The vibrant motion within the deep indigo sea suggests anticipation of an upcoming storm or a reflective retreat from a prior storm. Zao Wou-Ki, in his paintings, often creates what seems to be a mystical dragon exploding from a sea of color. This painting holds the dragon in the lower left-hand corner calmly immersed in a restless sea about to emerge toward the storm. Zao Wou-Ki, like Klee, paints from an emotional synergy with nature, here from his heart, his hand sweeps upward toward the light above the storm on the right. For me, this painting changes, calms or challenges.
Zao Wou-Ki spoke of the internal conflict of his identity as an artist between the two cultures and traditions of the Eastern and Western aesthetics. And I, about to be a new mother at the time we purchased the painting, was seeking my space within the two cultures of my separated parents, determined not to inflict the same pain upon our soon-to-be-born son. Our painting’s sea-dragon either resonates with reflective strength to calm me or challenges me to navigate the conflicting storms.”
Excerpt from Meditation on Zao Wou-Ki’s Painting,
Present Private Collector
Treasured for Half a Century, A Gem of the Hurricane Period: 19.01.61
The 1960s marked the pinnacle of Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period. The artist’s canvases were covered in bursting, unending manifestations of creative energy, displaying an extraordinary aura of grandeur. The cursive brushstrokes resemble wild grass, galloping and intertwining amid the vast space, rife with emotion and overflowing color, the artist’s assuredness and charm on full display. The masterpiece presented at this season’s Evening Sale, 19.01.61 (Lot 1030), is a classic representative of the artist’s work from this era. Its prodigious dimensions, its vigorous and fervent style, perfectly exhibit Zao Wou-Ki’s soaring creativity and spirit. This period of sudden creative furor is intimately tied to Zao Wou-Ki’s travels around the world from 1957 to 1959. In the 1950s, Zao Wou-Ki had made his entrance onto the global art stage with the “Oracle Bone Series,” stepping right into the center of the post-war explorations into abstractionism. But following the disintegration of his first marriage, the artist made a resolute departure from Paris, and traveled to the Americas and Asia. It was on this trip that Zao Wou-Ki experienced firsthand the fresh and surging waves of Post-war art. It also led to the fateful encounter with the woman who would become his much-beloved second wife, Chan May-Kan, the two forming an instant, electric bond. These myriad new experiences inspired new thoughts, and by the time he returned to Europe, the gestation was complete. The artist’s ideas had matured and taken root. And thus, the artist was propelled into a golden era, during which he created masterpiece after masterpiece, each featuring the “wild cursive” trademark of the period. Influenced by the American abstract expressionists, Zao Wou-Ki turned toward the large-scale canvas as something capacious enough to contain his surging creativity and feeling. 19.01.61 is painted on a classic No. 100 canvas, giving free reign to the artist’s bold and decisive brushstrokes, which move freely and fluidly across the canvas, expressing all of the artist’s interior feeling.
For half a century, 19.01.61 has not been displayed to the public. After seeing the piece at Laing Gallery in Toronto in 1969, a husband and wife immediately decided to purchase it for their private collection. There, the painting has resided until today. The couple was instantly struck by the paining’s oceanic indigo, the dynamic composition that invokes the galloping of mythical creatures. Indeed, the deep indigo color conjures the mighty sea, and within the darkness, an intense light emerges, illuminating the tides that beat ceaselessly against the shore. The light appears bold and unrestrained, much like the romantic love that was nourishing and driving the artist’s creative spirit. 19.01.61 not merely symbolizes a period of utter fulfilment for Zao Wou-Ki, in both his career and personal life, it is also a testament to the lives of the two collectors. Their harmonious and loving relationship, and their devotion to art, endows the painting with another layer of meaning. After fifty years away from the public eye, today, this painting is finally making its grand entrance, marking a truly noteworthy occasion.
Conquering North America, and then the World
The original American collectors visited Laing Gallery in Toronto in 1969, in search of art for their new home. Once they saw 19.01.61, the two were in instant agreement, the painting’s vigorous and majestic indigo composition fully captivated both of them. The experience of being moved by the artwork reminded them of an earlier occasion of seeing a work by Paul Klee. This beloved piece by Zao Wou-Ki ignited their enthusiasm toward art collecting, and accompanied their lives for fifty years.
The birth of this piece coincided with a revolutionary moment in Zao Wou-Ki’s popularity on the global scale. Using his studio in Paris as a base, the artist accepted invitations for numerous overseas exhibitions, the renown of his art rapidly spreading around the world. His success was reaching heretofore unimagined heights, and outpacing that of his peers. In the 1960s, the Galerie de France in Paris hosted many exhibitions for Zao Wou-Ki, both in Paris and in other cities, firmly establishing his extraordinary status in the European art world. Upon the recommendation of the artist’s friend Pierre Soulages, the famed Kootz Gallery in New York began representing Zao Wou-Ki, allowing the artist to break into a scene that was at the time resistant to European abstract style. In this way, Zao Wou-Ki successfully acquired a golden key for his artistic entrance into the United States. Zao Wou-Ki also established a relationship with neighboring Canada. Due to its French-speaking regions, the country was naturally more accepting toward Parisian artists. In 1969, two retrospectives were hosted for the artist in the country, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and the Musée du Québec. The first Canadian gallery to present the artist’s work, also the gallery of origin for this painting, was the Laing Gallery in Toronto.
The owner of the Laing Gallery, G. Blair Laing, was one of the most active art dealers in Canada during the 20th century. Directed by the exceptionally keen eye of Laing, the gallery gathered together the brightest stars among the Post-war artists, inducting Toronto, formerly on the periphery of the international art scene, into its inner circles. This had the effect of awakening the local appetite for art collecting. Zao Wou-Ki and G. Blair Laing met in 1959. In Memoirs of an Art Dealer, published in the 1980s, Laing recalls a trip to Paris during which he was hoping to recruit new art and artists. The then-curator of the Louvre, Charles Sterling, recommended a group of contemporary French abstract painters, including Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, as well as Zao Wou-Ki. “The diminutive, sunny-dispositioned artist from Peking,” he described him. At the time, Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period was in its budding days, and Laing was thoroughly mesmerized by an “abstract composition that exuded an Eastern aura,” and decisively brought that piece along with fifty other Parisian School paintings back to Toronto for exhibition. At the time, these artists were not well-known outside of Paris, but Laing’s vision and intrepidity led him forward, resulting in an historic exchange between European and American abstract art. It also served as the most powerful engine behind the trajectory of Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period, from its beginnings to its spread across the world.
An Indigo Masterpiece, A Profound Union
During the Hurricane Period, Zao Wou-Ki stepped away from objective representation toward subjective, interior states. Yet his language of abstraction is never entirely devoid of context. Instead, it invokes grand, natural phenomena as a metaphor for and an expression of immense internal vitality. In 19.01.61, a few shafts of light appear to have emerged suddenly, from left to right, startling the solemn expanse of navy blue, as though radiance is piercing through a primal chaos, shining upon the elemental rust colors in the center of the painting. Within this scene, Zao Wou-Ki uses a feibei or “flying white” semi-cursive calligraphic script to create a composition of incredible tension, conjuring rolling clouds and leaping waves with the violence and force of a tempest, and delivers a stunningly theatrical visual impact. The original collectors compare the brushwork to the movements of the mythical dragon. The scene moves to the pulse of nature, the unbridled brush emitting energy like strikes of lightning, as though a single flashing instant has been captured onto the canvas. Amid the merging colors, the calligraphic lines appear natural and uninhibited, endowed with magnanimity. They recall the cursive calligraphy of Tang dynasty calligrapher Huaisu, the virtuosic brushstrokes like a torrent of rain and wind, of infinite change. After fifty years of cohabitation, the original collectors have found the painting to be unendingly dynamic, their appreciation only deepening with time. In the mysterious depths of the composition, a profound vastness reverberates across all of time.
The color composition of 19.01.61 is atmospherically prodigious yet compact. The dominant color of indigo blue appears to contain infinite depths and delicate layers, creating a space that transcends the mortal world. It lures in the viewer’s gaze, drawing them into its depths, to the sound of the crashing waves, to the presence of the wild and insurmountable vastness of nature. Similar artistic threads run through this work and that of English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, though one might claim that Zao Wou-Ki’s 19.01.61 exceeds the vision of its predecessor. Inspired by the religious paintings of the Renaissance he saw during his time in France, Zao Wou-Ki was long devoted to the color blue. In these classical paintings, the Virgin Mary is swathed in blue robes that emit an aura of purity and solemnity. During the 15th and 16th centuries, blue was a rare and precious color, and thus, in Western art, it has continued to possess connotations of holiness and preciousness. Through the artist’s evolution from the “Paul Klee Period” to the “Oracle Bone Period” and “Hurricane Period,” Zao Wou-Ki’s use and interpretation of the color blue has been in constant development. Separating the color from its basic narrative function, the artist has transmuted it, endowing it with the power to convey spiritual and philosophical depths. In the study of color psychology, blue is the color of both reason and spirituality, deep blue signifying trust, authority, loyalty, abidance, and eternity, much like the deep and abiding relationship between the two original collectors.
Today, the original collectors, in their bittersweet parting from this treasure, leave the following words to the next owners of 19.01.61: “Now this Zen-like painting, that we have lived with and loved for almost fifty years, hopefully, will be sold to someone who senses the strength in confronting a stormy sea that supports reflective peace.”
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