This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné currently being prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki)
Voyages of Eternal Return
Evincing a rare and captivating circular composition, 7.11.66 by Zao Wou-Ki is one of only four circular paintings that the artist created, according to published literature. Within the rounded confines of the canvas is a sublime tableaux that is at once intimate and infinite, ruminating yet quietly jubilant – a medallion standing as triumphant testament to Zao Wou-Ki’s celebrated 1960s period in which the artist achieved mounting global acclaim. The painting’s singular shape generates the visual effect of a porthole or window of a ship – through which one peers through to admire an unceasingly changing view of tumultuous sky and sea. While circular works have appeared in the history of art most notably in the form of Renaissance tondo paintings, the circle is a symbolically charged concept in the East: with neither beginning nor end, it symbolizes the boundless, the infinite, oneness and unity, as well as the unceasing renewal of life and the self-sufficient nature of the universe. The energy or qi of a circle expands outward equally in all directions, as if alluding to the extensive voyages that Zao Wou-Ki undertook in the 1950s and 1960s, seeking new inspirations in order to deepen and develop his own spiritual and artistic pursuits. Manifesting the form of a void, yet brimming with fullness and dyanism, 7.11.66 encapsulates a vital slice of the immensity of Zao Wou-Ki’s legendary oeuvre.
Zao Wou-Ki’s creative journey reflects the very path of East Asian art’s arrival onto the grand arena of global contemporary art. Among Asian artists of the post-war era, Zao Wou-Ki was the earliest to achieve artistic maturity and the earliest to be rewarded with international renown. Each of Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic periods marks a stage in his development, leading to an eventual arrival at absolute artistic freedom and mastery. This journey began shortly before the artist’s move to Paris, with the National School of Fine Art Period (circa. 1948), a time defined by the artist’s curiosity toward Western art. This was followed by his Paul Klee Period (1951-1954); during these years Zao Wou-Ki became well-versed in modern minimalism. In the Oracle-Bone Period (1954-1959), Zao Wou-Ki began innovating from ancient materials, growing more self-assured in his merging of East and West. Finally, in 1959, the artist embarked upon a series of travels around the world, beginning in Paris, landing in North America and Asia, before returning to Europe. His understanding of post-war art grew deeper and more profound, but even more importantly, it was then that an expansion occurred in the artist’s perspective, an awakening to a panoramic view of the world .
Zao Wou-Ki’s voyages to New York and Japan culminated in the Hurricane Period (1959-1972), the artist’s Golden Age, from which the present lot hails. It was during this time that the artist’s painting exhibited a new and extraordinary grandeur and vigour, one that invoked a splitting of the sky, a parting of the seas, the seething passion of creation churning and leaping across the canvas. While in New York, Zao Wou-Ki encountered Abstract Expressionist painters such as Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, amongst others, and was inspired by action painting to develop a much bolder style that fused American action paitning with the mesmerizing lyrical nature of the Eastern calligraphic line. Then in Japan, Zao Wou-Ki met the Bokujin-kai 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 group had already established a dynamic dialogue with the American Abstract Expressionists through their art and literary journal Bokubi. Thereafter, between around 1959 and 1963, the oracle bone symbols in Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings dissolved into the background; in parallel, the artist gradually purified his form while keeping the sacred essence of the line; in other words evicting the sign and developing the plurality of calligraphic forms into full abstraction.
In the present lot, Zao Wou-Ki’s reduction of the palette to brooding Shanshui-like colours emphasises his allegiance to calligraphic practice; at the same time, the subdued hues foreground the dexterity of his brushwork and supreme mastery over his medium which enables him to create heightened drama and tension in spite of the muted tones. The pictorial space is divided almost evenly into top and bottom halves: in the upper section, Zao Wou-ki’s broad brushstrokes of powdery grey reveal luminous undertones of white with a subtle pinkish glow that evoke the hazy mist of a vast sky at dawn; while the bottom section manifests a complex symphony of interwoven strokes of black, burnt sienna and diluted, faintly incandescent Turkish blue. With no clear-cut divide between sky and sea, Zao Wou-Ki instead painted slanted textural smudges and small planes of colour that overlap and ‘tug’ between the two halves, destabilising the composition and creating the alluring dynamic effect of a recurring cyclical journey. One cannot help but think of Li Bai’s poem: “The land stretches to the vastness of the sea, and the sky is reflected in the river’s emptiness”.
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