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 

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  • Zao Wou-Ki’s name is prescient

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 Wou-Ki (1920-2013) 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.

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  • Paris was an inspiration for Zao

In 1948, Zao and his wife, Lalan, relocated to Paris. The French capital 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 1500 BC — Zao created works featuring simple figures evocative of petroglyphs, expressing his interest in capturing the fundamental essence of forms.

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  • Visits to New York saw him develop a bolder style

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 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. 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.

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  • His work became more vibrant and forceful during 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 oeuvre.

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. 

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji, 1920-2013), 29.09.64., painted in 1964. Oil on canvas. 230 x 345 cm (90½ x 135⅞ in). Estimate HK$220,000,000-280,000,000. Offered in 20th and 21st Century Art Evening Sale on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji, 1920-2013), 29.09.64., painted in 1964. Oil on canvas. 230 x 345 cm (90½ x 135⅞ in). Estimate: HK$220,000,000-280,000,000. Offered in 20th and 21st Century Art Evening Sale on 26 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The energy of Zao’s movements with a brush can be seen equally clearly in his prints

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  • He had a complicated relationship with Chinese art

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.’

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  • His work with inks inspired a dramatic shift in style

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. His style becomes lighter and gauzier, and the rainbow of tones fold over and into each other, filled with light. 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.

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  • He mixed with the greatest artists of the day — and had friends in high places

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.

Zao Wou-Ki and I.M. Pei Photo  Marc Riboud
Zao Wou-Ki and I.M. Pei Photo : Marc Riboud

He also became friendly with Jacques Chirac. As an aficionado of Asian art, the French President developed an admiration for Zao’s work, 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.

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  • Demand for his work has always been high — and is still growing

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. 

Elected to the Académie des Beaux Arts, Zao Wou-Ki (centre) stands in the library of the institute, in 2003. Reserved Rights
Elected to the Académie des Beaux Arts, Zao Wou-Ki (centre) stands in the library of the institute, in 2003. Reserved Rights

Posthumously, his works have continued to accrue in value, as shown with the sale of 29.09.64, which achieved HK$152,860,000 in May 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, setting a new world auction record for the artist.

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  • His work can be seen in museums across the world

Today, Zao’s works can be found in more than 150 public collections across more than 20 countries. Major institutions that hold 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 in September 2016. Bringing together key works from public and private collections in America, Europe and Asia, the exhibition underlined Zao’s status as a true ‘transnational’ artist.

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  • Ultimately, he sought to reflect nothing less than the beauty of the cosmos

Across his career, Zao sought to create works that captured the elemental forces of nature. 

‘Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings are ageless in their questioning of the universe, in their efforts at recreation,’ 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.’