Born in China but resident in France for more than six decades, Zao Wou-Ki occupied a unique position within the history of Twentieth Century art, masterfully bridging the divide between East and West through a corpus which effectively united elements of both cultures. Revered in both his native land and his adopted country, Zao was able to fulfil the role of informal ‘cultural ambassador’ in later life, acting as a contact between President Chirac and Deng Xiaoping as well as accompanying the French President on a visit to China in 1997: Zao’s highly significant status within France was re-affirmed in 2006 when the artist received the Legion of Honour. By the time of his death in April 2013, Zao had long been recognised at an international level, with examples of his work included in major museums such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate in London. News of his passing caused extensive and deeply respectful media coverage within China, where he is viewed as one of the only artistic voices of a generation which grew to maturity under the rule of Chairman Mao, with Hong Kong dealer Pascal de Sarthe revealing that Zao was considered to be “like a god in China - the master of post-war” (Pascal de Sarthe quoted in: ‘Zao Wou-Ki Obituary’, The Telegraph, 16 April 2013).
Impressive in scope and scale, 23.9.98 is a stunningly lyrical example of Zao’s later work, a painting of elegiac beauty and extraordinary grace. Fronds of seaweed-like vegetation drift across the canvas, forming a stately dance on a magnificent scale, whilst ghostly echoes of their shape hover delicately nearby. Misty hues suffuse the background, imbuing the empty space at the centre of the composition with a sense of physicality and corporality. Light seems to emanate from the canvas, a warm radiance created through the expansive washes of paint that irradiate the background. Zao recalled the importance of light within his compositions in an interview in 1997: “Light is space. A void at that. But not a true void. It has to be a space for breathing, a space of breath, in other words a ‘lived’ emptiness” (the artist quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Galerie Thessa Herold, Zao Wou-Ki, Peintres et Encres de Chine, 1998, p. 134). The result is a painting of commanding authority that brilliantly encapsulates Zao’s major concerns at this stage of his career: a stunning work that reveals the artist’s absolute mastery of his medium and technique.
Zao was born in Beijing in 1921 to a culturally minded family: he was able to pursue his artistic education at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, where he studied traditional Chinese painting under the tutelage of the renowned master Lin Fengmian alongside Western artistic developments. Zao moved to Paris in 1948, just prior to Mao’s assumption of power the following year and so escaping the Cultural Revolution which followed. In Paris the artist encountered a creative environment that was remarkably conducive to the rapid development of his unique style, associating with Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso as well as Pierre Soulages; the work of Paul Klee also proved to be of great interest to the young painter. Despite the impetus provided by the exposure to masters of Western abstraction, the influence of classical Chinese painting has remained of paramount importance to Zao throughout his career; in particular, the delicately delineated landscapes of Ni Zan and Huang Gongwang. 23.9.98 reveals this stylistic connection through the softly minimalist colour tones that merge into gently glowing layers within the background, alongside the delicately drafted lines of black pigment that adorn the base of the composition.
Throughout the early 1950s Zao’s works moved increasingly towards abstraction, becoming devoid of material concerns and recognisable objects in favour of melting, sfumato backgrounds and evocative washes of colour that were redolent of mood as opposed to figurative concerns. The discovery of total non-objectivity was a crucial breakthrough within the artist’s painting, allowing him to experiment within an entirely fresh creative language. Zao noted this highly significant change in his style at the time: “My painting is becoming illegible; still lifes and flowers no longer exist in it. I’m striving towards an imaginary, indecipherable style” (the artist quoted in: Ibid., p. 136). Liberated from the constraints of figurative painting, Zao’s work embraced the seemingly endless possibilities of abstraction and the potential to move beyond the confines of the canvas ground towards an entirely new creative and philosophical realm. By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, Zao had begun to move back towards a figurative language to suggest landscape: 23.9.98 stands as an example of this particular style, in which the artist masterfully combines the precepts of Ecole de Paris lyrical abstraction with the archaic forms of Chinese ink painting. The architect I.M. Pei commented on the metaphysical qualities seemingly inherent within Zao’s painting: “They are endless possibilities; the chaos before the world begins; a way that leads us into our origins but never to the end; a world between tangible and intangible that is not fully constructed with doubt and uncertainty; the last wonderland before the rules are made” (Zao Wou-Ki and Francoise Marquet, Eds., Autoportrait, Taipei 1992, p. 167). This concept of a ‘wonderland’ reinforces the almost fantastical nature of Zao’s work: 23.9.98 exists in a wholly distinctive creative universe in which organic form and empty space co-mingle to create an image of astonishing originality, one that magnificently transcends the perceived boundaries of its two-dimensional canvas.