"It was as if I was facing a translucent empty space, the great earth at once chaotic and teeming, in a universe constructed by oil painting skills that are unrestrained and free. The world of Zao Wou-Ki is bred in this universe, that is, it renders this earth bright and spacious, giving this stretch of the virtual a substantial reality for all things to appear."
- Xu Jiang
The colour used at the bottom part of 12.04.60 (Lot 29) is a deep orange-brown, suggesting thick and solid earth. Deep black lines, drawn upward with deft and powerful brush stokes, merge into a bright orange of no defined form. The entire composition, coherent and flowing, suggests the imagery of fire. But what Zao Wou-Ki wanted to depict in this work is not simply the phenomenon of burning as an expression of physical laws, nor did he aim just for resplendent luminescence. He wanted to capture something closer to the elemental nature of pure fire, the transition from a material state to nothingness, through a kind of dynamic or moving light. The Book of Documents (also known as the Classic of History, one of the Five Chinese Classics) says, "Fire is bright and upward moving." This explains the physical properties of fire: its ascending nature and its light. It also suggests fire as a metaphor for "moving upward toward the magnificent" and transcendent spiritual freedom. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus described the cosmos as "an ever-living fire." For him fire is the origin of all things; all things are transformed into fire and back again in an endless cycle. In everyday language, fire also represents the unpredictable force of passion, and also a concentrated will or focused desire. What this work exhibits is precisely this scorching, ultimate force of the universe. Zao Wou-Ki's desire and will to surpass himself, and to pour himself into the canvas, are deeply inscribed in 12.04.60. In 1960 Zou Wou-Ki moved into a new studio, with space permitting him to freely compose very large works, and also filling him with momentum and drive for creative work. He once wrote, looking back on this period, "I wanted to express movement, whether that be circuitous and languid, or rapid and powerful like an electrical shock. I wanted to use contrast and also multiple layers of tremor-like effects using the same colour, to make the canvas come alive and leap with movement. What I was looking for in particular was to find a center point that gives off light or is the source of light. I employed free and unrestrained brush strokes, and sometimes used a painting knife to press the pigment into the canvas, as if trying to make the pigment go right through the canvas into space. Amidst chaotic colours and overlapping brush strokes, I felt unfettered and at ease. I still had not realized the high degree of difficulty of "leaving space" in painting, and its instead the busy, the intense, and the clamorous had a much greater attraction for me than the calm and tranquil." These remarks clearly point to Zao's control of the power of colour, and also his ambition to inject dynamism into flat space. Fire is essentially the same as a sun, each sun being a ball of fire; and aren't suns the "center points that give off light" for our universe? In 12.04.60 Zao Wou-Ki demonstrated profound thinking about nature and space, and used mature abstract language to dynamically imply the primitive element of fire. The dusk-like orange colour in 12.04.60 is like the last glittering sunlight fully spending itself in splashing over mottled earth. Colours and brush marks intersect and collide in the details, creating textural and visual expressions replete with a sense of gesture and emotion, scattering the existing radiance in a way that leaves the viewer intoxicated and mesmerized.
From this point on Zao Wou-Ki devoted himself to working out how to transcend form. Linear elements refined out of ancient Chinese calligraphy, applied to the canvas with techniques of scraping, rubbing in, and layering of paint, transformed the power inherent in brush-and-ink into visual and tactile expressions of colour and substance. 12.04.60, created in the year 1960, is a classic piece from the most experimental and most creatively powerful and rich period of Zao's career. It fully demonstrates Zao's virtuoso transformative, alchemical skills.
The black lines that spread across the middle of the canvas of 12.04.60 are reminiscent of the semi-hieroglyphic writings (lit. "bird and beast symbols") inscribed on bronzeware from the Yin and Zhou Dynasty (Fig. 1). Those symbols, which are based on nature, have a powerful decorative content, putting them somewhere between writing and painting. At the same time they have a materiality to them. And while this writing system incorporates the ancient Chinese natural aesthetic of "birds and beasts," when seen as primitive markings, they can also be understood as transcending cultural differences. When these hieroglyph-like characters are deconstructed, what is left are lines that are organic and infused with energy. Also, the chiseling or engraving process hints at the friction, collision, and interdependence between culture and nature, between the spiritual and the material, and between meaning (clarity) and confusion. It exposes the strength of the deepest strata of the primeval memory of mankind. Beyond the turbulent, uninhibited brushwork of Zao's painting, the overall allocation of space conforms to nature, is harmonious and coherent, and is stable and dignified, like the style of a Northern Song Dynasty landscape painting (Fig. 2). This is not to say that Zao deliberately transplanted Chinese brush-and-ink into an expressive form of abstract art. Rather, he internalized his observations of nature and his profound experience of, and understanding of, life, producing intuitive imagery. This intuitive sensibility in Zao's art can overcome the boundaries of materials and styles of painting, and his achievement is universal.
In this work Zao Wou-Ki also used orange and black-brown colours to suggest the confrontation and transformation between two different forces. These two contrasting forces are interwoven, mixing and blending in a progressive cycle, creating a spatial imagery of balance and harmony. They symbolize a new order that transcends the gulf between Eastern and Western cultures. At the time he composed this work Zao Wou-Ki had already been through his "Klee Period" and his "Oracle Bone Inscription Period." He was beginning to demonstrate a completely unique, profoundly self-confident personal style.
Zao began using dates as the titles of his works in 1958. Obviously, with his painting style fully mature, he was able to dispense with the mediation of "titles," and no longer needed to depend on textually articulated concepts to express his meaning and intent. Though at first glance the use of dates as titles may appear casual, if you read more deeply, the work itself had become a mark in time and thus a referential point of history. It seems that for the artist, the urge to create is also the desire to exist; time is limited but the pursuit of the eternal (art) stems exactly from such limitation. 12.04.60 not only demonstrates Zao Wou-Ki's flawless handling of colour and brushwork, it is a poem to life imbued with a fiery passion and radiance.
Transcending Form: An Important Asian Private Collection
oil on canvas
signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO' (lower right); signed in Chinese; signed and titled 'ZAO 12.04.60' (on the reverse)
Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013)
100 x 80 cm. (39 1/4 x 31 1/2 in.)
Yves Bonnefoy & G?rard de Cortanze, Zao Wou-Ki, La Difference/Enrico Navarra, Paris, France, 1998 (illustrated, p. 119).
Private Collection, Asia
Anon. sale; Christie's Hong Kong, 29 November 2009, Lot 1002
Acquired at above sale by the present owner
This work is referenced in the archive of the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki and will be included in the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné prepared by Francoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Foundation Zao Wou-Ki).