During the beginning of any generation, people will always use their own light; their feelings about space are like controlling a basic physiological need. It is like before, when, although our civilization never made any airplanes, we have numerous ideas about the skies, territories, and space; we went as far as wanting to own this space in its entirety.
The 20thcentury saw what can be called an exodus of Chinese art scholars abroad (including the East and the West) for further studies; many of them stayed in their host countries to practice their craft. However, as a Chinese artist, it is not easy finding one’s own little niche and shining in a land so far away from home; many a times talented artists fall by the wayside, ignored and forgotten in the annals of history. And amidst the fortunate few who were able to make it, Zao Wou-Ki can be considered an outstanding person; he was the earliest Chinese success story in the West; he is also the first Chinese artist to be recognized by the West.
Zao Wou-Ki went to France in 1948. Before leaving for foreign shores, he had already built a strong foundation for his artistic transformation. During his days as student and later, as professor at the National Hangchow College of the Arts, he had already been exposed to the works of great modern artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Mondigliani, and Cezanne and within their works, found elements compatible with his own inimitable style. His sensitivity to style allowed him to become closer to these masters in terms of natural temperament. This leaning towards modern ideology became more evident in Zao’s works during the 1940’s. His sojourn abroad coincided with the emergence of Abstract Expressionism; due to an open mind, it was natural for him to get sucked into this international artistic trend that was sweeping through the continent. This was unlike some proponents of the Classical School, who found it not only difficult to accept but also went as far as to reject this wave of artistic trend. The ease in which Zao Wou-Ki adapted and absorbed mainstream Western culture is due not only to his interest and philosophy in accepting new forms of art even when he was still in his home country, but also because this “new art” is in itself a manifestation of Western artists training their sights on the products of Eastern art. Consequently, to an artist from the Far East, it was easy for the “new art” to inspire an emphatic response. Zao’s interest in Paul Klee was the best evidence of this response. The reason why Paul Klee’s symbolic language gave him some form of inspiration, allowing him to get in touch more with the image his inner heart is searching for, is precisely because Paul Klee’s art was once influenced by Chinese art. Klee’s symbolic language opened a window, which led to Zao’s understanding of his own culture. Moreover, compared to Klee, Zao’s understanding of Eastern culture is without doubt blessed with uniquely superior qualities because to a Chinese artist like him, that understanding is contained in a cultural gene that has been in his blood since the very beginning. Consequently, Zao’s first art transformation (first half of the 50’s), which was the transition from the concrete image age of the 40’s to the symbolic, print-based non-concrete image age of the 50’s, became smooth and natural. The oracle bone scriptures and pictures and writings on bronze wares of traditional cultures, these mysterious symbols barely distinguishable by the “illiterates” of the Western world, were used by Zao as his “passageways” into Abstractionism. It is as one Western critic said, “Some European artists claim to have been inspired by Zen religion and Far Eastern calligraphy… Western people imitate a form of existing result, but are not familiar with the spirit nor did they undergo a more detailed learning process. Orientals who grew up under this type of education find an extension of a familiar ambience in Abstract Art. Zao Wou-Ki is one of those persons; Europe has brought him a certain degree of freedom, but he has not forgotten the teaching of his ancestors.” (“Chronicles of Zao Wou-Ki, p. 55:” published by Taiwan Great Future Art, Limited, 1999).
Zao’s transformation from the concrete image era of the 40’s to the non-concrete image era of the 50’s can be further divided into two stages, the first and second transformation periods. During the first transformation period, Zao Wou-Ki completed the change from “concrete image painting” to “symbolic expression,” completing the transformation from “Klee-style imagery symbols” to mysterious “traditional cultural symbols” (oracle-bone scriptures, bronze ware decorative writings). However, these two transformations happened on print, which meant that is where these transformations had their foundations, abandoning in depth expression in space. Moreover, in the second transformation stage, Zao restored those abstract symbols he unearthed in traditional resources into some form of poetic time and space. “In Tribute to Chu Yuan” (May 5, 1955) is one of the earliest representative works of the transition from print to space. In this work, his imagination of space began to display itself. In the ensuing years, in the process of trying to blend these abstract symbols into space while increasingly interpreting these mysterious symbols, he came up with some fine broken pencil strokes, which were incorporated into his uniquely poetic world. The transition from the freestyle “line walk” to gradually becoming an extreme assembly and disassembly, hiding and display of mysterious space completed a major step in the maturation of his art.
Zao’s basic artistic style was firmly established during the beginning of the 1960’s. The decade between the 60’s and the 70’s is considered his matured stage. After more than ten years of exploration, his art has evolved into a form of pictographic structure and style – I categorized it as a “mountain ridge” pictographic structure; it has the centripetal force of a tornado. I once describe the unique elements of his style in an article in this manner: “When he reappears from those mysterious symbols which have been transformed to mysterious spaces, we experience further cohesion of the Eastern spirit. The basic structure of his works is assemblage within loose arrangements. He used fine broken pencil brush strokes to increase concentration of the elements of the imagination and allow them to collide, much like the photographer who uses high resolution for concentration and focus, forming a visual center that exists within opposition and conflict. The excess things are pushed into the far ends, dispersed, watered down, and emptied. This drawing form became his basic distinguishing feature during the 60’s and the 70’s.” From the results, one can see that although it is not sketched or stated in any area, no trace of concrete image, yet the painting lets people feel a complex link to traditional art, allowing them to believe that it is an extension of traditional Chinese landscape painting. This is obviously an art form that will never make an appearance in the works of Western artists. Zao once said in “Artist Exclusive:” “I thought all artists see their works as real, while other people consider these works to be abstract.” This statement lies at the crux of an artist’s works. It means that to him, the image that he wants to express in his heart is always concrete and clear. From a westerner’s point of view, the Eastern sentiments and profoundness of his art are easily visible; it is exactly this element that separates his from any other Western artist in the mainstream of Abstract Expressionism.
After the 1980’s, Zao Wou-Ki underwent his next transformation; his art started breaking through the original structure and form of pictures. He made the shift from “assembly” to “disassembly;” a form of structure “devoid of center” or having a “shift in center;” the contexture of the picture became richer, more dynamic. During this stage, he usually used a “outflanking” method from outside the painting going inward, freely moving time and space; entering a form of free state traversing falseness and guarding against emptiness, whether assembly or disassembly, false or real. The end of the 80’s saw Zao diluting his pigment even more, blending in more interesting aspects of the ink medium; his works reflected more of this medium’s spirit.
Zao Wou-Ki started working on ink paintings at the beginning of the 70’s. The ink at that time can be considered the ink that formed the background of his oil paintings. Those sensitive broken strokes were obviously developed from within his oil paintings; the only difference is that in ink paintings, they are lighter, more carefree, and unrestrained. If we were to compare Zao’s oil paintings to a symphony, his pure simplistic ink drawings will be trios with their interplay of strong and fine inks, with a hint of burnt ink. Due to exploration and accumulation of oil paintings, he took to painting in ink as a fish takes to water. In reality, he blended his entire understanding of the arts into those unintentional, free, dispersed ink strokes. During his transformation stage, those ink paintings, which had oil paintings as “backgrounds” turned around to influence his oil paintings; this is a very interesting thing.
Art critics in Paris say that Zao Wou-Ki’s art displayed a form of “meditative spirit” unique to the Chinese people. They believed that Zao “combined the French appeal with the spatial sense of the Far East;” believed that his works “clearly reflect how the universal view of the Chinese became the global modern viewpoint.” Zao personally also believes that, “as my contemplation deepens, I find myself slowly rediscovering China.” “This form of deeply going back to one’s roots can all be attributed to Paris.” Whether it is the “meditative spirit” expressed by French critics or his own concept of “return to the original wellspring,” both of them are views of the “Tao” in a macroscopic world. And what is the “Tao?” In terms of artistic expression, “Tao’ is the “big picture” of “intangibility;” a form of abstract world where “the smallest has no inside and the largest has no outside;” this is a universal view established by early Chinese philosophy. Looking at it from its deepest meaning, what Zao’s art expresses is exactly this “big picture” of intangibility; it is exactly this abstract world of “the smallest has no inside and the largest has no outside;” it is a form of looking at the universe established by early Chinese philosophy. It is a view of the realistic and concrete images of a mountain, a body of water, a tree, a rock; it is a form of macroscopic understanding and meditation of the universal big picture hovering in the atmosphere. However, expressing this type of macroscopic understanding and meditation through painting can only be done via the abstract method. The success of Zao Wou-Ki is in his expression of the Chinese “Tao” and this form of “meditative spirit” by borrowing the abstract method of the West. When we see the pictures taken from the moon, when we see weather pictures taken from high above the ground, we further believe and recognize how real the macroscopic world reached by Zao’s “meditation.” This reality, which goes beyond normal vision, can only be gained through meditation and philosophical thinking.
San Jing Chu, Shang Yuan,
Jing Bei, Beijing,
January 1, 2005