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Zao Wou-Ki (1921 – 2013)


Zao Wou-Ki, born in Beijing, China, was an internationally-renowned Abstract artist. His role in the Lyrical Abstraction circle of postwar painters in France represented a juncture of Chinese and postwar European and American painting traditions. In 1935, Zao attended the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, China, where he learned the techniques of traditional Chinese and Western painting. Nevertheless, he was most heavily influenced by European modernists Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. He arrived in Paris in April 1948, acquainting himself with European Lyrical Abstraction, a movement of postwar French artists pursuing free-form expression through painting. In 1949, he began making prints. Upon discovering Paul Klee’s paintings in 1951, Zao began to incorporate ideograms into his paintings. Zao still painted figurative elements, however, and used titles for his works referencing actual objects, before definitively choosing an Abstract aesthetic in 1953, inspired by archaic Chinese characters.


In 1957, Zao met New York gallerist Samuel Kootz, who encouraged him to paint large-scale works with looser, more gestural brushstrokes. From the 1960s on, his paintings focused on space and movement, with forms resembling flowing streams or effervescent magmas; in the late 1960s as the illness of his second wife Chan May Kan worsened, the style of Zao’s paintings became more frenzied. Encouraged by Michaux, Zao resumed Chinese ink painting techniques in 1971, which he had given up in 1948 upon arriving in France for fear of being labeled a "Chinese painter." After his wife Chan May Kan’s death in March 1972, Zao visited China for the first time since 1948. Following the visit, he painted in larger formats, including diptychs and triptychs, created in homage to the people who inspired him in his youth. Zao’s work has been celebrated and exhibited around the world, including at the Venice Biennale in 1996.

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