Zao Wou-Ki was a Chinese-French artist known for his non-representational paintings that blended Eastern and Western modes of art making. “Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two,” the artist once reflected. Born on February 1, 1920 in Peking, China, he studied at the Hangzhou Fine Arts School for six years were he was influenced by the work of traditional Chinese and Japanese art as well as Western painters like Paul Klee and Franz Kline. In 1947, the artist moved to Paris where he became the neighbor of Alberto Giacometti and friends with Sam Francis, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Pierre Soulages. During the following decades, Zao’s work became very popular with Chinese collectors and by the 2000s his paintings were selling in the millions.
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 hints of his training as a landscape painter. In 1948, the artist moved to Paris, where he would live for the rest of his life, and soon began to exhibit internationally. Zao 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 friendship with Henri Michaux, greatly influenced and expanded his creative endeavors.
Best known for his large-scale canvases, the Chinese-born French artist was also a committed printmaker whose styles and themes evolved across a five-decade practice “I can’t think of any other artist whose prints so completely intertwined Asian and Western traditions,” says Alexandra Gill, Senior Specialist in Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London, of Chinese-born French artist Zao Wou-Ki. In 1949, Zao made his first lithographs at the Paris workshop of Edmond Desjobert. He would later describe this initial foray into printmaking: ‘The idea of throwing color on a large white porous stone, like on China paper, pleased me. I used a lot of water, which is not at all to be recommended. Edmond Desjobert, a remarkably skillful lithographer, criticized me for it and told me the outcome would be poor, because one could not mix so much water with the lithographic ink. Even so I tried, and while the proofs were being printed he became enthusiastic.’
Zao was a member of the esteemed Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 2006, French President Jacques Chirac bestowed the artist with France’s highest civil rank, the Legion of Honor. The artist died on April 9, 2013 in Nyon, Switzerland at the age of 93. In 2016, he was the subject of his first retrospective held in the United States titled “No Limits Zao Wou-Ki” at the Asia Society in New York. During his lifetime, Zao was the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at institutions in North America and Europe, including the Musée d’art contemporain in Montréal in 1969, the Grand Palais in Paris in 1981, the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1996, and the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2003. Since his death in 2013, the artist’s oeuvre has been celebrated with retrospectives at the Asia Society, New York (2016–17), and the Musée d’art moderne de las Ville de Paris (2018–19). Zao’s work may be found in museum collections worldwide, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Tate Modern, London; and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, among others.