Mountain ridges under raindrops glistened;
Through nourished nature faint fragrance breezed.
Celestial azure appareled in billowing clouds other-worldly;
Likened to the undersea palace, exceptionally refreshing.
Verdure under cleared weather eminently green;
Gusts of summer wind between valleys bring forth pipe-like melodies.
May one indulge in such pleasure daily.
Zaowoukia - Realms of Infinity
Created at the mature heights of his career in 1969, 01.05.69 is an exquisite archetype of Zao Wou-Ki’s works from his Hurricane period. The horizontal and loosely centralized composition presents sumptuous impastos and lucidly ethereal washes, giving rise to ghostly silhouettes of mountain ridges and flowing rivers intercepted by rolling mists. Reminiscent of the floating landscapes in literati paintings dating back to the Southern Song Dynasty, the luminous and vaporous quality of the present work owes primarily to the artist’s tenacious foundation in Chinese ink as well as its spiritual aesthetics. Having facilitated the conception of a singular timeless artistic language that sets him apart from his peers, Zao Wou-Ki’s dexterity transcends the aesthetic domains, now rendered ever so permeable, of the East and the West.
By the 1960s, Zao Wou-ki had risen to unprecedented international acclaim. His works had been taken on by the renowned Galerie de France who organized the artist’s solo exhibitions on a biannual basis. Just a year before 01.05.69 was completed, Zao Wou-Ki’s work was featured in the travelling exhibition ‘Painting in France 1900-1967’ at the National Gallery of Art, Washington and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In the same year, an exhibition solely devoted to the artist was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The institute, having incorporated Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings into its collection since 1958, was also home to important works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. During this era, these defining figures of Abstract Expressionism had shifted the crux of the Western art world to the United States from Paris, a city which Zao Wou-ki had by then been residing for over two decades. Therefore, the current work both witnessed the artist’s success in establishing his name within the global art scene and affirmed his profound contribution towards the development of modern art history.
Parallel to the rise of American Abstract Expressionism was its European equivalent known as Tachisme which Zao Wou-ki was closely associated with. Both movements are characterized by eschewing from the representational, opting for the expressive potentials in the rendering of artistic medium. Man’s subconscious was given form by Pollock’s dynamic drips and flicks in his action paintings and fostered in Rothko’s large canvases of flat single colours. These stylistic manifestations are mirrored by Zao Wou-ki’s gestural interplay of fluid and fractured brushstrokes as well as the sparseness of his compositions. However, Zao Wou-Ki’s cathartic expression of spirituality finds its roots in the philosophy of Chinese landscape paintings tracing back to the Song dynasty. Succinctly summarized by Francois Cheng, "to paint a landscape is to paint the portrait of man…that of his mind and spirit: his rhythm, his gait and bearing, his torments, his contradictions, his fears, his peace or exuberant joy, his secret desires, and his dream of the infinite" (Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting).
Through the synergy of the Western predominant oil medium and the technique derived from Eastern tradition of ink painting, Zao Wou-Ki offers us in its abstract and expansive glory the shapeless genesis of his ‘inner landscape’ in 01.05.69. The virtuosically applied palette of white and greys forms a veil through which celestial light diffuses, accentuating a meander of broken blacks and navies - their strength and valour derived from the artist’s well-versed calligraphy, evoking the fleeting mass of clouds and torrents of cool breeze lauded by the Song poet Qin Guan. Spatial voids created by minimalizing artistic manipulation over large portions of the painting provide room for the viewer’s eyes and mind to linger and dwell in the ever-shifting haven of commotion and silence, self-engulfing and efflorescence, momentum and rest. "I like people to be able to stroll about in my canvases, as I do myself when I paint them", said the artist. "Little by little, I understood that what I was painting looked like what was happening inside me" (Jean Laymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Barcelona, 1979, p. 43; the Artist quoted in Dominique de Villepin, Willem de Kooning — Zao Wou-ki : Free Spirits, New York, 2017).
Thus the painting invites the viewer to embark on a spiritual voyage through aesthetic experience that leads one up to a precipice likened to that in Casper David Friedrich’s masterpiece Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, and marvel at the "invisible place, that of dreams, somewhere where one feels in perfect harmony, even in the midst of agitated shapes or opposing forces" conjured from the dialogue that Zao Wou-ki conducted with himself (Zao Wou-Ki & Françoise Marquet, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Autoportrait, Artist Publishing Co., Taipei, 1992). Likened to a blooming drop of ink on a piece of absorbent Xuan paper, the artist ingeniously translated the Taoist ideology of man and nature as one by encapsulating a grand infinite vista in the modest finite scale of 01.05.69. Moving away from figuration and imitation of nature, the artist through his acute sensibility melded the Western abstract style with the Eastern philosophical worldly view to convey the sublimity of life itself. Capturing its pulsating ephemerality in majestic solitude through his command of brush and pigment, Zao Wou-Ki succeeded in creating nothing less than "Zaowoukia" - what former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin exclaimed was a spiritual universe mastered over by Zao Wou-Ki himself.