Line had always played a key role in Zao Wou-Ki's paintings. In contrast to his work of the 1960s, marked by dramatic undulations in rough and bold lines, the network of intricate black lines of Vent du Nord (North Wind) (Lot 3), created in 1956, resemble seal script on ancient bronze vessels, or ancient glyphs on oracle bones. These abstract symbols also assume the vague contours of people, animals and birds in motion. These conglomerates of lines resemble somewhere between form and non-form, text and non-text, figurative and abstract, symbol and non-symbol all at once. After the definitive work "Wind" created in 1954, Zao quickly adopted these pseudo-script forms as his primary artistic form and language, which art historians now summarize as the "oracle bone series" of Zao Wou-ki's career.
An ancient set of textual symbols, the oracle-bone script begins with a pictogram and develops into a full textual system, containing within it the roots not only of ancient civilization but also the Chinese calligraphic tradition. This robust aesthetic foundation provided Zao Wou-Ki- who was seeking creative inspiration in a foreign land-a new path by which to rediscover the essence of the East while avoiding vulgar orientalist sentiment. The oracle-bone script itself contains high degree of visual symbolism characteristic of the most primitive mode of human communication and expression. Thus it has the ability to transcend barriers of geography, race, language, and culture, belonging solely to neither the East nor to the West, but rather to all of ancient mankind.
This universality deepens the artistic essence of Zao Wou-Ki's work, much like his contemporary, the American abstract expressionist Adolph Gottlieb, who was also once inspired by Native American symbols. Gottlieb's series is comparable to Zao's "oracle bone series' in its primordial energy and sense of history. The lines resembling oracle-bone script in Vent du Nord that meander across the canvas, strokes of the brush sometimes breaking and continuing as if text and other symbols had been deconstructed, floating aloft in space only to be brought back together again. Many of these symbols, all of which are the artist's own creation, transcend the function of text as signifier, seeking instead to release the beauty of the structure of Chinese characters themselves within the form of painting.
Upon close examination, the alluring use of colour and intricate arrangement of layers in Vent du Nord bring a dynamic liveliness to every inch of the canvas, evolving, separating, regrouping, and reproducing microscopic universes that stir and move the viewer. Ultimately, the viewer is subdued by Zao Wou-Ki's superb handling of space and painting technique in oil. Overall, the background of the piece is dominated by warm brown tones, of umber, sienna, pastel orange, gray, and white, changing progressively with each layer. Fine superimposed colour form an irregular and undulating impression of movement that leads the eye horizontally until a calm, broad earth tone suddenly appears and opens out before the viewer. Then, following the layered deployment of colour upward as it gradually softens, and there appear wreathed clouds and curls of mist that rise into the vast sky. Symbols and lines in the charred black brushstrokes are concentrated in the centre, galloping in the void like solitary trees floating in the mountain mist, reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner's depiction of wild, towering waves. A vermilion red wash that weaves across the space, a column of hollow white space that falls from the sky, and even a few small applications of yellow ochre and turquoise blue bring out the vigorous energy. The frequent transition between colours in Vent du Nord, sometimes rich and thick and sometimes soft and smooth, create dynamic rhythm of the palette, ultimately communicating the spirit of the work as a whole.
No longer restricted by objective depiction, Zao Wou-Ki's painting produces a profoundly vivid sense of space in nature. This transition to the sublime seems to surpass even the boundaries of time, allowing the viewer to fall in an instant into an unrecognisable realm devoid of the human; on his canvas, the viewer travels to a pure and primitive place in an ancient moment of primordial chaos. Exploring further the sense of beauty and charm in the composition of Vent du Nord, we find Zao Wou-Ki at a pivotal moment between the oracle-bone script and abstraction in the mid to late 1950s. Using the Western materials of oil on canvas, Zao has produced an appropriate and sincere interpretation of the inherited aesthetic forms of "spiritual liveliness" pursued by Chinese traditional painting for thousands of years. Perhaps only Chu Teh-Chun can claim to have achieved such success so early among the same generation Chinese artists. Here, Zao Wou-Ki not only transmits a powerful emotional force through seemingly abstract symbols, but also enriches the aesthetic content and dimensions of abstract art through the composition and perspective of landscape painting. Vent du Nord marks the great achievement of Zao's "oracle-bone series," making it an important representative work of this period.
Oil on canvas
Signed in Chinese; signed 'ZAO'; dated '56' (lower right)
Zao Wou-Ki , 1950s, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, Modern, abstract
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
97 x 130 cm. (38 3/16 x 51 1/8 in.)
Kleeman Galleries, New York, USA
Acquired directly from the above circa 1960 and thence by descent to the present owner