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.
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