14.12.62 by Zao Wou-Ki
In the 1960s, Zao Wou-Ki’s works became totally abstract. He broke away from the interference of objects and focused on internal emotions and the emotional spirit. As he points out in his autobiography, "The source of my inspiration is my inner world. Apart from my internal requirements, I don’t have any other considerations. I don’t need guidance from anyone, as long as I think the inspiration is big and strong enough." At that time, Zao Wou-Ki’s works were rich in the spirit of Chinese Daoism, adopting lines from Chinese calligraphy and structures from landscape painting. Thanks to his experience travelling in America in the 1950s, he met masters of abstract expressionism including Franz Kline and Adolph Gottleib. He experienced freedom in his creation without any fetters, meaning that he also had the courage to discard the burdens that he had to bear and establish his own abstract world by making disruptive breakthroughs.
The eastern universe born out of abstraction
At every stage of Zao Wou-Ki’s career, his works demonstrated complete philosophies and his distinctive world view at each particular stage in life. Between these different stages there are subtle links, making up a complete development path. In 1959, he married a film star from Shaw Brothers Film Company, May Chan, and returned to Paris. He was at a peak both physically and mentally and his passion and courage in art are demonstrated clearly in 14.12.62（Lot 1002）. This painting has a full composition from top to bottom, with all the power focused on the longitudinal axis. Sharp ink lines interlaced with the convergence below, creating a sense of stability. Nickel yellow was stacked and brushed on rapidly, spurting out at the joining points of the ink lines. It is as if the air of life is blossoming into chaos, pointing at the top and lighting up the area all around, creating lines and space. The connotation echoes implicitly with the cosmology of the Thousand Character Classics from the Southern Dynasties, where it was written: "The sky was black and the earth was yellow, the universe was born as chaos, the sun rises and sets and stars spread all over the universe." It shows that Zao Wou-Ki was moving spiritually towards the highest state of Chinese philosophy – "unity of nature and man" and "integration with all creatures".
From the past to eternity, exploring time
The composition of 14.12.62, in which two sides are connected to support the painting, was the typical style that Zao employed in the 1960s. It reminds people of the stone tablets from the Han and Tang Dynasties that stand for thousands of years and the huge steles in the Roman Pantheon. In fact, Zao travelled a lot in the 1950s. He was studying magnificent and mysterious ancient ruins. This inspired his works during his ‘Oracle Bones Period’ between 1954 and 1959. If we compare this painting toThe Night is Stirring, which is kept at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and 3.4.60 – 1.2.69 that Zao Wou-Ki took to his first La Biennale di Venezia, we can see where the composition of this painting came from: His 1956 work The Night is Stirring is highly symbolic. The texture of the oracle bones and stele that stand against the dark blue background ascends like a tornado, creating a mysterious atmosphere. In his 1960 work 3.4.60 – 1.2.69, the use of colours emphasized a contrast with the past. There were no longer characters or symbols and the lines and colours were more closely integrated. It stressed the sense of power and speed. In 14.12.62, the artist followed the same composition and deeply pondered the relationship between lines, colours and space. While continuing to refine himself, Zao Wou-Ki 's exploration also gradually transformed from a time-oriented nostalgia to the eternal movement of the universe.
Deep integration of light and space
In 14.12.62, the deep ivory black and bright yellow were no longer in such a sharp contrast. There is a concealed mutual transformation and integration of the two colours. It is as if the black lines at the bottom created the strong light in the middle. As the light touches the top of the painting, it expands and reflects over the whole picture, gradually integrating and then fading into the deep background. It forms a cycle of light and space, just like the chiaroscuro technique of the Renaissance, creating tension in the picture and making it dramatic. This not only reflects an improvement of Zao’s technique as an artist, but also symbolises an expansion of his spiritual world. Zao Wou-Ki himself said, "I have to fight with space on a large canvas. I have to fill it and bring it to life. When I apply strokes, sometimes I press the paint into the canvas with a painting knife as if the paint could penetrate into space." When the paints penetrate the painting through the brush or a painting knife, it is also the process of colours forming a space through lines. The idea of a void-substance combination and interlacing has something in common with the paintings of mountains and rivers from the Northern Song Dynasty. For example, in A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks by Li Cheng, the intertwined gullies and mixed lights and colours resemble the changes in the colours and lines on the longitudinal axis in 14.12.62. This is a fusion of ancient landscape painting and modern abstract painting.
A creative process combining calligraphy and action painting
As the abstract wave swept across the world, artists from both the East and West tried to introduce Chinese calligraphy into their works, but there were various difficulties: Forms of writing used to appear in books, albums or scrolls in the form of characters. When this was adopted in abstract paintings, there was suddenly a much larger space that could be used, so it was a big test for artists' skills, accomplishment and even their coordination. 14.12.62 presents the bold and flexible lines from calligraphy using Western pens, brushes and painting knives. It not only required switching painting tools but also the use of the wrist, the arm and even the whole body. It integrated the action painting proposed by Jackson Pollock, an influential member of the New York School. Zao Wou-Ki started learning Chinese ink painting from an early age and went to the West after he grew up. His deep understanding of Eastern and Western civilizations promoted an important combination of the two cultures, as François Cheng, a fellow of the Académie Française said: “Zao Wou-Ki’s destiny in art was not only his own, it is closely related to the development and evolution of Chinese painting for thousands of years. Thanks to his works, a long period of stagnation in Chinese painting ended. The true symbiosis of China and the West that should have happened a long time before appeared for the first time.”
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