In the 1960's, post-war Asian art entered a golden age. Asian artists developed their own sophisticated languages after many years of refinement, reaching the peaks of their careers. As one of the first Asian artists to gain global renown, Zao Wou-Ki entered his Hurricane period (1959-1972) during this time, creating canonical classics sought after by countless collectors. In auctions, they invariably generate tremendous excitement and competition. Zao's 26.04.62 (Lot 1034) is one of his best works from the Hurricane period. At the monumental scale of No. 120 canvas, it reflects the young artist's unbounded creativity and self-confidence. Laid down with a brush thickly loaded with oil pigments, the lines flare and dance dramatically on canvas, as if Zao were expressing all the experiences and thoughts that he held within himself and constructing his own universe of abstraction. Over the past three decades, no more than 20 similar works by Zao of this size number have appeared in the auction market, and in recent years they have repeatedly surpassed the HKD 80,000,000 mark.
Typical of Zao Wou-Ki's Mad Cursive period, the composition of 26.04.62 resembles the opening frame of a film, with a black lightning-like line dashing from left to right. At the same time, jade-green light flashes from right to left. The clash between the two colors break open the amber-coloured background, creating a tripartite composition of top, middle, and bottom. The bright light in the middle, suggesting cosmogenic energies, not only attracts the eye but also unifies the tripartite composition as a space of three levels of abstraction. Zao developed his abstract paintings in the 1950's from the Oracle Bone script, and they owe their darkly mysterious mood from ancient Asian civilization. However, after he left for the United States in 1957 and experienced Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting first-hand, the painting process became equally important for him as the finished work. One may even say that the work is nothing more or less than a record of the painting process. When painting was freed from its millennia-old narrative function, it could more directly and in a purer way express the painter's heart and mind, emotions and spirit. As we appreciate 26.04.62 in detail, we realize that Zao Wou-Ki has fully exploited the large-scale canvas to trace long and energetic lines, allowing them to interweave rhythmically and symphonically to penetrate the deepest reaches of our hearts.
Zao Wou-Ki's Mad Cursive period represented the peak of his career. With works such as 26.04.62, he earned widespread recognition amongst Euro-American art critics and private and public collections in the 1960's. He was undeniably a member of the Euro-American artistic avant garde. His development dovetailed with the general turning away from external appearances and towards expression of personal emotion and state of mind in post-war Euro-American art. His work was the Eastern counterpoint to the movement from objective representation towards subjective expressionism in Western painting since William Turner and Claude Monet, and became also a gateway into Eastern thought for 20th-century Western artists. On the other hand, the millennium-old Chinese landscape painting tradition underwent a dramatic transformation as it attempted to modernize and globalize. Zao Wou-Ki's Mad Cursive works are superb modern interpretations and extensions of the compositional and spiritual pursuits of Chinese landscape painting. 26.04.62 resonates with the blue-green landscape tradition of the Tang and Song dynasties, a tradition that began with Li Sixun and his son Li Zhaodao during the Tang and reached its apogee with A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains by the Northern Song painter Wang Ximeng. With their monumental scopes and dazzling colours, these classical paintings celebrated the boundless glories of the Chinese land and the supreme authority of the imperial dynasty. With equal self-assurance and grandeur, Zao Wou-Ki's 26.04.62 and the energetic lines therein lead us on a journey through a magnificent kingdom of abstract beauty.
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