10 things to know about Zao Wou-Ki
An introduction to the Beijing-born artist who moved to Paris, became friends with Miró and Giacometti, and bridged the divide between Eastern and Western traditions — as told through six works being offered in Shanghai in September
Wou-Ki means ‘no limits’ in Chinese — a prescient name for an artist who experimented in oil on canvas, ink on paper, lithography, engraving and watercolour, and who embraced different cultural identities without ever being beholden to one.
Zao started drawing and painting at the age of 10. His father, a banker, encouraged his early interest in art, sending Zao to study at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, where his work was largely figurative. He studied under Lin Fengmian, a respected artist who was later recognised as a pioneer of modern painting in China. In 1941, at the age of 21, Zao presented his first exhibition in Chongqing.
After five years as an art teacher at the Hangzhou School, Zao and his wife relocated to Paris in 1948, where he was determined to make a living as an artist. Paris was an inspiration for Zao, who had idolised Matisse and Picasso in his formative years and continued to be influenced by Western modernism and the work of the Impressionists and Expressionists. It was after his move to Paris that his paintings began to shift towards abstraction.
In the 1950s, fascinated by Shang-dynasty oracle bone script — the earliest known form of Chinese writing, dating as far back as around 1500 BC — Zao created works featuring simple figures evocative of petroglyphs, expressing his interest in capturing the fundamental essence of forms.
Zao first discovered New York in 1957 while on a trip with the French artist Pierre Soulages, and the city opened up new perspectives and opportunities for him. Subsequently the artist was invited to join the prestigious roster of the Samuel Kootz Gallery, with whom he remained until the gallery's closure in 1966.
In New York Zao encountered the work of Abstract Expressionist painters Paul Klee, Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Adolph Gottlieb, and in response began to develop a bolder style working with bigger canvases.
By 1959, Zao Wou-ki was no longer naming his works, but instead titled them with the date of their completion as a way to avoid ascribing overt visual associations. This piece, titled and dated 24.06.59, contains a symphony of white and grey brushstrokes that seem to dance across the canvas surface. Combining the gestural movements of traditional calligraphy with the compositional structure of abstract painting, Zao’s works of the late 1950s represent a transitional phase between the early oracle-bone style and his more energetic style of the 1960s.
Watercolours played an important role throughout Zao’s career, the medium offering a degree of spontaneity and translucency that could not be achieved with oils on canvas. He produced numerous watercolour sketches and drawings throughout his lifetime, many of which showcase the moods and fascinations that characterised his work at the time.
Untitled, painted in 1961 (below), is an outstanding example of how the artist explored rhythmic composition, balancing small energetic brushstrokes with a broad, gentle wash. Diluting his pigments with water, Zao let the colours seep and spread across the paper’s surface, exploring the subtle effects that could be created using just a few soft shades of grey and indigo.
As Zao’s works grew increasingly abstract during the 1960s he began to move away from the detail-heavy style that characterised his oracle-bone period towards a bolder, more energetic mode of painting.
Filled with movement and vibrant colour, 10.8.67 (below) exemplifies many of the qualities that define the paintings Zao created during this period, capturing the elemental power and drama of natural forces in sweeping strokes of the brush. The rich shades of black, white and blue evoke the churning waves of an ocean or a stormy, windswept sky.
The energy of Zao’s movements with a brush can be seen equally clearly in his works on paper. The Untitled work below, also created in 1967, expresses the same vigour that characterises Zao’s larger paintings of the 1960s. The artist folded the paper in two while the work was still wet, so that a few smudges of blue mirror each other across the fold. Painted and unpainted spaces jostle for attention, creating areas of light and dark that add visual drama.
Zao’s initial exposure to Western modernist painting led to a rejection of the classical conventions of Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. By 1971, however, he had returned to the brush-and-ink technique in which he was trained in China, with work that reflected its sources in Chinese traditions but also his conceptual roots in Western abstraction.
Zao explained in a 1962 interview with the French magazine Preuves, ‘Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China.’ He added, ‘Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris that I owe this return to my deepest origins.’
When Zao resumed painting large-scale canvases, his style witnessed a dramatic shift, gaining a new translucence and vibrancy inspired directly by his work with inks.
24.12.2002 — Diptyque is a monumental work that was completed on Christmas Eve, just days after Zao Wou-ki had been elected to join the French Academy of Fine Arts. Already well past the age of 70 when he painted it, Zao nevertheless filled the canvas with a youthful energy — layers of turquoise blue and fuchsia combine with washes of warm brown, in a manner far different from early works in which he built up thick impastos of pigment in strong brushstrokes.
With his palette liberated, Zao’s work gained a lively playfulness in his twilight years, as evidenced by Untitled, painted in 2008 (below). His style becomes lighter and gauzier, and the rainbow of tones fold over and into each other, filled with light. Here, the focus is on exploring colour and luminance. If his previous works are largely concerned with energy and movement, his late works evoke airy abstract spaces and exude the aura of serenity that characterised Zao’s persona.
Zao cultivated an extensive circle of friendships with fellow artists and influential cultural figures during his lifetime. He developed close relationships with Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis, among many others.
He also became friendly with Jacques Chirac. As an aficionado of Asian art, the French President developed an admiration for the works of Zao, and wrote the preface to the catalogue for his first major Chinese retrospective in Shanghai in 1998. In 2006 Chirac appointed Zao to the Legion of Honour, France’s highest recognition.
Demand for Zao’s work was strong throughout the 1960s in Paris, London and New York, and took off in the Asian market in the 1970s and 1980s. In the years before his death in 2013 at the age of 92, Zao’s works consistently sold at auction for six figures, often reaching auction highs of $5 million and more.
In 2011, sales of his paintings totalled $90 million. Posthumously, his works have continued to accrue in value, as shown with the sale of 29.09.64, which sold for HK$152,860,000 — around $19.5 million — in May 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, setting a new world auction record for the artist.
Today, Zao Wou-ki’s works reside in more than 150 public collections scattered across more than 20 countries. Major institutions that have Zao’s paintings in their permanent collections include the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern.
Zao’s first US museum retrospective, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, opened at the Asia Society in New York on 9 September 2016. Drawing together key works from public and private collections in America, Europe and Asia, the exhibition underlined Zao Wou-Ki’s status as a true ‘transnational’ artist.
As a young man, Zao Wou-Ki was fascinated by the quest to depict essential forms. He moved on to create works that captured the elemental forces of man and nature. Finally, as he reacquainted himself with the traditions of his native China, his work attained a new transcendence, striving to express the beauty of the cosmos.
‘Zao Wou-ki’s paintings are ageless in their questioning of the universe, in their efforts at re-creation,’ said art critic François Jacob of Zao’s late-period works. ‘They present for us the birth of light, the origins of water, and beyond these turbulent upheavals of matter, a distant sense of the life energy coming into being in their midst.’