Lot 1026
  • 1026

ZAO WOU-KI | Untitled

60,000,000 - 80,000,000 HKD
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  • Zao Wou-Ki
  • Untitled 
  • signed in Chinese and Pinyin and dated 58; signed in Pinyin and dated 1958 on the reverse 
  • oil on canvas
  • 114.3 by 162.6 cm; 45 by 64 in.
Kootz Gallery label affixed to the stretcher on the reverse 


Kootz Gallery, New York
Collection of Judge and Mrs. Samuel I. Rosenman
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (Gift of Judge and Mrs. Samuel I. Rosenman in 1964)


Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona / Editions Hier et Demain, Paris, 1978, plate 278, p. 281
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 1979, plate 278, p. 281
Jean Leymarie, ed., Zao Wou-Ki, Cercle d'Art, Barcelona / Paris, 1986, plate 310, p. 321


The work is overall in good and its original condition. Examination under UV light reveals no sign of restoration. Condition report from an external party is available upon request.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Oracle bone script is the most ancient form of Chinese writing system. Dating as far back as 3,300 years, prior to declaring battles or making critical decisions, ancient Shang Dynasty emperors would seek divine guidance from the gods either by inscribing oracles on animal bones and turtle plastrons, or by casting decrees upon bronzes; creating what is today recognized as the earliest known writing system in East Asia.  In Beijing, 1899, the late Qing Dynasty Chinese epigrapher Wang Yirong uncovered ancient oracle bones from Anyang, Henan province. The engraved bones, which had remained undiscovered for thousands of years, shed light on an ancient civilization, thus establishing a new scientific discipline in Asian archeology: oracle bone script. In the early years of the establishment of the Republic of China, archeological research was profuse and fruitful. Epigraphers Luo Zhenyu, Wang Guowei, GuoMoruo and Dong Zuobin were among some of the master scholars in a field mounting in popularity. Zhao Hansheng, Zao Wou-Ki’s father, was one of the earliest to develop such scholarly sensitivity and appreciation for oracle bone antiques, in so far as to nurture his son’s penchant for ancient artefacts from an early age. This interest later went on to inspire Zao to publish the academic monograph Estampages Han, a volume issued in France that would successfully foster the study of Chinese antiques in Europe. Perhaps more importantly, this early development of interest was to become the key with which Zao would unlock abstract painting. During the post-war era of the 1950s in which Abstractionism was at its peak, Zao became globally known as the most representative of Asian artists. His Oracle-Bone Period (1954 - 1959) came to be regarded as the symbol of perfect harmony between ancient art of East Asia and Western art of the post-war period. The fact that the most prominent museums in Europe and America, including Centre Pompidou, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Carnegie Museum of Art, Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, The Walker Art Center, Harvard Art Museums, Art Institute of Chicago, and Detroit Institute of Art acquired works from Zao’s critical Oracle-Bone Period is a testament to the great level of recognition for the artist’s style of work. Founded in 1939, the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum is dedicated to the study and collection of non-objective painting. Housing many of the twentieth century’s most important masterpieces, the collection is widely regarded as the imperative assembly of modern art whose abstract works are further considered as the most exquisite of academic specimens. This spring, on behalf of Guggenheim Museum, Sotheby’s is pleased to offer Zao’s seminal work Untitled (Lot 1026)from the acclaimed Oracle-Bone Period at the Modern Art Evening Sale, Hong Kong. This presents an exceptional and rare chance for a work that has been held by the New York institution for the last fifty-five years to be experienced by all, and is set to generate excitement and interest from collectors all over the world.A historical record of stellar provenance

Untitled originally belonged to the collection of Judge and Mrs. Samuel I. Rosenman, renowned American political activist, judge and lawyer. Rosenman served in the US Army during the First World War and graduated from Columbia Law School in 1919. He was subsequently elected as a member of the New York State Assembly and served as the first official White House Counsel between 1943 and 1946. Rosenman was senior advisor to American presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, acting as a leading figure in the war crimes issue and as key speechwriter, and he was the first to coin the term “New Deal”.  Zao left Paris in 1957 after spending a decade in the city and travelled to the United States with his friend Pierre Soulages and his wife, embarking on a life-changing journey for his career development. Arriving in New York, Zao began his collaboration with Kootz Gallery, best known for their efforts in championing abstract arts, and made lifelong acquaintances with numerous American masters such as Hans Hofmann, Philip Guston and Adolph Gottlieb, thus entering the core of the American abstract expressionists’ circle. In 1959, Zao held his first solo exhibition at the Kootz Gallery, which marked the artist’s first official appearance in the New York post-war art scene. As was the case for many other important American private collectors, it was at this time that Rosenman learned and grew fond of Zao’s work, acquiring the artist’s Untitled from the gallery and later donating the piece to Guggenheim Museum in 1964. For more than half a century, the work has been professionally conserved to near-perfect condition, showcasing the very best of Zao’s extraordinary talent and creativity.

Divine magnificence of oracle bones

The significance of Zao’s Oracle-Bone Period lies in its intrinsic quality of liberating the artist from the narrative of painting; empowering creativity which had once been physical and outward-seeking to become focused on what is inner-directed and based on perception. The philosophical implications of such a transformative method of post-war painting are unequivocally differentiated from that of the classical, impressionist and even cubist movements, of fauvism and surrealism. Oracle bone script is, in itself, profound with history; its degree of significance would excel to become a cultural icon for Chinese artists living and working in the west. Furthermore, oracle bone script was the most novel archeological discovery of the time that proved to be boundless in its function as an object of artistic creativity. With these, together with Zao’s interest sparked early from childhood by his father, led the artist to develop his style of abstract art. Zao’s Oracle-Bone Period was in its maturity by the time Untitled was created; its modest use of lead white and verdigris resembles the ancient oracle bones and thousand-year-old bronzes which withstand the test of time to reveal a divine and mysterious eminence and sophistication. Especially arresting is the sheerness of the undulating golden yellows that resemble the brilliance of newly cast bronzes – seeming to tell the story of a historical legend that lay dormant for three thousand years, now revived and breathing energy, calmly releasing a majestic air of virtuosity. The painting’s sharp and graceful brushstrokes emanate from the eastern inscriptions of oracle bones, which, upon amalgamation with American Abstractionism, are freed of constraints from structural patterns and literal meanings to reveal a representation more vigorous and flamboyant, energetic and spirited, deific and revered and one that signifies the looming of Zao’s next style: the Hurricane Period (1959-1972).

The Oracle-Bone Period embodies Zao’s development as an artist and rise to fame in the western art world. Being an early period in the artist’s career and one of a relatively short duration, such available works in the market have been dominated by small and medium-sized pieces. In the last thirty years, a mere 12 pieces comparable in size to Untitled (canvas format 100, 160cm wide) from the Oracle-Bone Period have appeared on the market. Abstraction, the only comparable piece of the same distinguished museum provenance, from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, was sold for RMB 89,680,000 (then equivalent to HKD 115,000,000) at Sotheby’s Beijing on 1 December, 2013, setting a new record for the artist, sending shockwaves through the global art scene. Such can be seen to demonstrate the significance of Zao’s large format Oracle-Bone Period works of exceptional provenance.  This season, with Untitled leading the Evening Sale in Hong Kong, this will undoubtedly be an unmissable opportunity for discerning collectors.

This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné currently being prepared by Françoise Marquet and Yann Hendgen (Information provided by Fondation Zao Wou-Ki)