The pioneering Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki once remarked, 'Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two.' Indeed, his oeuvre of more than 70 years presents a life of experimentation and negotiation between Chinese and Western artistic traditions. Working with oil paint, Chinese ink, lithography, engraving and watercolour, Zao traversed cultural boundaries and created an ever-evolving synthesis of Chinese and Western art.Read More
Zao's experience with Western aesthetics began early. Born in Beijing with a banker as a father, Zao's family moved to Shanghai a few months after he was born. From 1935 he studied at the Hangzhou National College of Art (now known as China Academy of Art) for six years, where he mastered both Chinese ink drawings and Western-style paintings. In 1941 he became a drawing instructor at the school and taught there until 1948, when he decided to leave for Paris. Except for brief returns to his homeland and later trips to New York, Zao spent most of the rest of his life in Europe.
Zao's early works from his years in Hangzhou already begin to convey his increasing gravitation towards the Western artistic traditions. Untitled (Tennis players) (1945) and Landscape in Hangzhou (1946) incorporate elements of both traditional Chinese landscape and Post-Impressionism. Zao was especially influenced by Paul Cézanne, evident in his choice of colours and fragmented brushstrokes.
Once in Paris, Zao quickly gained recognition as an abstract gestural painter. However, in the 1950s he still operated in a representational mode, as visible in Two Fish (1952)—an ink and watercolour drawing of two fish facing opposite directions. During this time, Zao closely studied the works of artists such as Henri Matisse and Paul Klee and gradually came to favour oil paint over Chinese ink. Even as he began to turn away from Chinese ink, he continued to incorporate Chinese influences in other aspects in his works, notably calligraphic markings derived from archaic Chinese letters. In Red Pavilion (1954), a red amorphous form illuminates the dark grey background over which the artist has painted calligraphic brushstrokes. Titled after Cao Xueqin's 1791 novel Dream of the Red Chamber—a story of the fall of an aristocratic family—Zao alludes to the cultural and social changes that occurred in China after the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution.
In the 1960s, Zao's oeuvre shifted from an orientation towards detail to a more abstract and energetic mode of painting. 10.12.60 (1960) shows a central pole of short, darting brushstrokes, supported by longer calligraphic lines at the top and the bottom. Suggestive of upward movement, the painting reflects Zao's interests in energy, light, landscape and weather conditions. By the late-1960s, paintings such as 10.8.67 (1967) reveal that he also came to utilise expressive, sweeping brushstrokes and saturated colours to create an exciting study of vibrancy and drama.
In a 1962 interview with the French magazine Preuves, Zao remarked that he had 'gradually rediscovered China', stating, 'Paradoxically . . . it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins.' However, while he consistently fused Chinese and Western elements in his oil and watercolour paintings, it was not until the 1970s that Zao returned to ink. Rejecting the conventions of traditional Chinese ink painting, Zao experimented with the lightness of ink and its movement on paper. As a result, his later ink paintings such as Untitled (1975) and Untitled (1984) incorporate the gestural brushstrokes of Western abstraction and create an ambient space in which the boundary between foreground and background is blurred.
Compared to his investigations of powerful forces and movement, Zao's later works are lighter in colour and seem expressive of a more youthful energy. 24.12.2002—Diptyque (2002), for example, lacks the thick impastos of his earlier works and instead exudes gentleness with diluted washes. The visual transformations throughout Zao's artistic career indicate his versatility and drive for experimentation, while the core of his artistic investigation remains true to his appreciation for Chinese traditional art and abstract painting.
Zao Wou-Ki's work continues to be exhibited internationally. At Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel in 2020, Lévy Gorvy, Kwai Fung Hin, and Anna Ning Fine Art's booths featured his paintings; Zao was also listed as one of Six Artists to Watch at the fair by Ocula Magazine. In 2016, New York's Asia Society showcased many of his major paintings, drawings, and prints in the solo presentation No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki. Zao's works can also be found in major public collections such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Tate, London.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2017
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Chinese-born painter Zao Wou-Ki (1920–2013) had a long and successful career. But his story presents a classic example of an artist who established an international reputation early on but over time came to be taken for granted, if not nearly forgotten. However, in the wake of the wave of Chinese artists (such as Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhang Huan, and Ai...
No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki at the Asia Society, is the Chinese-French artist’s first American retrospective since 1968. After World War II, he created a blend of Western and Chinese sensibility that thrust his works into the mainstream of Abstract Expressionism. This exhibition, curated by Michele Yun of the Asia Society in collaboration with...
The painter Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013) is by now one of the best-known Chinese painters of the 20th century. It helped that he lived in Paris from 1948 on and that his gestural abstractions, which drew on Eastern and Western sources, enjoyed great success in Europe and the United States. By 1952 he had had solo shows in Paris and New York and went on...
One of the highlights of STPI's 2016 program opens this week — an exhibition dedicated to the printmaking practice of master artist Zao Wou-Ki. Featuring works on loan from a private collection, Zao Wou-Ki: No Boundaries reveals a lesser-known side of an artist whose approach to ink and watercolor painting was profoundly influenced...