Zao Wou-Ki is a modern Chinese-French painter affiliated with Lyrical Abstraction. He is celebrated for his superlative oil paintings, synthesising Chinese painting techniques with Western abstract composition. His body of work demonstrates a profound affinity with both traditions.
Born in Beijing, China in 1920, Zao was taught calligraphy by his grandfather from a young age. His early interest in art was largely encouraged by his family. At age 15, Zao attended the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, where he received formal art training under Lin Fengmian, a highly regarded pioneer of modern Chinese painting who was also a mentor for the artist Chu Teh-Chun. During these formative years, Zao painted predominantly figurative works and idolised modern Western masters.
In 1948, Zao moved to Paris with his first wife Lalan to embark on a new artistic journey. Settling down in the creative district of Montparnasse, Zao befriended artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró, and spent many afternoons in the Louvre. There in Paris, Zao worked alongside fellows of the École de Paris to reclaim the power of abstraction amidst the rising post-war criticism of the style. He also met abstract painters including Jean-Paul Riopelle, Joan Mitchell and Pierre Soulages, who would become a lifelong friend.
On a trip to Switzerland in 1951, he discovered Paul Klee’s abstract symbolist work, which inspired him to shift towards abstraction. Sans Titre (Cathédrale) (1951–52) — a composition that exhibits Zao’s early exploration of flat perspective with bold colours and calligraphic lines and motifs — is a typical example of this period. It also hints at his later reconnection with his Chinese heritage through the 'Oracle Bone' series, where he integrated ancient oracle bone characters into abstract imaginary landscapes.
Zao travelled frequently in the late 1950s, particularly to New York where he met Abstract Expressionists including Franz Kline, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb. The visceral expression of the New York School was impactful for Zao. He developed a more gestural, expressive style on larger canvases over the next two decades, which would come to be defined as his ‘Hurricane Period’ — an apex of his career. In May 2022, Zao's colossal painting 29.09.64. (1964) sold for $35,414,464 at Christie’s. Depicting the speed and energy of a surreal landscape in diverse shades of blue with explosive lines, the work is emblematic of this period.
In 1982, the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris was the first French museum to hold a solo exhibition of Zao, 20 years before he was elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts. His first museum retrospective in the United States, No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, opened at the Asia Society in New York in September 2016, three years after his death in 2013.
A true ‘transnational’ artist, Zao’s works reside in public collections in more than 20 countries.
Sans titre (Bateaux au claire de la lune) (Untitled (Ships in the Moonlight)