“Enthusiasm dwells in Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings. It is a possession, some sort of communication with the world, an extraordinary union between soul and matter.”
Dominique de Villepin, Into the Maze of Lights, 18 December 2009
Zao Wou-Ki’s Hurricane Period, which lasted from 1959 to 1972, represented the apex of the artist’s career. Although half a century has passed since then, the stunning visual impact and tension of the paintings from this period continue to bewitch their viewers. In 2001, in an interview with Xu Gehui on the Phoenix Hong Kong Channel, Zao Wou-Ki explained that painting is meant not to serve oneself, but to ‘create a world’. Even when the process proves arduous and exhausting, then, one must persist in exploration. The worlds created in Zao’s paintings prompted former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to give them a name: ‘Zaowoukia’. 09.01.63 (Lot 1016) is a paragon of this magnificent chapter in Zao’s endless journey of creation.
The emergence of the Hurricane Period is closely tied to Zao’s experiences travelling around the globe in the 1950s. In 1957, Zao, already enjoying recognition and acclaim as an artist for his ‘Oracle Bone’ series, nevertheless departed Paris following the dissolution of his first marriage, and journeyed westward for two years. He left Paris for the United States, then continued onward from Hawaii to Japan and Hong Kong, before finally returning to Paris. This trip led him not only to the love of his life, his second wife May Zao, but also allowed him to witness the exciting birth of a new era.
At 195 x 130 cm, 09.01.63 was created upon the No. 120 canvas that was later recognized as the dimensions distinctive of Zao’s paintings completed during his time cooperating with Kootz Gallery in the United States. In this work, one witnesses a thunderous splitting-open, a rip in the primal chaos of amber, this elemental and vigorous colour conveying profundity without veering toward rigidity or stiffness. Emerging is an aura of mystery within mystery, a continuation of the themes of antiquity and the mystical from the artist’s previous period. The painting delves into the farthest reaches toward the original source of life itself, pursuing the origins of the universe beyond the constraints of form. Rupturing the eternal stillness are explosive lines that burst forth and fill the atmosphere. The magnificent solemnity and harmony of the background in the upper left of the canvas combined with the subtle grandeur in the centre invoke a mythological battling spirit. At the splitting of the heavens, criss-crossing the vast desolation of the world manifests as a bold and assured expansion, a display that testifies to the artist’s singular skill in composition, whose paintings are reinforced with strength on opposite sides to provide support to its arrangement.
In the same year that 09.01.63 was completed, Zao was honoured with an unusual dual-city solo exhibition at the Galerie de France in Paris and the Redfern Gallery in London. Among the artist’s few exhibitions in England, the Redfern Gallery was the earliest to hold a solo exhibition for Zao in 1959. Four years later, it collaborated with the Galerie de France in hosting yet another exhibition for the artist, a testament to the artist’s outstanding appeal, which penetrated the tight-knit local English art circle. 09.01.63 was not only included in the catalogue for that year’s exhibition, it was the exhibition’s largest piece, a status of indisputable importance. In 1994, Zao Wou-Ki: L’Oeuvre 1935-1993, edited by prominent French writer and art historian Pierre Daix, was published. The catalogue, after rigorous culling and selection, gathered together the works considered most important by Zao and Daix, with the image of 09.01.63 spanning multiple pages, yet another testament to its remarkable significance.
Of the 120 pieces belonging to Zao’s Hurricane Period, only few have ever been offered on the market, with each offering eliciting a clamour of intense competition. At Sotheby’s 40th Anniversary Evening Sale in October of 2013, Zao’s two paintings 16.5.66 and 3.4.60-1.2.69, both completed on No. 120 canvases, commanded HKD$79.64 million and HKD$70.68 million, respectively, successively creating new world records for the artist. These events only further ignited the frenzy in the market for the artist’s work. The momentous 09.01.63 on offer for the first time at today’s Evening Sale is sure to keep up this hurricane of jubilation!
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