The 1950s were a golden age in the development of abstract painting. As one of the leading Asian post-war artists, Zao Wou-Ki expanded and deepened this new international art language with a deeper cultural spirit. He did so by incorporating oracle bone script, which began in 1954 when the artist was living in Paris. In 1957, the artist crossed the ocean to New York, where he was inspired by the wave of abstract expressionism sweeping across the country. American abstractionism was bold and unrestrained, and its spirit became the impetus for the artist’s “Hurricane Period” (1959-1972). In 1957 as Zao created Sans titre, he has long mastered the oracle bone abstract creations. Using the typical colours such as blacks, whites, reds and blues, he unites them in a seemingly boundless space. What draws our attention in this piece, however, is the flash of golden yellow, a rare choice of colour in Zao’s oracle bone pieces. Intertwining throughout the canvas against silver-white tones, the gold and white add a distinctive touch of light, while creating a sharp contrast and tension with the shades of blue and red at the bottom of the canvas. The three shades distinguish while intricately complimenting one another. Sans titre may be more compact in size, Zao has marvellously created an atmosphere as brilliant and intense as that of the larger-scale paintings.
Oracle bone script comes from the East, a predecessor to the written word. From the perspective of the Eastern viewer, the painting evokes an emotion and connotation of familiarity. However, from the Western perspective, the oracle bone script becomes an unknown and abstract symbol, recalling a peculiar yet mysterious aura. Through Zao’s oracle bone paintings, viewers and academics begin to experience the modern interpretation of Eastern painting. In French artist Alfred Manessier’s words, ‘although what appears on the surface is different, this person is the same as we are, his inner world close to our own’. A good friend of Zao and the first-prize winner at the Second São Paulo Biennial, perhaps Manessier’s commentary from the beginning of the perfectly encapsulates the Western world’s evaluation and love for Zao Wou-Ki’s works. In addition, one can see the formerly quiet and simple oracle bone script begin to stir with dynamism, the symbols gradually integrating into the tableau, with the background of the painting lifting the entire scene into the air. The naming of this piece is a display of Zao Wou-Ki’s renunciation of having a subject. It was the artist’s pledge to break away from form, in welcome his next stylistic period.
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