Zao Wou-Ki's Oracle-Bone Period (1954-1972) was immediately followed by the peak of his creativity recognized as the Hurricane Period (1959-1972). The Hurricane Period, considered as the golden age of the artist’s oeuvre, came about as a result of multiple influences. Of these, the maturation of Zao's creative concept was certainly key. Aside from the controversy surrounding Zao’s encounter with his second wife, May Zao, in Hong Kong in 1959, another important factor often overlooked is the endorsement of Zao's works from the owner of New York’s Kootz Gallery, Mr. Samuel Kootz.
After setting foot in New York for the first time in 1957, the artist formed a friendship with Kootz, an advocate of abstract art, and subsequently established relationships with the most representative American abstract artists and collectors of the time. These events not only helped the rapid expansion of his influence in America, but also cultivated his passion for large-format paintings. As documented in Zao’s autobiography, “(Kootz) had become accustomed to large-format paintings by American artists and represented and sold numerous works of mine from this period. Having experienced such success [with large-format works] caused me to become, at one point, even somewhat dismissive towards smaller paintings.” Kootz not only recommended such works to his most discerning collectors but was himself an aficionado of Zao’s Hurricane Period, holding solo exhibitions for the artist each year beginning from 1959. Zao consciously began working at the monumental scale of using the No. 120 canvas. Measuring 195 cm in width, it was the largest standard canvas available at the time. These large scale works later became representative of the Hurricane Period. The technical complications of creating such huge paintings means only a small number of them from the Hurricane Period are available in the market. In the past thirty years, fewer than twenty pieces have appeared at global auction. This scarcity means each sale attracts interest and strong competition from interested collectors, and the works consistently achieve robust results. As such, prices achieved for works from this period are considered important indicators in any artist market analyses.
During these years that Kootz Gallery hosted solo exhibitions for Zao, his works were exhibited in post-war cities of artistic importance including London, Paris, Madrid and Tokyo. The most exceptional works, however, were always kept for representation by Kootz Gallery. The present 15.02.65 (Lot 1029) which leads the Evening Sale not only belongs to the series of large-format works on No.120 canvas but is also marked with the Kootz Gallery label on reverse, symbolising the significant relationship between artist and gallery, and even New York's entire post-war art scene. Shortly after this work was created, Kootz felt tired of running his almost twenty-year-old gallery business and decided to close the space for good on 4 September, 1965, after the successful completion of Zao's sixth solo exhibition. Another 15 years passed before Zao held another solo exhibition in New York; and only in 1979, when Pierre Matisse (son of renowned Fauvist Henri Matisse) took on the task of promoting Zao's works did momentum pick up again. As such, 1965 is considered to be an essential year of the Hurricane Period. Upon close inspection, an intriguing change of style is evident in Zao's works dating to before and after 1965, thus establishing “15.02.1965" as an important piece for any research of his works.
“Painting is a struggle between the canvas and me; a physical struggle. Especially with large formats, which allow more human gestures, a veritable projection. One must plunge into them completely.”
In 1964, Zao accepted advice from his good friend and art critic Pierre Schneider and expressed the quote above when he became one of the fifteen artists presented in the group exhibition titled Paintings Beyond Dimensions held at American Centre, Paris. Works from this Hurricane Period tend to be massive in scale, featuring compositions that are intense and powerful. The notable configuration of a central axis appears throughout Zao’s oeuvre dated to these ten years. The three to four years between 1963 and early 1966 saw the artist create works with most vivid and bold use of color especially in the use of bright yellows; exemplifying his perfect grasp of abstract expressionism with which he created the Hurricane Period’s most impactful pieces. The wonder of 15.02.65 lies in the artist’s skilled use of color to render the composition with such prevailing sentiment. The horizontal frame blends with unexpected calligraphic brushstrokes, forming a boundless universe.
Within this possible representation of the beginnings of life on earth, and as quoted in the Book of Genesis: “And God said, let there be light: and there was light”, the piece illuminates the abstract expressionist world of Zao with a depiction of incomparable creative energy abundant with prospect and optimism. A scene as humbling as this is not easily achieved. When compared to works created in the years before and after the present piece, it is apparent that Zao was already experimenting with works of similar dimensions, compositions and color. Unique to 15.02.65 is the extraordinarily skillful use of color and brushstrokes to transition between areas of light and dark, undeniably showcasing the artist’s bias and artistic resolve towards creating works contrasting in color and composition. A year after he created the present work, the artist produced 01.04.66, the only large-format triptych of the Hurricane Period. On color and configuration, this triptych is considered the extended version of 15.02.65, and 15.02.65 is considered the model upon which 01.04.66 is based. Both pieces feature strong, hurtling lines that stem from either side of the painting, impactfully colliding in the center. Like the phoenix’s rebirth from a state of nirvana, awakening its surrounds as it flies by, purifying all that is dark and obscured, the works’ strong and assuring brushstrokes and use of color embody Zao’s willfulness and clarity of discourse, as well as his perfectly unhindered relationship between mind, body and skill. Zao’s Hurricane Period oeuvre seldom produced landscape format paintings after 1966, with the most highly-regarded pieces from this period being in portrait form. The seemingly limitless breadth of horizontal space captures a fleeting evanescence, rendering 15.02.65 a definitive work that is as remarkable as it is scarce.
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