Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-Chun: The Generation of International Abstraction
Celebrated for generations in Europe and Asia, the work of Zao Wou-ki (1921) and Chu Teh-Chun (1920) has for decades fared less well in North American critical circles. Fêted almost since their arrivals in their adopted home of France – Zao in 1947 and Chu in 1955 – and embraced as card-carrying members of the École de Paris, this warm welcome itself played a critical role in their varied worldwide receptions in the decades that followed.
Zao’s and Chu’s European success was a mark of distinction in terms of their subsequent receptions in Asia. But as the dominant art historical narrative of the post-war decades would have it, a group of now-famous Irascibles in “New York stole the idea of modern art” from a Paris depleted of its artistic elder statesmen and fatigued by its wartime experience.i In the complicated cultural politics of post-war painting, the triumph of Abstract Expressionism (as “New York School” painting came to be known) was inscribed in the annals as the defeat of the École de Paris. Art history was written by the winners, and Tachisme, art informel, or ‘lyrical abstraction’ – different terms for European abstraction of the period – never seemed to pack the muscular, one-two punch of American Ab-Ex.
As we’ve become wary of such Manichean perspectives, a fresh look at the whole of this generation of artists is warranted. Zao and Chu were exact contemporaries of celebrated European artists of the time, such as Pierre Soulages (1919), Georges Mathieu (1921), and Karel Appel (1921). And among the same generation from North America – Jules Olitski (1922), Sam Francis (1923-1994), Ellsworth Kelly (1923), Jean Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), Kenneth Noland (1924), and Joan Mitchell (1925) – it’s quite significant that they all ventured to France to work, live and study in the late 40s or early 50s. Most remained for many years, and some, like Zao and Chu themselves, for the rest of their lives.
Contrary to the clear-cut and familiar art historical record, Paris in the 1940s and 50s was still a strong magnet for leading artists – regardless of their nationality. And the watershed move to abstraction by Zao in 1953 and Chu in 1956 put their work in the ranks of the most advanced painting of the time.
But if art history’s blind spots suggest we need a more nuanced view of the period, how much more this is true for the work of individual artists and specific works of art. While the oeuvres of Zao and Chu sit comfortably within the generation of international abstraction, each has a character and gestural quality uniquely his own – and this despite the parallels in their individual artistic developments: from realism to a dramatic, weighty abstraction to a lighter, refined style in recent years, during which each has produced what is arguably his most extraordinary body of work. Sotheby’s is pleased to present a small group of works by Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-Chun that offer a glimpse of their paths of development over the decades.
The earliest work on offer is Chu Teh-Chun’s Composition No. 108 (1961, Lot 38), a richly textured composition fleshed out in the heavy impasto and dramatic, graphic contrasts popular in painting of the period. Yet the work is unequivocally resonant with memories of the Chinese landscape tradition, with its play of light and dark, the resulting spacious atmosphere, the pronounced horizontality of the painting, and the mountainous landscape imagery Chu’s painterly bravura evokes. It is work of this nature – charged with the force of nature itself, the ultimate source of his abstraction – that led to Chu’s recognition as a bridge between the rich history of Chinese aesthetics and the world of advanced Modernism in which he circulated in Paris.
i The classic text in this regard is Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), although the battle lines were drawn much earlier than Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (New York: Praeger, 1970).
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