Zao Wou-Ki

Zao Wou-Ki

Zao Wou-Ki was lauded throughout his career for his ability to unite multiple artistic traditions within a single work, marrying Eastern and Western approaches to art-making through his abstract compositions that retained traces of his training as a landscape painter. He worked predominantly in oils, watercolor, and ink, but also experimented with engraving and lithography. While formally trained in traditional Chinese techniques, Zao’s early encounters with the work of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cézanne, as well as his friendships with members of the Parisian avant-garde, greatly influenced and expanded his creative endeavors.

Zao was born in Peking (Beijing) on February 1, 1920. His family soon moved to the Shanghai area, where Zao would reside through his childhood. At the age of fifteen, he gained entrance to study at the National Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou. He graduated in 1941, and worked as an assistant teacher at the academy, which had relocated to Chongqing in advance of the Japanese invasion in 1938. In the mid-1940s, the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in China, Vadime Elisseeff, encouraged Zao to relocate to France. An early champion of Zao’s work, Elisseeff brought twenty paintings to Paris to show at the Cernuschi Museum’s Exposition de peintures chinoises contemporaines in 1946.

Two years later, Zao and his wife Lalan moved from Shanghai to Paris, where he would live for the rest of his life. They took an apartment in Montparnasse, where Alberto Giacometti was a neighbor, and Zao took French classes at the Alliance Française. He became immersed in the city’s avant-garde milieu and embarked on an ambitious project of synthesizing the expressive language of European abstraction with the traditions of Chinese landscape painting. He befriended Norman Bluhm, Sam Francis, Hans Hartung, Henri Michaux, Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Pierre Soulages.

In 1949, Galerie Creuze would host his first solo exhibition in Paris. The gallerist Pierre Loeb exhibited Zao’s work at Galerie Pierre in 1951, beginning a relationship that would last through 1957. Zao would continue to gain international prominence through the 1950s; the Museum of Fine Arts of Cincinnati hosted his first retrospective of prints in 1954, and three years later, he met the legendary dealer of Abstract Expressionist art, Samuel Kootz, who would soon represent Zao in the United States. He exhibited his first solo exhibition in New York at the Kootz Gallery in 1959. He would gain French nationality in 1964, and the Folkwang Museum, Essen, hosted a retrospective of his work in 1965.

In 1966, Zao began creating multi-panel compositions, finding the challenge of working at a large scale to be invigorating. He noted, “I felt great physical joy in working the large surfaces, to the point of being obsessed and unable to do anything else.” After his second wife May passed away in 1972, he traveled to China to visit family that he had not seen in over twenty years. His compositions grew in scale, and he continues to make trips to China through the mid-1970s. In 1980, he was appointed as an instructor of mural painting at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Two years later, Zao exhibited monumental canvases at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, the first time a French museum has shown his work.

In 2017, Lévy Gorvy organized the exhibition Willem de Kooning | Zao Wou-Ki, marking the first time the artists were shown together. This was followed by Zao Wou-Ki: L’espace est silence at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2018–19), a survey dedicated to his large-scale paintings. His first US retrospective was held at the Asia Society, New York (2016–17). Zao’s work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at institutions in North America, Europe, and Asia, including Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montréal (1969); Grand Palais, Paris (1981); the Hong Kong Museum of Art (1996); Jeu de Paume, Paris (2003); and Asia University Museum of Modern Art, Taichung, Taiwan (2017–18).

Zao was a member of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts, and he was honored with the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale Award for Painting in 1994. In 2006, he was inducted into the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit. Zao’s paintings may be found in museum collections worldwide, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Fundaciò Joan Miró, Barcelona; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Tate, London, among many others.

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Selected Works

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  • 27-10-1981 (detail of)
    1981
    Oil on canvas
    39 3/8 x 31 7/8 inches (100 x 81 cm)

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Video

The Meeting of Edgard Varèse and Charlie Paker

March 22, 2017

Special concert led by Peter Evans, in celebration of the exhibition 'Willem de Kooning | Zao Wou-Ki.'

Exhibitions

Museum Exhibitions

Selected Press

99y | 是什么在支撑着赵无极的市场神话?

November 6, 2019

尽管赵无极擅长学习中国书法,但他最初还是试图拒绝这些传统,并以更纯粹的欧洲风格进行创作。在和他的中国传统达成和解之后,赵无极开始受到古老中国方块字的启发,进而转向他的“甲骨文(oracle …

Artsy | What’s Fueling Zao Wou-Ki’s Art Market Boom

November 6, 2019

Although well-schooled in Chinese calligraphy, Zao initially tried to reject those conventions and work …

The Art Newspaper | Guggenheim Deaccessions Work by Zao Wou-Ki as the Market for the Artist Swells

February 1, 2019

Following a $65m sale of the Chinese modernist's work in October, Sotheby's will offer an untitled work …

Artsy | The 20 Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction in 2018

December 24, 2018

While the auction landscape this year didn’t have a blockbuster on the scale of 2017 when Leonardo …

Bloomberg | Record Sale of $65 Million Zao Painting Yields 2,735% Return

September 30, 2018

An abstract oil painting by Chinese-French master Zao Wou-Ki changed hands for HK$510.4 million ($65.2 …

Hamptons Art Hub | Readers Choice: Most Popular 15 Stories in 2017

December 27, 2017

On view through March 11, 2017, Willem de Kooning|Zao Wou-Ki featured more than 20 paintings from the …

591HX | 谁推动了香港拍场的赵无极热 [Who’s behind the Zao Wou-Ki Boom at the Hong Kong Auctions?]

October 24, 2017

See PDF for English translation.

Artnet | Levy Gorvy's plans to collaborate with the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation

June 8, 2017

自2016年年底,佳士得战后及当代艺术部门的主席及国际主管Brett Gorvy宣布离开供职23年的拍卖行,并将与世界顶级当代艺术经纪人之一的Dominique …

Wall Street International | Zao Wou-Ki

February 13, 2017

Lévy Gorvy is pleased to present the first exhibition ever to pair the abstract landscapes of Chinese-French …

Hamptons Art Hub | ART REVIEW: De Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki Paintings Trace Paths to Abstraction

February 7, 2017

East meets West is an ancient theme in the arts: Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and

Cultured | Second Act

February 1, 2017

It might not be known to those who aren’t involved in the art market, but some of the biggest collectors …

Artnet | Lévy Gorvy Demonstrates Art World Clout at Inaugural New York Exhibition

January 20, 2017

A little over a month after the formation of what is predicted to be one of the most formidable art dealer …

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