I t is the quirk of inspiration that a simple postcard can open up an entire world. Born in Beijing one hundred years ago in 1920, Zao Wou-Ki spent much of his childhood in Jiansu. His father was a banker and art collector who cultivated in his son a strong interest and understanding of art from a young age. During this time Zao’s uncle returned from his latest travels to Paris and brought his nephew a postcard of the painting The Angelus by Jean-François Millet. This was a profound moment that opened a window on Western art for young Zao Wou-Ki.
The first volume of Zao Wou-Ki Catalogue Raisonné has been released in Paris on the centenary of the pioneering modern artist. It documents his works created between 1935 to 1958 – the first two decades of Zao’s artistic journey.
Zao Wou-Ki’s travels took him across the world. He moved to Paris in 1948, and in the first decade there, he embarked on two extended trips – the first to Italy and Spain in 1951 to 1952, and the second to North America beginning September 1957. He visited his brother Wu-wei in New York for four months, then went on to Chicago and San Francisco. Accompanied by Pierre Soulages and the French artist’s wife, Zao then traveled to Hawaii, Japan, and finally Hong Kong in 1958.
During his four months in New York, Zao first encountered Abstract Expressionist painters such as Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and others. This inspired him to develop a bolder style – one that integrated American action painting with the mesmerizing lyrical nature of the Chinese calligraphy.
In 1958, Zao Wou-Ki met the Bokujin-kai, a group led by Kyoto-based calligraphers Morita Shiryu and Inoue Yuichi. By the time of Zao’s meeting with Morita and Inoue, the Bokujin-kai had already established a dynamic dialogue with the American Abstract Expressionists through the art and literary journal Bokubi. Notably in its no.76 issue on May 1958, Bokubi included Zao’s view on calligraphy which gets to the heart of the artist's work.
“Each character has its respective meaning for me, ultimately I think of characters as denoting natural things. For me, I think that characters are one kind of gates. In other words, they become a spot that allows passage between the outside world and my own inner world, so they are a gate, they are a door. I also think of them as something that forms the basis for artistic practice.”
All that Zao Wou-Ki experienced during his yearlong voyage propelled the ultimate evolution of his Oracle Bone Period which he had already started four years earlier. In 1954, Zao began his explorations of ancient Chinese characters in oil painting, and as he deepened his understanding of the connections between calligraphic expression and the artist’s internal and external states, Zao’s works in the latter years of his Oracle Bone Period (1954-1959) became far more expressionistic, characterized by free and spirited brushstrokes on large canvases. This paved the way to his Hurricane Period, which began in 1959.
From 1958 to 1965, Zao made annual trips to New York for exhibitions. His works were also showed in other cities in the U.S., including San Francisco, Sarasota, and Cambridge. During this time, Zao’s paintings had been well received by the competitive New York art scene, both academically and commercially.
Abstraction from Art Institute of Chicago, Untitled from Carnegie Museum of Art, and Untitled from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which were auctioned by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013, 2018 and 2019 respectively, exemplify the unparalleled value of the second stage of Zao’s Oracle Bone Period.
Matching in value these works sold from museum collections, 19.11.59 is remarkable in both its provenance and its painterly quality. In 1961, the painting was purchased by Dr. William E. Upjohn, founder of Upjohn Company, the U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturing firm. It remained in the corporate art collection for over forty years, and the painting was part of the long-standing display at Building 88, the company headquarters in Michigan.
19.11.59 is completed with majestic and dignified palette, as indigo, Persian blue, cerulean, pale blue, navy blue, deep blue, black and white bloom and spread across the canvas. The rapid, spontaneous and calligraphic brushstrokes create an energy that enable the colors to flow, to float and to dance.
In the central plane exists a splash-like form, created by movements of fine and intersecting lines, of black and white linear brushstrokes. Simultaneously delicate and bold, the form dominates the center and appears to circulate the air, as if by an unnamed primeval energy. The wellspring of glowing and radiating power evolves into a mysterious light that consecrates the canvas.
This 1959 piece marks the beginning of Zao’s Hurricane Period, bridging Asia and the West, as well as past and present.
"Zao Wou-Ki's artistic fate is not merely that of the individual. It is intimately tethered to the many thousand years of evolution of Chinese painting … In reality, when talking about what has been gained from his works, it can be said that one hundred years of anticipation in Chinese painting can now be put to rest. The symbiosis between East and West that should have occurred long ago has finally appeared for the first time."