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 Weiwei) who came to prominence in the West in the 1990s, Zao’s merging of Eastern and Western elements in his painting now seems prescient; and in recent years his reputation has been dramatically elevated by critics, curators, artists, and art historians.
“No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki” features around fifty of the artist’s major paintings and drawings, plus a selection of prints. The show (which debuted at the Asia Society and opens next month at its co-organizing institution, the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine) focuses on the 1950s paintings that established his career, although there are several representative examples from more recent decades.
Born in Beijing and raised in Shanghai and Hangzhou, Zao relocated to Paris in 1948, just before the Chinese Revolution. His appreciation for Western modernist painting was apparent in his work from the outset. Among the earliest pieces on view, Untitled (Tennis Players) and Landscape in Hangzhou (both 1946) are wispy outdoor scenes painted in a manner that recalls traditional Chinese landscape painting but also incorporates elements of Post-Impressionism, especially Cézanne’s painting. The influence of Odilon Redon, Henri Matisse, and Paul Klee is strongly felt in the work Zao made after he moved to Paris, where he saw paintings by these artists in museums and galleries. Untitled (Teapot and Vase with Twigs), 1951, a fine example from his early Paris years, is a luminous, Redon-like still life in which dark silhouettes of a teapot and a vase of flowering branches hover in a misty field of pale blue and reddish brushstrokes.
Zao hit his stride in the mid-1950s with paintings featuring flourishes of calligraphic markings—illegible forms based on archaic Chinese writing—set against hazy, near-monochrome backgrounds suggestive of deep, meditative space. Red Pavilion (1954), a medium-size canvas, shows exuberant passages of dark, calligraphic brushstrokes set against a fiery red ground. The work’s title refers to the classic 1791 novel by Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber, which traces the fall of an aristocratic family. In Red Pavilion, Zao uses a fundamentally abstract visual vocabulary to address the cultural transformation of his homeland following the 1949 revolution.
Zao continued to develop his rarefied form of lyrical abstraction in the subsequent decades, most often inspired by nature. Some of the most unabashedly gorgeous works on view were painted in the 1970s and after. The large canvas 13.01.76, titled for its date of completion, offers a vibrant composition in which passages of turquoise brushstrokes on either side emerge from a field of yellow—the painting conjuring the promise of spring on the coldest of winter days. A particularly radiant example from his last years, 22.11.2002–10.12.2003, shows what appears to be a majestic mountain, rendered in furtive brushstrokes of golden brown, faintly visible through a pale blue haze. Characteristic of Zao’s mystical vision, these works reflect his personal reverence for traditional Chinese art as well as his lifelong commitment to the universal language of abstract painting.