Zao Wou-Ki’s resplendent, masterful triptych 15.01.82
“Zao Wou-Ki’s creative destiny belongs not only to him but is closely connected to the past millennia in the evolution of Chinese painting and art. The basic fact that works benefit from artists’ own experiences in no way weakens artists’ keen search for their own directions, but empowers them even more so in touching people’s hearts. Precisely for this reason, Chinese painting stagnated for more than a century, but that impasse looks to be drawing to an end. The long-awaited, genuine coexistence between China and the West now appears for the first time … perhaps, when critics collectively reminisce about that time in the middle of this century when the artist travelled from his distant home to settle in Paris, they would be correct in claiming this important juncture a miracle. Just as miraculously, the artist found himself and dove into creative work, and the depth of his achievements continues to inspire awe.” This introduction by noted writer François Cheng commemorated the occasion of Zao Wou-Ki’s solo exhibition at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in 1981, the year that Zao was first invited to exhibit at the premier French art gallery, a momentous event for him and a great turning point in his career.
Leading the renaissance of Chinese art on the world stage
As François Cheng remarked, Zao Wou-Ki’s accomplishment is likened to a miracle. From his 1948 journey to France onward, he went through cycles of discovery and deep reflection, successfully absorbing elements from his mother culture—Tang and Song poetry, bronze ware, oracle bone and bronze bell inscriptions, ancient engravings, traditional calligraphy and paintings—and fusing them with ease into Western oil painting. The art world had never seen such a rich and enigmatic visual language before. Not only did Zao enhance the milieu of abstract expressionism, but he also led a renaissance of Chinese art on the world stage. In connecting the art of East and West and fostering their innovation, his was a tremendous feat. The French art critic Jean Leymarie once wrote, “Above the formal grandeur and abundant spirit of Zao Wou-Ki’s works is a sense of timeless space. On his shoulders are the all-encompassing coexistence of what lies between East and West, and between vim and contemplation.” Many of the world’s most eminent galleries, from Paris’s Galerie de France to America’s Kootz Gallery, vied to work with Zao, organizing show after show in France and beyond, engendering even more exposure. Without doubt, Zao Wou-Ki is the Chinese practitioner of Western art with the most loyal following among art collectors around the world today.
Zao’s fame and artistic achievement was already at a high niveau in the 1960s. Later on, in the 1980s, his career scaled new heights. By 1981, more than 130 solo exhibitions were held in Europe, America and Asia. Zao also participated in more than 200 group exhibitions, his works collected by more than 70 established public museums, including Paris’s Pompidou Centre, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and Tokyo’s Bridgestone Museum of Art. No other modern Chinese artist can match such a resume.
A decade of dramatic changes—Images of spirituality
“Zao Wou-Ki’s works are intimately linked with his life. They are similar to seismographs recording truthfully important events he experiences, undercurrent shock waves that affect him, his responses to the outside world, his joy, his sorrow, his aversions and his yearning for peace.”
— Art historian Yu Feng
There were key changes in Zao Wou-Ki’s output from the 1970s to the 1980s. First, he travelled to China in 1972 after an absence of more than two decades. In addition, his second wife, Chan May Kan, and his younger brother Zao Wou-Wei died in 1972 and 1979 respectively. He was devastated, unable to paint at all for a period of 18 months. While trapped in this abyss, Zao rediscovered the medium of Chinese ink painting from his childhood. Between spotless white rice paper and pitch-black ink and through the physical motions of different brushstrokes, he rekindled the enthusiasm that launched his creative career, finding that equilibrium again in himself.
Traditional ink painting saved Zao, and the warmth and natural beauty of Chinese landscapes and civilization began to permeate his works. Between 1974 and 1984 as he gradually recovered from his grief, Zao’s use of colours gradually lifted from dark hues, with a predilection toward bright yellows, sky blues, greens and purples. Throughout the 1980s, his palette added a pearly sheen, becoming even more vibrant. During his early years, Zao set out to “conquer the canvas,” his brushstrokes simulating force and power to conjure a thousand waves, to wield thunderstorms wild with abandon. Later, the painter’s mindset changed, becoming steady and calm, leisurely and lyrical, uncovering different emotional aspects of life.
In the early 1980s, Zao created a succession of large-sized polyptychs, no doubt an important artistic statement, as if wanting to restore the joy of life after enduring fate’s ups and downs and the sadness of parting. He wanted nothing less than to pour out his emotions onto large canvasses, sharing his experiences and understanding of the universe’s infinite wisdom with the lightness of a gentle whisper. Distinguishing features of these works are similar to François Cheng’s apt descriptions in 1981: “Zao Wou-Ki’s recent works are simple and easy to grasp. In them vivid dreams suddenly disappear into a place where nothing is visible. Inevitably, Zao has moved toward the intangible. Discarding existence and technical experimentation, the final goal is none other than to express visually that authentic spirituality. Spaces created in these canvasses are just like those of starry nights where sparks continue to flare. While viewing his paintings, we see sheer reflections of the mystery within ourselves.” This fall, Sotheby’s Autumn Sale offers 15.01.82, a splendid example of Zao’s output of the early 1980s.
So rich in beauty is this land
In this large-scale triptych, Zao reverted to nothing, yet entered into the absolute. There he delves deeply into past recollections, revelling in landscapes of Song dynasty painter-calligrapher Mi Fu, splashed ink paintings of his beloved friend Chang Dai-Chien, China’s fascinating mountains and rivers, and misty Parisian mornings as one looks out of the window. All of these fuse together naturally along with his first morning breath. With confidence he steps into unchartered terrain, following his stream of consciousness onto the wide canvas, creating a world filled with ambient nature. In it, luscious plants, jagged surfaces of mountain ranges, colourful and radiant clouds and ever-changing light refracting through gentle hues mingle at ease. The artist’s unique pointillist technique are easily detected upon close examination. Using a large brush dipped in both light yellow and lilac pigments, Zao wielded with frenzied energy layers and layers of repeated brushstrokes. Long and fine like pine needles, they follow the artist’s body movements as he splashes them onto the canvas from different directions, like a cyclone flying, like a gentle breeze caressing the earth, like a soft and tender sigh …. Zao transforms abstract objects that we cannot see—wind and the universe’s aura—into a palpable presence. He takes us into a visionary world where we lose our thoughts, impressing us all the more by his amazing prowess. On the canvas is the juxtaposition and fusing of such colours as azure, violet, olive brown, turquoise and light yellow. Melding together, they create a sprightly waltz traversing this large, expansive space. Zao desires to capture heaven and earth’s majesty as well as minute details of every blade of grass, just as Swiss writer Jacques Chessex once wrote, “Amazingly, meditation on transcendence enriches Zao’s art. The space on the canvas conveys wondrous scenery that is pleasurable. Although no one appears in the painting, there is a high concentration of energy making us associate with human life, the artist’s memory, as well as the everyday and wondrous recollections he’s had.” Not only does the mature aesthetics of the artist shine through in 15.01.82 but also Zao’s contentment in his old age, marking an important adjustment in his frame of mind.
Back in late autumn of 1981, Zao Wou-Ki visited Beijing and travelled with friends to Datong in Shanxi province to visit the ancient Yungang Caves, dating from the Northern Wei period. The first of such excavated by royal command, this location comprising more than 50,000 Buddhist statues is truly majestic. Known as one of the four largest grottoes in China, these caves recorded the flourishing of Buddhist art for many centuries, having survived and thrived despite dynastic changes, testifying to stylistic evolution and shifting faiths. They are emblems chronicling splendour, grandeur, wisdom, transformation and the passage of time … all of these left a deep impression on Zao, who returned to Paris toward the end of that year. In the following January, Zao created 15.01.82, a magnificent work imparting a Chinese artist’s perspective of the universe and all it envelops, the haziness of the image embodies the poetic spirit of the East and the artist’s quiet longing for immersion in nature. Zao indicates nothing tangible on his canvas, piquing the viewer’s imagination, creating a space for a dialogue with the soul. This evocative mood is akin to Northern Song literatus Ouyang Xiu’s famous poem: “At Pingshan atop the Shugang mountains, fences surrounding the abode perch high up in the sky. Clouds and mist float about, occasionally obscuring the mountains. I once planted a weeping willow; a few years have passed, perhaps it has already turned into dust? Yuanfu is a man of letters with grand sentiments. Enjoy life’s pleasure while you’re young. Look at me, an old and sorrowful man before you.” Through art, one views life and the times removed from the mundane. A sense of release and openness leads to tranquility, peace, and pure happiness.
Zao Wou-Ki’s creative accomplishment and breakthrough in the 1980s are reminiscent of several preeminent masters of Eastern and Western art, one of whom is Chang Dai-Chien. Despite being widely acclaimed in the 1940s, Dai-Chien continued to innovate and introduced an original “splashed-ink-and colour” method to Chinese traditional painting in 1963. Advancing to a liberating and spontaneous phase of creation, he developed a novel modern painting style by applying broad washes of layered ink and intense hues of blue and green in a seemingly random manner. Many of his monumental works were created at the height of his powers by using the splashed-ink medium. They are even more sought after by collectors than those broken-ink paintings he executed in earlier years. Exemplars of Dai-Chien’s epic corpus, such as Aachensee Lake and Ancient Temple amidst Clouds, have proved a huge success at auctions, achieving more than 100 million RMB respectively. Besides Chang Dai-Chien, Zao Wou-Ki is also compared with post-war German artist Gerhard Richter and Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, whose later works are particularly desired. The abstract paintings Richter made in the 1990s display a brilliant interplay of colours, emotionally charged atmosphere, resultant coloristic and compositional harmony. Hence they are favoured over his earlier works. As for Rothko, his paintings of the 1950s and 1960s are regarded as the ultimate culmination of his legendary artistic philosophy. The top ten most expensive Rothko works sold at auctions were all created at the pinnacle of his golden years. Despite of their distinct artistic styles, Zao Wou-Ki and Mark Rothko both embraced the potential of abstract art to outpour unspeakable emotions and to move beyond the limits of the canvas. Zao Wou-Ki, along with the other masters of Eastern and Western art continually explored new approaches and sought breakthroughs in his career, until he reached the crescendo of his lyrical aesthetic language in his late years. Those works, known for their splendid beauty and extraordinary grace, are a consummation of his highest artistic achievement.