Georges Duby (1919-1996), member of the Académie française
By the 1960’s, Zao Wou-ki had developed full maturity as an artist and attained unprecedented international renown. Between 1960 and 1965, he mounted consecutive solo exhibitions at the Galerie de France, the most influential gallery in Paris, and at the renowned Kootz Gallery in New York. His works were frequently featured in major exhibitions in museums around the world. Michael Sullivan, a professor of art history at Oxford University, included Zao in his 1965 book Chinese and Japanese Art (part of the Great Art and Artists series), affirming his profound influence on and important contributions to the development of modern Chinese art. Infused with the classical culture of China, Zao’s art singularly broke through the cultural barriers between east and west and transcended the limitations of region and language. By the 1960’s, questions of technique no longer existed for Zao, who devoted himself wholeheartedly to his creative expression. In his dialogue with himself, nature, and the traditions of east and west, he breathed new life into modern art. Created during this period in Zao’s career, 25.02.65 (Lot 1017) has a clearly-documented provenance. It was first sold by Galerie de France and subsequently bought by the present owner. Its importance is self-evident.
In 25.02.65, Zao Wou-ki adopts the horizontal composition typical of his Hurricane Period. The lines in the centre of the composition interweave, intersect, fracture, and overlap in subtle and complex ways, expressing themselves vitally and freely on canvas like cursive Chinese calligraphy. The lines are also endowed with a strong sense of movement. Black lines issuing from various directions converge at the centre, breaking the otherwise stable horizontal structure. The pulsations of nature manifest themselves formally as dynamic lines resembling mountain ridges, evoking the emergence of life from primordial chaos. 25.02.65 showcases not only Zao Wou-ki’s strong foundation in classical Chinese calligraphy, but also dream-like colours rare in works from his Hurricane Period. Three quarters of the picture are draped in a mysterious milky-white gauze that hints at the mists and clouds of classical Chinese ink landscapes. Into these white tones of various degrees of translucency, the artist has introduced also light orange, yellow, and blue shades, creating a sense of visual penetration within a process of transformation from concrete colours to inchoate forms. The fusion of dynamism and stillness in this composition, miraculously balanced between solid and void, fully embodies the Chinese aesthetics of ethereal emptiness. As Sullivan writes in The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art, “Zao Wou-ki fuses the expressive power of calligraphy with an airy sense of spatial depth. This is not due to the influence of Jackson Pollock or Yves Klein, but rather to the intuitive feeling he has as a Chinese for three-dimensional space. What a Chinese artist is concerned with is never the superficial appearances of things. He always perceives what lies behind them… and always hints at a realm of truth beyond what is visible to the eye.” 25.02.65 is a masterful expression of such an eastern aesthetics.
In the 1960’s, the world of art pivoted from Paris to the United States, as symbolised by the post-war rise of Abstract Expressionism there. The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, one of the centres of Abstract Expressionism, is known for its important holdings of works by Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko. In 1958, Zao Wou-ki’s works entered the collection of the museum, fostering a profound dialogue between eastern and western abstraction. His 1968 solo exhibition at the museum cemented his status as one of the major artists of the world. 25.02.65 was part of this exhibition, and remains an important and valuable witness to Zao Wou-ki’s dialogue with western abstract art of his time.
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