Zao Wou-k's work "4.4.85" is a former collection of the famous Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. Pierre Matisse was the youngest son of the great Fauvist master Henri Matisse and grew up since young in an artistic family. In 1924, he left for New York to embark on his art dealer career and he started an art gallery in New York named after him during 1931, which remained in business till he passed away in 1989. In a career that spanned almost 65 years, he represented many great modern and contemporary artists such as Joan Miró (1893-1983), Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Balthus (1908-2001) and Dubuffet (1901-1985). Indeed, Pierre Matisse has an important role in the history of 20th century modern and contemporary art. In his honor, the Jan Kruger Gallery in 1955, the Morgan Library & Museum in 2002 and the New York Metropolitan Museum in 2005 had all held exhibitions themed around this art merchant. Zao Wou-ki would often be among the artists who took part, thus demonstrating the intimate relationship and cooperation existing between the artist and the art merchant.
In 1979, Pierre Matisse paid his first vist to Zao Wou-ki's studio in Paris. Impressed by Zao Wou-ki's works of art, Pierre Matisse expressed his admiration to the artist and invited Zao to hold a solo in his New York gallery. In 1980, during his first exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, Zao put up many works in oil as well as ink and wash. His friend, master architect I.M.Pei., personally wrote the preface to the exhibition catalogue. Zao Wou-ki's solos were held on two occasions at the Pierre Matisse Gallery during 1980 and 1986. The painting "4.4.85" is one of the most important exhibited works in the exhibition in 1986. There existed an intimate, friendly and interactive relationship between the Matisse couple and the artist himself. In memory of their friendship, Zao once painted a huge triptych in 1986 to pay homage to Pierre Matisse. Until Matisse's demise in 1989, the painting "4.4.85" remained under the Gallery's collection. In May 1990, a portion of the art inheritance left by Pierre had to be sold on to Sotheby's and Acquavella Galleries in order to deal with his estate duties and taxes. The deal was then worth a staggering US$ 160 odd millions .As a result, the three panel artwork created by Zao was thus released into the market to end up in a private collection.
Armed with a broad poem landscape composition and the hazy light typical of ocean scenery, the painting "4.4.85" is filled with poetic charms. The master's artistic explorations are infused within the charming colors of the uninhibited atmosphere, displaying eastern sentiments with tremendous ease through the western colors. This is worthy of mention as a milestone for Zao Wou-ki during the 1980s. In his 1988 autobiography that was published in Paris, Zao said, "I love the word nature. It signifies a tremendously vast universe; a complex overlapping space that display feelings of turbulence in the atmosphere and those of a gentle passing breeze." Zao's endearing abstract works have always been regarded by critics as the perfect embodiment of both Eastern and Western cultures. Using Western oil and Eastern ink and wash, he demonstrated the Chinese ideals of a harmonious universe and the perfect union between heaven and man. Through the atmosphere of light and shadow in the painting "4.4.85", one can't help but recall John Mallord William Turner, the master British watercolorist, who was also an advocate of replicating nature. Turner is universally acclaimed as the greatest English painter of watercolors that ever lived. He excelled at capturing variable atmospheric conditions and the play of light and shadow, and his depictions of the misty atmosphere of contemporary London, in which visibility was constantly changing, are still widely admired to this day. Turner's landscapes seem almost to embody an East Asian emotional aesthetic. The influence of Turner is readily apparent in Zao Wou-ki's "4.4.85," which brings together Western-style variation in light and shadow and an Eastern cosmic perspective. The light rising upwards towards the top of the canvas constitutes an embodiment of the artist's memories and dreams.
Approaching sixty years old during the 1980s, Zao proclaimed his ever growing love for painting. He painted his own living, at the same time he also yearned to paint spaces that were invisible to one' s eyes, a space in his dreams, a place that always leave him in harmony, even if he had adopted an insecure format filled with contradicting forces. Indeed, Zao Wouki's finer and more sensitive personal emotions are hidden within those majestic pictures of his. His paintings have turned into emotional indicators. Every piece of painting, from the largest to the smallest, is a part of his dream space, completely revealing his feelings and state of mind.
Taiwanese art historian, Hsiao Chiung- Jui summarized Zao Wou-ki's painting creations using 5 major characteristics, namely, "powerful sense of living", "rich colors" , "diverse textures" , "strong lyrical sense" and "a spatial sense alternating between virtuosity and reality" . He felt that "Zao had placed before us the age old Chinese ideals of humanity in a real and objective form by repackaging them in a modern manner, turning them into a precious and noble inheritance for 20th century human spirituality. During China's times of ills and pains, Zao Wouki went far away from her, but at the same time, in a civilized and beautiful manner, he enabled the Chinese to restore their pride, regain their confidence and further instilled in them a determination to catch up with others." (refer to Hsiao Chiung-Jui, a perfect blend of East - West cultures, Masters of Chinese Painting: Zao Wou-k", Jin-Hsiu Publications, 1992, p. 36)
After the 1980s, Jean Leymarie, the art historian who compiled a catalogue for impor tant works completed by Zao Wou-ki, applauded Zao for his continuous efforts in exploring the endless possibilities between the splendor of physical matter and the richness of spiritual well being. His creations are getting more liberal, swinging between the East and the West, between energy and contemplation. ("...l'oeuvre singulière de Zao Wou-ki reste inépuisablement ouverte dans sa spléndeur physique et sa plénitude spirtuelle. Elle assume avec un élan de plus den plus libre la symbiose totale entre l'Occident et l'Orient, entre l'énergie et la contemplation.") (Jean Leymarie, Zao Wou-ki, Editions Cercle d'Art, Paris, 1986, p. 49)
During the 1986 New York exhibition "Zao Wou-ki Paintings from 1980 - 1985" held at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, French art critic François Jacob passed an apt comment on the period's creations, "an outlook that continues to regard all possibilities, it is the origin that existed before the world was formed, it is a road, leading not to the end, but source back to its origins, confined within tangibles and intangibles, this is where the paintings by Zao Wouki leads us to, a world that has yet to determine its form, still in suspension, hesitating, in its last flight prior to the birth of order...The perpetuity of Zao' s paintings lies in their questioning of the world, in their efforts to recreate. Certain paintings depict the furor of origin; the ripples of energy clashing abrasively and the turbulence that occurs before the scenery take form and shape. Some other paintings display the obstinacy of nebulas, or the birth of light, the invention of water, the first dawn, or beyond the turbulent upheavals of matter, present life indistinctly emerging." (Zao Wou-ki & Françoise Marquet, translated by Liu Li, Autoportrait, Artists' Publications, Taipei, First print 1993, 2nd edition 1996, p. 167) ("Un regard encore ouvert à tous les possibles. Un état qui précède le monde. Une route quiconduit, non à l'achèvement, mais à l'origine, aux confines de ce qui n'est pas encore. C'est là que nous entraîne la peinture de Zao Wou-ki, vers un espace qui n'est pas encore déterminé, mais reste en suspens, hésite, plane un dernier instant avant de basculer dans ce qui, plus tard, deviendra un ordre.... Il y a dans la peinture de Zao Wou-ki, une perpétuelle mise en question du monde. Un acharnement à le re-créer. Certaines de ses toiles évoquent la fureur des origins, l'enfantement de la matière par l'énergie, les derniers soubresauts des explosions créatrices. D'autres déploient l'indocilité moqueuse des nébuleuses. Ou la nai s sance de la lumière. Ou l'invention de l'eau. Ou le premier matin, comme ce merveilleux petit triptyque aux blancs rosés. Et en filigrane, par-delà les convulsions de la matière, comme prête à sourdre, la vie.") (Zao Wou-ki & Françoise Marquet, Autoportrait, Fayard, Paris, 1986, pp. 186-187)
Looking retrospectively at Zao Wouki's creative journey in art, renowned American critic Johnson Hay reckoned that Zao turned away from his studies in the past to take a new direction in style from 1979 onwards, after dabbling his hands in ink and wash. In the decade after 1979, in other words, during the 1980s, Zao Wou-ki attained a "state of grace" with his paintings. At this stage, he shed off all his impatience and instead created a more forceful "bone - structure" within Chinese painting. From an infinitely gentle base, light emerged slowly, expanding till it surrounded darkness, a kind of sign that opened up silence and stillness.
Zao Wou-ki's paintings in the 1980s attained what Johnson termed as a "state of grace". The artist himself also mentioned that he wished his pictures to be simpler, to possess a larger sense of space and he had always been in search for such a spatial sense. There is a passage in Zao's autobiography which conveyed such a goal, "Now I put my heart purely into painting, according to inspirations of the moment, according to the needs of colors . Colors are everything, nothing else is, it must be used simply and efficiently, even to the point of being stint." (Maintenant je ne cherche rien d'autre qu'à faire un tableau, sous l'emprise du moment et la couleur, où représenter à la fois tout et rien, avec économie, parcimonie même.)
According to the needs of colors , according to the inspirations of the moment, made Zao's paintings in the 1980s appear terse and ingenious, vastly different from the quivering emotions in the pas t that were both rousing and forceful. "4.4.85" contains deep philosophical thoughts by Zao Wou-ki. Using simple colors, he attempted to lead painting into an infinite realm of harmony between heaven and man. Faced with the chaos in our mundane world, the painter settled down to ponder in his studio and the order of painting came to his mind. Facing the unknown world inside the canvass, he roamed on a spiritual adventure. Isolated in loneliness within his studio, the artist painted freely using the oil colors without any restraint, capitalizing on its stretch characteristic. One can hardly fathom the quivering radiance from the colors. Sudden gushes of inspired thoughts appear from within as colors and tones changes vividly in a myriad of manners. In the painting "4.4.85", traditions of leaving white space seen in Eastern painting and poetry adopted by the painter is clearly demonstrated. It also carries on the use of space for light as seen in Western classical painting. The painting tells of the Middle Way, where East and West blend, while Ying and Yang exists in harmony. Comprising of inspirations rendered from Western mystical studies as well as Chinese ponderings on nature, Zao Wou-ki has brought his art to an ingenious level of attainment.