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Wou-Ki Zao

 (1921 - 2013)
Wou-Ki Zao was active/lived in New York / China, France.  Wou Ki Zao is known for non objective and abstract landscape painting.

Wou-Ki Zao

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Wou-Ki Zao
Zao (Zhao) Wou Ki combines Oriental landscape abstraction with French influence. He was born in Beijing on February 13, 1921, and from the age of ten, Zao drew and painted with great freedom. He learned from his grandfather that calligraphy is an art when it transmits an emotion to the person looking at it. At age fourteen he enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, where he remained for six years. He studied and then taught at the Hongchow National Academy of Fine Arts. In 1942, he organized an exhibition of works by his teacher, Wu Dayu, along with some of his own.

In 1948, he moved to Paris where he has lived and worked ever since, although he has exhibited in New York City. He attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and lived at Rue du Moulin Vert nearby Alberto Giacometti's studio. Making the acquaintance of Hans Hartung, Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, Viera da Silva, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm and Jean-Paul Riopelle, they often gather at the Galerie Nina Dausset, rue du Dragon.

By the end of 1957 he was working in abstract style. His "cypher-like signature"which he has used for over fifty years, gives his first name in Chinese characters and his last in a Western orthography.  This signature represents the dual cultural heritage of "Chinese and European aesthetics, in which the language of modern Western abstraction is enriched by a Chinese sensibility rooted in the past (Jonathan Hay)."

His painting has evolved in stages. Abstraction followed his only extended stay in the United States, where he encountered Abstract Expressionism first-hand at the height of the movement.  Until about 1972, Zao experimented with his style and technique. At one point he took up ink painting again, taking the skills he learned as a youth. Using this in the paintings of the mid- to late seventies, he created with a "softened, blunted mark making that fused image and space in a new, arguably more subtle way that recalls the alchemy of ink and xuan paper (Jonathan Hay)."

Around 1990, his compositions are dominated by saturated hues, largely using black. The paintings from 1993 to 2002 have rich, surfaces with pourings, spatterings, wipes, accretions, and marks of all sorts. He has also created canvases that are less worked and there is a "lightness of touch." Throughout each stage his knowledge of Chinese ink painting is visible in his oil paintings.

The artist has written an autobiography, detailing long-term and short-term emotional dramas.  Most of his dramas have been directly related to his self-displacement from China to Paris.

Recently, Zao Wou Ki was elected to the Académie des Beaux Arts. The Académie des Beaux-Arts is the section of the Académie Française reserved to painters and architects.

Jonathan Hay, Marlborough Gallery

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Wou-Ki Zao
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist.

Zao Wou-Ki, Seen as Modern Art Master, Dies at 92
Published: April 11, 2013

HONG KONG — Zao Wou-ki, one of the few Chinese-born painters to be considered a master of 20th-century modern art in the West, died at his home in Switzerland on Tuesday. He was 92. His death was reported by the French news media and confirmed by a dealer who worked closely with him.

Mr. Zao, who was born in Beijing in 1921, moved to France in 1948, just before the 1949 Communist takeover of China. He became a French citizen in 1964.

"Zao Wou-ki was the most important Chinese artist to have left before the revolution," said Pascal de Sarthe, a Hong Kong-based French gallerist who knew Mr. Zao and has been dealing in his works for 18 years. "The art world has lost a giant, especially in this part of the world."

Mr. Zao's abstract works — influenced by both European abstraction and traditional Chinese brushwork — quickly drew the attention of galleries in New York and Paris, where he was regularly showing by the 1950s. He befriended contemporaries like Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró.

Considered one of the School of Paris artists, Mr. Zao was lauded in his adopted country, which held retrospectives of his works at major venues like the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (1981), the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (2003) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (2008). His works are also in the collections of museums such as the Tate in London and the Guggenheim in New York.

Recognition came later in his homeland, where the art scene was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. It was not until 1983 that the Chinese minister of culture invited him to do his first exhibitions since he left China 35 years earlier. In the 1990s, his paintings were shown in major museum exhibitions and retrospectives in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.

By the 2000s, newly affluent Chinese collectors were taking a greater interest in paintings by Mr. Zao, even though he was elderly and in ill health and had stopped producing new work in any significant quantity. His most prized pieces had been collected decades earlier by buyers who were loath to let them go.

In October 2011, Chinese buyers vied for an abstract 1968 painting that sold at Sotheby's in Hong Kong for a record- breaking 68.98 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $8.8 million.

"Zao's paintings are extremely rare," said Mr. de Sarthe, whose gallery will be showing one Zao work at the first Art Basel Hong Kong next month. "It's almost easier to find a Picasso."

Biography from
Born: 1921 - Beijing, China
Nationality / Affiliation: China - France

Zao Wou-ki, found his distinctive voice and vocabulary in his mid-thirties, having by that time lived in Paris for a decade. By the end of 1957, he had committed to abstraction on terms that from the beginning set him apart from the other artists of his circle—Mitchell, Riopelle, Vieira da Silva, Soulages—as much as from his great supporter Henri Michaux.

His cypher-like signature, to which he has remained faithful for over fifty years, gives his first name in Chinese characters and his last in a Western orthography. It is emblematic of a stranded cultural identity, recognized from the first by sympathetic critics as the key to his artistic direction. The recognition, however, took the form of a view of Zao's painting as an exemplary reconciliation of Chinese and European aesthetics, in which the language of modern Western abstraction is enriched by a Chinese sensibility rooted in the past.

Selected Solo Exhibitions

Musée Fabre - Montpellier, France
03/07/2004 - 03/10/2004

Un univers silencieux, 60 ans de peinture
Musée des Beaux-Arts - Dunkirk, France
04/04/2004 - 26/07/2004

La quête du silence, 60 ans de peintures
Musée du Dessin et de l'Estampe Originale - Gravelines, France
04/04/2004 - 30/09/2004

Musée Rignault - Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, France
20/03/2004 - 06/06/2004

Galerie Vanuxem - Paris, France
03/10/2003 - 13/12/2003

Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume - Paris, France
13/10/2003 - 07/12/2003

Le Petit Camarguais - Gallargues-le-Montueux, France
27/06/2003 - 21/09/2003

Recent Works
Marlborough Gallery - New York NY, United States
30/04/2003 - 24/05/2003

Rêve de nature
Château de Chenonceaux - Chenonceaux, France
16/06/2002 - 03/11/2002

Musée d'Ixelles - Brussels, Belgium
09/2001 -

ART SHOWS / fairs (Selected)

Art 35 Basel
Messe Basel - Basel BS, Switzerland
16/06/2004 - 21/06/2004
Represented by: Galerie Marwan Hoss - Paris, France

FIAC Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, n°31
Paris Expo - Porte de Versailles - Paris, France
21/10/2004 - 25/10/2004
Represented by: Galerie J. Bastien Art - Brussels, Belgium

ArtBrussels - 21st Contemporary Art Fair
Brussels Expo - Brussels, Belgium
04/04/2003 - 08/04/2003
Represented by: Galerie J. Bastien Art - Brussels, Belgium

Art Basel Miami Beach
Miami Beach Convention Center - Miami Beach FL, United States
04/12/2003 - 07/12/2003
Represented by: Marlborough Gallery - New York NY, United States

FIAC, n°30
Paris Expo - Porte de Versailles - Paris, France
09/10/2003 - 13/10/2003
Represented by: Marlborough Gallery - New York NY, United States

Art 34 Basel
Messe Basel - Basel BS, Switzerland
18/06/2003 - 23/06/2003
Represented by: Galerie Marwan Hoss - Paris, France

ArtBrussels - 20th Contemporary Art Fair
Brussels Expo - Brussels, Belgium
02/05/2002 - 06/05/2002
Represented by: Galerie J. Bastien Art - Brussels, Belgium

Art 33 Basel
Messe Basel - Basel BS, Switzerland
12/06/2002 - 17/06/2002
Represented by: Galerie Ditesheim - Neuchâtel NE, Switzerland

Salon du Dessin et de la Peinture à l'Eau
Espace Auteuil - Paris, France
24/01/2002 - 04/02/2002

FIAC, n°28
Paris Expo - Porte de Versailles - Paris, France
10/10/2001 - 15/10/2001
Represented by: Thessa Herold - Paris, France

Art 32 Basel
Messe Basel - Basel BS, Switzerland
13/06/2001 - 18/06/2001
Represented by: Galerie Ditesheim - Neuchâtel NE, Switzerland

Art Basel Miami Beach: cancelled
Miami Beach Convention Center - Miami Beach FL, United States
13/12/2001 - 16/12/2001
Represented by: Galerie Jan Krugier, Ditesheim & Cie - Geneva GE, Switzerland

Arte Fiera - Mostra Mercato d'Arte contemporanea
Quartiere Fieristico - Bologna BO, Italy
25/01/2001 - 29/01/2001
Represented by: Galleria Maggiore - Bologna BO, Italy

FIAC, n°27
Paris Expo - Porte de Versailles - Paris, France
25/10/2000 - 30/10/2000
Represented by: Thessa Herold - Paris, France

ARCO - Feria Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo, n°17
Parque Ferial Juan Carlos I - Madrid, Spain
Represented by: Thessa Herold - Paris, France

SAGA - 12ème Salon des Arts Graphiques Actuels
Espace Eiffel Branly - Paris, France
23/04/1998 - 27/04/1998
Represented by: Atelier Lacourière Frélaut - Paris, France

Paris 1945 bis 1965 - Metropole der Kunst. Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Photographie
Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz - Linz, Austria
11/12/2003 - 12/04/2004

Portraits photographiques d'artistes
Salle Rossini - Paris, France
04/10/2001 - 06/10/2001

Zao Wou-Ki/Tung Wen Margue
Le Cercle Bleu - Espace d'Art Contemporain - Metz, France


Public collections
FNAC Fonds National d'Art Contemporain - Puteaux, France

MNAM Musée National d'Art Moderne - Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou - Paris, France

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - New York NY, United States

TFAM Taipei Fine Art Museum - Taipei, Taiwan

Walker Art Center - Minneapolis MN, United States

Biography from Tobin Reese Fine Art
Zao Wou-Ki was born in Beijing, China on February 13, 1920 to a wealthy family descended from the Song Dynasty. When Wou-Ki was of age, his father could afford to send him to a respected art school. He followed in the footsteps of the previous generation of Chinese artists that began to travel West for training and inspiration. French-educated Chinese artist Lin Fengmian was his teacher at the Hangzhou National College of Art (known today as the China Academy of Art) from 1935-1941 and encouraged him to study abroad in Paris.

Wou-Ki made the move in 1948 (with a substantial amount of financial backing) and later adopted France as his new home, remaining in the country, besides a few short trips abroad, until his death. Shortly after Wou-Ki's departure, China's political situation became volatile due to the Communist takeover, making any return attempt difficult and dangerous. His signature is a symbol of his unique cultural identity, as his first name is written with Chinese characters and his last name in a Western orthography. France, especially the doors of the Louvre, welcomed him with open arms. His first day in France consisted of spending the day admiring the originals of works he had only seen in print. In Paris, Wou-Ki quickly joined a large postwar French art circle, comprised of key writers, poets, painters, and cultural figures including Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Riopelle, Vieira da Silva, amongst others. This networking helped position himself at the top of the Lyrical Abstraction movement. Although he was now a part of a larger group, he worked tirelessly to break stereotypes associated with traditional Chinese painting and earn respect for his own unique multicultural identity and "voice".

By his mid-thirties, Wou-Ki had decided to devote his artistic career to abstract painting that blended Eastern and Western stylistic traditions. His rare ability to blend cultures—particularly those of China and France—appealed to populations in the United States, Europe, and Asia and led to unprecedented commercial success. His name "Wou-Ki", translated to English means "no boundaries". True to his name, the popularity of his artwork crossed continents and broke barriers. Wou-Ki is considered one, if not the most, important Chinese modernist painters of the 20th century. He was influenced by the movements of Abstract Expressionism and Impressionism and the works of Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne.

His first completely abstract work and breakthrough piece was Wind (1954). Although abstract, it included black ink and ancient oracle bone lettering—elements from the art of his birth country. Wou-Ki focused on abstract painting for the remainder of his career.

Qualities notable to Wou-Ki's works include varying planes of color, intersections of light and shade, collision and divergence, and lyricism. After committing to abstraction, the descriptive titles of his works were replaced with numbers signifying dates of completion, such as 18.09.2001 (oil on canvas) and 01.04.66 (oil on canvas). Wou-Ki believed that painting expressed the thoughts that people struggle to verbalize. Furthermore, with his French-Chinese identity, he explained, "French thought and Chinese thought are not the same…It's hard to translate between them…Painting must express these feelings."

New York Times writer John Russell positively reviewed Wou-Ki's art in 1986 stating that the artist has a "rare gift for metamorphosis" and that his paintings "take us to a space not yet defined but in abeyance, hesitant, hovering one last moment before plummeting into what later will be order." Former French president and Asian-art collector, Jacques Chirac, took a similar liking to Wou-Ki's paintings. Chirac befriended Wou-Ki and helped him prepare for his first major Chinese retrospective, in Shanghai in 1998, by writing the preface to the catalogue of his works for the show.

Wou-Ki was a highly decorated painter. His list of honors includes: Grand Officier de l'Ordre de la Légion d'Honneur, decorated by the French President, Jacques Chirac, in 2006; election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France (2002); Praemium Imperiale Award for Painting, The Japanese Art Association, Tokyo, Japan (1994); Honorary Doctorate, Chinese University, Hong Kong, China (1993); Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur, French Republic, Paris, France (1993); and Officier de la Légion d'Honneur, French Republic, Paris, France (1984). Retrospectives and exhibitions included museums in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in 1996); Shanghai, Beijing, and Canton (through 1999); Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris (2003), Nationale de France in Paris (2008), and the Suzhou Museum (2008).

Wou-Ki's works are featured in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and other national museums in major cities around the world from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro.

Wou-Ki died in Nyon, Switzerland in 2013 at the age of 93 due to complications from Alzheimer's Disease. In his old age and deteriorating mental state he stopped producing paintings. His life philosophy was simple: "Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two." He believed that as long as his work was a true representation of himself, no criticism would affect him.

Kristin Guess for Tobin Reese Fine Art

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About  Wou-Ki Zao

Born:  1921 - Peking (Beijing), China
Died:   2013 - Nyon, Switzerland
Known for:  non objective and abstract landscape painting