In 1957, Zao Wou-Ki traveled to the U.S., and he went to live with his brother Zao Wu-wai in New Jersey. There, he found greater creative space within easy distance to New York City, and personally experienced this global artistic hub at its post-war height. At that time, Kootz Gallery in New York was enthusiastically promoting Abstract Expressionism. Since its founding in 1945, the gallery had established an excellent reputation through its support of Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and other leading artists. From the 1950s onward, gallery founder Samuel Kootz devoted himself to expanding the international vision of the American art scene and actively supported outstanding artists from elsewhere in the world. Zao Wou-Ki, who had roots in both China and France, was an ideal candidate to help Kootz achieve “an international gallery interested in quality.” These like-minded men hit it off instantly, and established a working relationship starting in November 1957. Kootz Gallery became Zao Wou-Ki’s exclusive representation in the U.S., presenting his work all over the country. In addition to solo shows at the New York gallery every year or two, Kootz also held exhibitions for Zao in San Francisco (1959), the Ringling Museum in Sarasota (1962), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (1964). He successfully encouraged top American museums such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago to purchase Zao Wou-Ki’s work.
Providing a key boost to Zao’s career in the U.S., Kootz promoted Zao into the center of the American art scene, standing on par with American and European abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Pierre Soulages, and Georges Mathieu. By the time Kootz closed the gallery in 1966, Zao Wou-Ki had worked for more than ten years in the golden era of American Abstract Expressionism, representing Chinese artists in making a significant mark on the American post-war art scene. At the same time, Zao Wou-Ki, with Kootz’s encouragement, drew from American Abstract Expressionism. He began creating larger-scale oil paintings and his style became bolder and less restrained, spurring the shift from his Oracle Bone Period (1954-1959) to his Hurricane Period (1959-1972). In 1959, Kootz Gallery held a second New York solo show for Zao Wou-Ki, and on the eve of the opening, only one work remained unsold. For the 39-year-old artist, this was an immense vote of confidence. Perhaps as a result of this, the works that the artist created at the end of that year increasingly reveal a self-confident state of mind. His style shifted from the simple profundity of his Oracle Bone Period to the flying recklessness of his Hurricane Period, and 19.11.59 (Lot 1018), offered at this Evening Sale, is a testament to this evolution.
This piece is evidence of the support that Zao Wou-Ki received from important collectors in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. This work began its life with Kootz Gallery before it entered the collection of the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Upjohn Company was founded in 1886, and its founder, Dr. William Erastus Upjohn invented the friable pill. As a result, he became wealthy, invested in his hometown, established the W. E. Upjohn Institute of Employment Research in Kalamazoo and sponsored the founding of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Kalamazoo Community Auditorium. Dr. Upjohn was also a major art collector, and his most notable move was to commission a series of paintings from Norman Rockwell in the 1930s, thereby becoming an important promoter of American Realism. The Upjohn Company’s art collection grew, and at its peak in the 1990s, the collection had as many as 1,100 objects. In addition to exhibitions at the company headquarters, pieces were often lent to the Kalamazoo Institute of Art. From the collection inventory created by the Upjohn Company in 1999, we can see that 19.11.59 was purchased from Kootz Gallery in New York on 1 September 1961. We can surmise that the work would have been shown at Zao Wou-Ki’s third solo show at Kootz Gallery, which ran from 3 October to 21 October 1961, had the Upjohn Company not collected the work before the show opened. Another document from the Upjohn Company shows that 19.11.59 was part of the long-standing display at Building 88, the company’s headquarters. There is even a clear record of the piece being hung on the north wall of the Executive Dining Lounge, reflecting the meticulousness of the company’s collecting and the high regard in which American collectors held Zao Wou-Ki and his work in the 1950s and 1960s.
19.11.59 marked the beginning of Zao’s Hurricane Period. The work features bright, beautiful blues, with deep, almost inky tones at the top and bottom. The middle of the work is saturated in a white lead halo, as if energy is gathered in store there, waiting to be released on either side. This three-part structure of upper, middle, and lower layers is characteristic of Zao’s Hurricane Period, and if we look at it together with 20.03.60 (Lot 1017), also offered at this Evening Sale, we see that these two works, made around the same time, echo one another in composition and spirit. 19.11.59 already stood apart from the creative patterns of his Oracle Bone Period, in which he used characters and symbols to construct his abstractions. Here, the painting comprises calligraphic lines with no discernible form or image, permeated with an entirely natural living energy. The work is a bit like Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, by nineteenth-century British master J.M.W. Turner, in that it presents the irrepressible and immense force of nature, but it also has the spilling abundance of the landscape in Early Spring, by Northern Song painter Guo Xi. It’s worth noting that Zao Wou-Ki placed great importance on the use of blue. He once called the Maestà by Cimabue “the most beautiful thing in the Louvre.” The Virgin’s blue robe symbolizes her holiness and purity. Perhaps his discovery of color stemmed from the special power of abstract painting. In Zao Wou-Ki’s home country of China, a vocabulary of color thousands of years old was closely linked to a view of the universe shaped by yin and yang and the five elements. The color and composition of 19.11.59 might also spark associations with blue and white porcelain with dragon and wave designs from the Yongle and Xuande periods of the Ming dynasty. The ambitious 19.11.59 is an interior portrait of an artist carefully honing his craft and biding his time until he could announce himself and take his place as an internationally recognized master of abstract art.
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