The greatest works of art invite us to delve into such deep and expansive realms that, as the tides of history pass, these masterpieces come to be recognized as transcending geographical limits and embodying a broader, richer cultural essence. Brilliant and lyrical with emotion resonance and divers meanings, these works impart new life and draw us into philosophical reflections about human life, history and the universe. Few works can radiate this highest level of creative achievement more than the 1960s Zao Wou-Ki's masterpieces.
29.09.64 is a masterful example of a Zao Wou-Ki painting from the intense period on both artistic and personal levels. Dominated by all shades of blue, from deep dark night blue to warm turquoise, the painting offers a dramatic battle of large dark brushstrokes structuring the composition together with splashes of brilliant white fighting an underneath rusty orange in the middle. Large ink-like washes of oil around the edges give place to a detailed intricate network of small lines acting as the turmoil of the universe. The vehement composition is a projection of the artist's inner emotional agitation, the action of painting occurring as a salutary relief of the enclosed energy, as the artist testifies in his Self-Portrait (Zao Wou-Ki & Françoise Marquet, Self-Portrait, Editions Fayard, Paris, 1988, p. 57). Zao then takes the viewer into a timeless imaginative and highly-spiritual realm above our earthly reality only accessible through the vector of abstraction and the mastery of inner forces.
Zao's first educative period runs until the mid-1950s, where the then young Beijing-born and Shanghairaised artist who studied Oil Painting at the Hangzhou academy masters the figurative modernist style, positioning himself in the Paris trends of the time. The first French phase from 1948 to 1954 translates a relentless obstinacy to understand the Western latest thinking of representation where figurative painters start to loosen the ties of strict rendering and seek a more emotional philosophical interpretation of reality. Zao fuels his art with references to Cézanne, Klee, Matisse and Goya whose paintings he studies for hours at the Louvres Museum in Paris. As often when one investigates unknown foreign territories one feels the need to go back to its origins. The more deeply Zao explored Western art, the more he was impelled towards a new recognition of expressive values of traditional Chinese landscapes and their deep concepts. While investing the very contemporary realm of abstraction, the Oracle-Bone series, dating from 1955 towards the end of the decade, testifies of a return to the artist's Chinese culture with a direct reference to the most ancient roots of China; a first, literal still, step towards reconciling the Eastern and Western traditions, artistic explorations and cultures. The year 1960 opens up to the first decade of artistic maturity, after a forward movement into Western modern art in the early 1950s and a backward movement to his Chinese heritage in the closing years of the decade, the artist then finds the right distance between China and France. He seeks to purify his paintings of any narrative element to capture the sole feeling of wind, smell of a season or memory of a far mountain and lay only its impression onto the canvas. He starts exploring nature and the universe in an ambitious painting apprehending its unique essence. While materializing a new form of abstraction and pushing to its extreme the emotional interpretation of reality, Zao positions himself in a revolutionary style as the heir of a long Chinese tradition of literati painting stemming its inspiration from nature and of the European Impressionists who had triggered the movement of subjective painting in the West.
The 1960s is universally recognized as a new phase of achievement, which brilliantly translates in 29.09.64. In 1961, twelve years after establishing himself in France the artist moved to rue Jonquoy in the Paris Montparnasse area to a more spacious studio, which allowed him to paint on bigger canvases. He started working with New York dealer Samuel Kootz in 1956 who promoted his work to American private collections and institutions, thus giving him a first international recognition beyond France. In Paris, the Galerie de France organized yearly solo exhibitions and the artist mingled with recognized ' Abstraction Lyrique ' artists such as Alfred Manessier, Hans Hartung and Georges Mathieu. His daily routine consisted of long studious hours in his quiet studio and friendly joyous gallery openings at night in the Saint- Germain area. He happily lived with his second wife May whom he had met in Hong Kong after his first trip to New York with Pierre and Colette Soulages, but also had to deal with her mental illness crisis. The 1960s crystallized a very turbulent time with at once highly euphoric joys and phases of difficulty, a series of contrary emotions as indispensable components to nurture his painterly practice, along with a new artistic technical maturity and recent material ease. As Zao would describe the decade: ' I spent ten years at full speed, like driving a fast car ' (Zao Wou-Ki & Françoise Marquet, Self-Portrait, Editions Fayard, Paris, 1988, p. 142). The 1960s witness the birth of Zao as he bears no comparison to any of his predecessors finally freed from the recurrent reference to Paul Klee. The compositions of the decade typically transpire of a sense of speed, dramatically staged.
Drawing from his knowledge of classical Chinese ink-andwash painting where black ink is modulated into several shades with various saturations, each inclination of the brush produces shifts in technique and colouration, all of which are woven into a dense visual rhythm: it smoothens, expands and condenses, turns dense and light, dries and saturates. More than the simple pick of colour the artist further deepens the composition with another level of ' colouration ' by playing with the materiality of the oil. With 29.09.64 and its dominating shades of blue Zao directly refers the tradition of blue-green shan shu which traces back to the Tang Dynasty. In Chinese symbolism of colours blue is often assimilated with black as the colour can refer to diluted ink. In creating a dominantly blue composition Zao perfectly translates painting into colours while keeping a conceptual tie with the ink practice.
However, while Chinese art only allows the use of black ink and ink wash, or a codified reduced palette of green-blue to convey the complexity of nature, Zao Wou-Ki innovates with translating the Chinese tradition into full coloration. The use of colours and successive oil layers enables the artist to bring the Chinese literati concept of catalysing a subjective feeling of nature to a new level by expending the scope of possibilities. For example the use of white and black oil in contrast creates a new sense of depth, while the Classical Chinese composition requires to keep void some paper white parts.
In his painterly approach Zao Wou-Ki strictly remains a Chinese classical painter. The recourse to abstraction and colouration in connivance with Western art help him to further enhance the Chinese spirituality of art. Taking tradition as a departure point Zao Wou-Ki writes a new chapter in the History of Classical ink painting.
In China art cannot be dissociated from the tradition of writing. The ideograms historically stem from simplified drawings of objects, thus keeping a proximity with the art of representation. Classical ink painters often add in their composition a calligraphic poem as an integrant part of their art. Elevated as the ultimate form of art calligraphy is highly codified in several set styles allowing the artist to express himself through the form as much as the ideograms' meaning. Zao Wou-Ki, as a skilled calligrapher who received a traditional Chinese teaching before joining the progressive Hangzhou Academy, naturally integrates the essence of writing in his abstract practice. In 29.09.64 one recognizes in the intricate networks of black and white short lines in the centre of the composition the influence of calligraphic writing drained from its meaning. By reducing calligraphy purely to its form Zao Wou-Ki positions himself as the heir of Zhang Xu, calligrapher from the Tang Dynasty who developed a new style of freely formed calligraphy characterized by extremely sinuous lines. Zao pushes Zhang's innovation to a new extreme in removing the meaning to the words thus projecting it into the realm of abstraction. American-born artist Cy Twombly similarly incorporates meaningless scriptures into his composition. If Zao relates to the calligraphic line, Twombly takes over the aesthetic of the graffiti, each artist interpreting his own cultural writing in the same quest of a new universal form.
29.09.64 is also one of the earliest examples of Zao Wou-Ki experiencing large canvases. After successive trips to New York where he met the American Abstract expressionist and with the support of his dealer Samuel Kootz, he extends his compositions in larger formats, bringing him at once a bigger freedom of movement and a strong underlying tension as he confronts himself with the canvas. With its important dimensions and the dramatic composition distinctive of the 1960s, 29.09.64 shows a monumentality in which the viewer is immediately caught. While Zao continues experimenting large formats afterwards his later composition bring a more peaceful thus less intense effect. About large paintings Jean Leymarie notices that Zao Wou-Ki 'feels more at ease with the freshness of the movement and the freedom of improvisation on vast surfaces' (Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-Ki, Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris 1986, p. 38), the artist explaining that 'painting is a battle between [him] and the canvas, a physical battle. Specifically on large formats which allow more human movements, a true projection into the painting.' 29.09.64 represents a complex beautifully disrupted universe, the perfect example of Zao's bodily battle. More so than with smaller format canvases the artist becomes one with the painting like the Taoist human and earth unify in a perfect harmony.
29.09.64 was painted the same year as Hommage à Edgar Varèse, an iconic work dedicated to the French-born music composer and recently donated by the artist's widow Françoise Marquet to the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts of Lausanne in Switzerland. 29.09.64 originally measured 255 x 345 cm, the exact same dimensions as Hommage à Edgar Varèse. Under the supervision of the artist 29.09.64 was cut of 25 cm in its height along the lower part when the present owners' father, who had bought it directly to Zao in 1969, moved to a new house in the Paris region in the early 1970s. Zao Wou-Ki then re-signed the work in the lower right area where the previous signature originally stood. 29.09.64 remains, together with Hommage à Edgar Varèse the largest known canvas painted in the 1960s and probably the most important work from the decade in private hands today.
The colour blue benefits from a deeply symbolic history in France. A rich colour for its Lapis Lazuli material, it was commonly used since the middle Ages to tint the Virgin Mary's mantle in religious paintings. The brightness of the colour due to the stone's mineral would have probably seduced the mythical Bretton King Arthur in the 5th Century to pick the colour for his blazon, colour which stayed the symbol of French Kings lineage until the Democratic Revolution in 1789 when it then remained one of the three essential components of the National flag, thus imprinting the French culture and society with a nationalistic meaning. The colour bears the symbol of France. 29.09.64, painted the same as Zao Wou-Ki obtained the French nationality with the help of then Minister of Culture André Malraux, could be read as an indirect homage to his host country.
Blue also naturally refers to the mineral elements. The abstract composition resembles of a tormented sea where water and sky unify in one heterogeneous entity. The marine painting tradition was used in the late 19th Century as a bridge for painters such as William Turner or Gustave Courbet to flirt with the boundaries of abstraction, a line that Zao Wou-Ki clearly crosses half a Century later with 29.09.64 while reinterpreting the genre's codes.
Contemporary of Zao Wou-Ki, French artist Yves Klein focused his practice around the investigation of the blue colour, and invented his patented IKB, International Klein Blue. 'All colours bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature' (Y. Klein, quoted in 'Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission', in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 41). From Klein's perspective blue as the ultimate colour transports us to the supernatural and the spiritual. Inspired by the first human voyage into space on 12 April 1961, Klein believed that the Soviet astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, had provided scientific proof of his belief that the earth was blue. With the sole use of one colour Klein translates the feeling of nature in a deeply conceptual way. Klein's idea was present in the Song Dynasty ceramics production, where a unique monochrome glaze, often celadon, would cover the richest vessel as the representation of the essence of nature.
While less theoretical and conceptual about the question Zao Wou-Ki uses blue in 29.09.64 as the vehicle to transport us beyond our material world into a cosmos imbued with immaterial pictorial sensibility. He uses the colour as a dominant shade in compositions throughout his career often expressing a sense of solemn tragedy as testify two titled works from 1956, Ville engloutie (Submerged City) and La nuit remue (the night stirs). His blue compositions often reflect a paradoxical calm and seriousness, a solemnity and a grandeur.
Mr. M, the owners' father who originally purchased the work directly from the artist, was a successful French architect engineer who had a flourishing professional activity during the French most opulent Post-War years, commonly called The Glorious Thirty spanning from 1945 to 1975. A period of intense modernization and industrialization brought the architect to conceive hospitals, various scientific research centres, and administration buildings throughout France and the then French colony, Algeria. Technological progress and scientific discoveries, in which Mr M. played a crucial role, strongly influenced the development of a new modernist aesthetic in architecture, art and design. His activity enhanced his artistic eye and appetite for the form. One recognizes in French painter Frédéric Benrath's work, which stayed in Mr. M's collection, a strong connivance with Zao's abstract approach to the landscape painting and the same fluidity in the movement. Mr M. gathered a highly consistent collection of abstract paintings spiritually infused with the natural form, of which the major Zao Wou-Ki painting is the ultimate gem.
By capturing the harmonious movements of ' Qi ', the source of life and the universe, Zao Wou-Ki forged a pioneering style and achieved an expressive depths that stands in marked contrast to many other abstract artists of his time. Following the New York Asia Society exhibition in 2016 and as a rightful renewed recognition in France the artist will be the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris in 2018.