootz Gallery who exhorted him to make large-scale paintings in the 1950s and 60s. Once the artist’s studio was completed on Rue Jonquoy in Paris’ Montparnasse district, he had ample space to work on these large-scale canvases. These large-scale pieces, however, presented a tremendous challenge to the Zao Wou-Ki’s energy and stamina, with the artist meeting success only under the most optimal circumstances. Of the twenty-five “super large-scale” pieces mentioned above, nine were completed in 1964. In the thirteen years of the Hurricane Period, 1964 was the year in which the artist had achieved a physical and spiritual equilibrium, the year of his artistic peak. If Zao Wou-Ki’s large-scale horizontal canvases are seen as movie screens, then the vertical yet wide canvas of 23.05.64 invokes the boundless vision of the large-scale Chinese scrolls from antiquity. The prodigious amber background echoes the brown colour tones from classical oil paintings, its colours flowing in distinct layers, fully expressing the Chinese calligraphy technique of ink gradations. The interwoven colours of heather yellow, lavender, red, sky blue, and ocean-green manifest in myriad permutations under the dancing action of the brush. Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings from the 1950s and 1960s present a use of colour that is restrained yet full of tension, concise, yet rich with imagery, exhibiting characteristics from the foundational philosophies of Chinese painting since the Song and Yuan dynasties. By the Hurricane Period, the artist’s use of colour had grown bolder, more daring, often introducing complementary colours within the tableau of the dominant colour tone, a practice that marvellously enriched the world of the canvas. The amber tones of 23.05.64 are deep and full, abundant in their aura of antiquity, invoking the grand paintings of the Song and Yuan dynasties through the Western medium of oil. In fact, the amber tones approach the much-revered “crimson” colour of the Tang and Song dynasties, a hue considered grand and majestic without compromising the aura of regal reserve. These deep and rich colours, intersecting and dancing amid the magnificent torrent of energy and vigour, seem to be a symbol of the post-war avant-garde spirit, flourishing and full of vitality, standing upon the shoulders of its artistic predecessors, revealing heights heretofore unseen.
The Dragon Cast from a Brush, Heaving with Vitality
In the wondrous phantasmagoria of 23.05.64, Zao Wou-Ki unleashes wild cursive brushstrokes, a calligraphy technique, practiced for over a millennium in the Eastern world, that was being reinterpreted as an artistic form in the post-war period. In the center of the canvas, the black oil paint suspended in air mimics the sinuous winding of an ink dragon, flickering into visibility amid the white wisps of cloud, creating a large tian (“sky” or “heavens”) or wang (“king”) character in Chinese, charging the canvas with energy. Zao Wou-Ki’s use of calligraphy and written characters in his paintings had emerged as early as the Paul Klee Period and the Oracle-Bone Period of the 1950s, where they appeared as symbols or characters in partial form. Once “writing” was established as an integral aspect of the global post-war art movement, East Asian calligraphy became indispensable in the education of avant-garde artists. From the paintings of French artists Georges Matheiu and Pierre Soulages to American artists Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, the works of this period frequently contained the imprints of Eastern calligraphy. This phenomenon was further encouragement for Zao Wou-Ki to bring the spirit of calligraphy into his own paintings. In 1958, the artist became acquainted with Yūichi Inoue and Morita Shiryū, leaders of the calligraphy salon “Bokujin-kai” (“Society of People of Ink”). This international milieu led Zao Wou-Ki to grow even bolder and braver in his use of calligraphy, such that he departed further from both figurative representation and his ties to antiquity, instead honouring his subjective spirit and will above all else. As the artist explained in Bokubi, the journal of Bokujin-kai, “Each written character possesses an individual meaning for me…I see these characters as a kind of sluice gate. In other words, they are a channel between the external world and my internal world; they are a gate, a door. I see them also as a foundation for artistic creation.” The form of the “sky” or “king” character in 23.05.64 contains the bold and wilful spirit of cursive calligraphy. Its layering upon the expansive canvas delivers a visual impact that far surpasses written calligraphy, its grandeur more organic and capacious than J.M.W Turner’s landscapes. This painting presents clear evidence of the artist’s bold ambition as he mounts the summit of his artistic generation. It announces the artist’s arrival as a king of abstract art.
A Master’s Symphony; The Sound of an Era
23.05.64 belongs to the finest rank of museum-grade pieces. Comparing it to similar large-scale paintings by the artist from the same era, one immediately thinks of Zao Wou-Ki’s Hommage à Edgar Varèse 25.10.64, belonging to the collection at the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts of Lausanne, Switzerland, as well as 06.01.68, belonging to the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art. In the process of appraising the lot on offer, Hommage à Edgar Varèse was an important point of reference. The painting and the lot on offer were created in the same year, featuring “extra large-scale” canvases, with similar compositions and colour tones. Hommage à Edgar Varèse provides also another strand of understanding into Zao Wou-Ki’s creative process: the influence and inspiration of music in his abstract creations. In a piece titled “Zao Wou-Ki and Global Music” written for the co-organized Zao Wou-Ki exhibit, “No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki,” at Colby College, Dr. Melissa Walt, an American historian of modern and contemporary Chinese art educated at Stanford, Yale, and the University of Washington, illustrates how music served as an important influence on the artist’s entire career. Zao Wou-Ki was an aficionado of European classical music and 20th century avant-garde music. During their early years in Paris, he and his then-wife Lalan, who studied music herself, established friendships with world-class composers Pierre Boulez and Edgard Varése. Zao Wou-Ki’s spare time was also partially devoted to the study of music theory and vocal music. During his creative career, Zao Wou-Ki was known for confining himself to the studio in complete solitude, with music as his only accompaniment. This relationship with music began as early as the Kandinsky exhibition at the opening of the 20th century, where the artist was inspired by the idea of the formlessness of music. Later, in the post-war era, Varése, a figure who represented the avant-garde music movement, completely subverted the traditional paradigm of classical music through a deconstructionist impulse that chimed with the impulse behind abstract art. Thus, by the early 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki, in his Oracle-Bone Period, was already invoking music of the Baroque composer Handel as a theme of work. In 1964, to commemorate a decade of friendship with Varèse, Zao Wou-Ki created the extra large-scale Hommage à Edgar Varèse. According to the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, the inspiration for this piece can be found in the artist’s travels to the United States, where the artist encountered the flourishing New York theatre and art world. This same understanding can be applied to 23.05.64. 23.05.64 is a painting not only powerful and complete in its overall conceit, the magnanimous brushstrokes form a steady composition, within which the details are rendered with refinement and precision. One can easily imagine the artist in his studio, door closed to the outside world, with only himself and his music as he wields his brush to the rhythms of the strings and percussion, expressing the essence of his inner spirit. What resulted was nothing less than “Zaowoukia,” what former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin exclaimed was a spiritual universe mastered over by Zao Wou-Ki himself.
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