Reviews

To the Limits and Back: How Chinese Ex-Pat Zao Wou-Ki’s Experiments With Western Modernism Led Him Back to Traditional Chinese Aesthetics

Through January 8

Zao Wou-Ki, Untitled (Tennis players), 1945, oil on muslin, 10⅝ × 13¾ inches. DENNIS BOUCHARD/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SWITZERLAND

Zao Wou-Ki, Untitled (Tennis players), 1945, oil on muslin, 10⅝ × 13¾ inches.

DENNIS BOUCHARD/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SWITZERLAND

‘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 Melissa Walt and Ankeley Weitz of the Colby College Museum of Art, astutely focuses on the artist’s experimentation with Western modernism and traditional Chinese aesthetics in the evolution of his individual style through works in oil on canvas, ink on paper, print making, and watercolor.

Although his first name, Wou-Ki, means no limits, he nevertheless felt bound by two artistic traditions. Born in Beijing in 1920, he spent his formative years in cosmopolitan Shanghai and Hangzhou where he studied Western as well as traditional Chinese art at the National Academy of Art, but during the political postwar turmoil in 1948, he emigrated to Paris. The Western influence he brought to France is obvious in a delightful pencil drawing of a young woman in the style of Matisse, somber watercolor sketches of Rembrandt engravings, and a landscape based on Cézanne.

Zao Wou-Ki, Untitled (dedicated to Louise Varése), 1954, watercolor on paper, 19½ x 19 inches. COLBY COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART, GIFT OF MRS. FRANÇOISE MARQUET-ZAO

Zao Wou-Ki, Untitled (dedicated to Louise Varése), 1954, watercolor on paper, 19½ x 19 inches.

COLBY COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART, GIFT OF MRS. FRANÇOISE MARQUET-ZAO

Once in Paris, he transitioned from ink to oil paint. His sketch of the Sacre-Coeur at sunset (Untitled, oil on canvas, 1948) with its thin pigment and rapid brush strokes reveals his training with ink on paper. In his mastering of oil painting in such works as Black Moon (1953), his black outlining of buildings, trees, people, and animals is reminiscent of archaic Chinese engravings, on a thick background in compositions inspired by Klee (Tracks in the City, 1954).

Zao’s individual style evolved with abstract painting, connecting him to his artistic contemporaries in Paris. And, more important, it enabled him to reconnect with the great Chinese Yangzhou eccentrics of the 18th century who rejected traditional calligraphy and painted using their fingers or the edge of their hands. Zao created his most powerful fusion works during this phase, and his work was exhibited in New York and Paris during the 1950s.

“If the influence of Paris is undeniable in my complete artistic development, I also must say that I have gradually rediscovered China to the extent that my deepest personality asserted itself,” Zao had said. “Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris that I owe this return to my deepest roots.” He resumed his calligraphic style with both ink on paper and oil paintings in works dedicated to Chinese subjects, such as his 1962 series “Jade Terraces,” while remaining committed to Western events, as in Hommage á John Kennedy (1963).

Zao continued to explore a greater range, as when he experimented with vertical stripes in works like Hommage á Matisse (1986) and with Japanese gold leaf screens as in “Quadriptych-December ’89—February ’90.” This period of greater cross cultural exploration highlights Zao’s artistic relevance today as a figure of 20th-century transculturalism.

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