Zao Wou-Ki (1921 – 2013) is among the most recognized Chinese artists in the world. Born in Beijing, he attended the National School of Arts in Hangzhou in 1935, where he became a drawing instructor in 1941. In both his schooling and teaching domains, Zao moved freely between Chinese painting techniques and Western-inspired abstract compositions and found a profound affinity between the two traditions.
In 1947, Zao moved to Paris and quickly rose to prominence as an abstract gestural painter, befriending other artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miro. Abstraction was not well received in France during the immediate post–World War II period, as its apparent lack of content or subject were deemed inept to express the brutal realities of the war and its aftermath. But Zao and other artists such as Pierre Soulages and Hans Hartung were determined to show that abstract painting could speak to this very condition through the intuitive language of color and line. To this end, Zao began to paint more boldly than ever, combining expressive lines with deeply saturated color. In the mid-1950s he incorporated Chinese influences more directly, sometimes using actual calligraphy instead of loose and winding brushstrokes. During this period, Zao frequently traveled to New York, where he met Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and other Abstract Expressionists.
Beginning in 1966, Zao Wou-Ki began to explore new forms of expression. He sought inspiration from Western art, adapting into his own creation polyptychs of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Those early polyptychs are mostly altarpieces in the forms of diptychs and triptychs that depict scenes of saints and humans. Marked by a strong narrative, they are often eye-catching large-scale works that aptly serve the purpose of proselytizing the Christian faith. In many ways, this genre relates closely to the ancient Asian art of folding screens. Although Zao adopted such a traditional format, he eschewed the straightforward narrative or ornamental qualities of the convention. Instead, he injected his own individual expression and innovative ideas, forging an entirely new path. Later in the 1970s, Zao’s paintings become less focused on line and gesture, striving instead toward an ambient and dreamlike atmosphere in which foreground and background are entirely blurred. Taken in its entirety, Zao’s oeuvre reflects a continual struggle—the artist’s gesture versus the painter’s canvas. By the 1980s, Zao had already rejected such notions as “battle” and “conquer.” Having travelled the world and amassed experience in the art world for two decades, Zao had attained contentment; he had learnt to create art without any restrictions, handling all subject matter with ease.
Zao Wou-Ki was awarded numerous prestigious awards: Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur in 1993, Japanese Premium Imperial Award in 1994, and was made Grand Officier de l’Ordre in 2006.
The paintings of Zao’s are part of the permanent collections of leading international museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; The Tate Gallery London; Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; National Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing; Hong Kong Museum of Art,; Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan; The Museum of Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, Israel; Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Milan; Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka; National Museum of Art, Osaka amongst others.
Zao’s legacy on the postwar abstraction continues to garner much attention from a worldwide audience. His most significant solo exhibitions in the recent years are: No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, Asia Society Museum, New York, USA (2016-2017); Par l’océan à l’horizon infini, le vent du printemps me ramène au pays – Exposition d’estampes de Zao Wou-Ki, Nantong Museum, Nantong, China (2016); Zao Wou-Ki, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, Switzerland (2015-2016); Zao Wou-Ki: Estampes – Peintures récentes, Centre Culturel de Chine, Paris, France (2015); Zao Wou-Ki: La lumière et le soufflé, Musée d’art de Pully, Pully, Switzerland (2015); Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013): Retrospettiva, Casa Rusca, Pinacoteca Comunale, Locarno, Switzerland (2013); Zao Wou-Ki: Beyond, FEAST Project, Hong Kong (2012); Zao Wou-Ki, le printemps du pinceau, Musée des beaux-arts, Rouen, France (2012); Zao Wou-Ki, Fondation Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva, Lisbon, Portugal (2010); Zao Wou-Ki – Céramiques et œuvres sur papier, Marlborough Gallery, Monte-Carlo, Monaco (2009); Zao Wou-Ki – Entre ciel et terre. Aquarelles et encres de Chine, Fondation Folon, La Hulpe, Belgium (2009); Zao Wou-Ki: Hommage à Riopelle et peintures récentes, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Québec, Canada (2008) Zao Wou-Ki: Paper + China, Marlborough Gallery, New York, USA (2008); Zao Wou-Ki. Black & White Dream, New Suzhou Museum, Suzhou, China (2006). Asia Museum of Modern Art in Taichung, Taiwan will hold a retrospective show of Zao Wou-Ki in 2017.