Zao Wou-ki, Abstract Painter, Dies at 92
Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: April 11, 2013
Zao Wou-ki, a Chinese émigré who merged Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions in his abstract paintings — helping to shape avant-garde art in postwar Europe and attracting a newly wealthy Asian following that made him one of the most commercially successful living artists in either hemisphere — died on April 9 in Nyon, Switzerland. He was 92.
Zao Wou-Ki/2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via ADAGP, Paris
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said a spokesman for his wife, Françoise Marquet, a former curator of the Museum of Modern Art of Paris.
Mr. Zao’s paintings, which are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern, among others, have sold at auction in recent years for between $1 million and $2 million each. Since 2011, when sales of his paintings totaled $90 million, art journals and art dealers have frequently referred to him as the top-selling living Chinese artist.
Finding his own identity in that label — as a Chinese artist — was the crucible of Mr. Zao’s artistic vision.
Leaving China just ahead of the Communist takeover, Mr. Zao settled in 1948 in Paris, where his first sustained exposure to Western Modernist painting left him feeling ambivalent about the classical forms of landscape and calligraphic ink painting in which he had been trained. He loved the work of the Impressionists and Expressionists, and of contemporary artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.
But through nonobjective Western painting, especially the work of Paul Klee, who was influenced by traditional Chinese and Japanese art, Mr. Zao gained new insights into what the British art historian Michael Sullivan called “the Abstract Expressionist element in his own tradition.”
As Mr. Zao explained in a 1962 interview with the French magazine Preuves, “Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China.” He added, “Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins.” He became a French citizen in 1964.
Mr. Zao’s canvases, known for their striking Modernist lines combined with color subtleties and three-dimensional perspective suggestive of Chinese landscape painting, began selling briskly in the 1960s in Paris, London and New York.
He was generally well received by critics. In a 1986 review in The New York Times, John Russell, praised his “rare gift for metamorphosis” and quoted approvingly from the catalog’s observation that Mr. Zao’s paintings achieved a sort of quantum duality, seeming to occupy two places at once: they “take us to a space not yet defined but in abeyance, hesitant, hovering one last moment before plummeting into what later will be order.”
Mr. Zao was embraced by artists and influential cultural figures in Paris. His work was anointed as an embodiment of “lyrical abstractionism,” the avant-garde movement of the day, and he became close friends with Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró and the poet and painter Henri Michaux, who wrote a series of poems about his work.
Jacques Chirac, the former president of France and an Asian-art enthusiast who also became a friend, wrote the preface to the catalog for Mr. Zao’s first major Chinese retrospective, in Shanghai in 1998. In 2006, Mr. Chirac appointed Mr. Zao to the Legion of Honor, France’s highest recognition.
Zao Wou-ki was born on Feb. 13, 1921, in Beijing, the scion of a wealthy family. His father, a banker, encouraged his interest in art, sending him to study at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts under Lin Fengmian, a respected artist who was later known as a pioneer of modern painting in China and was imprisoned for it during the Cultural Revolution. After five years as an art teacher at the school, Mr. Zao went to Paris in 1947 to take art courses. He moved there permanently the next year.
Married three times, Mr. Zao is survived by Ms. Marquet, his third wife, and a son from a previous marriage, Jia-Ling Zhao.
Asian demand for Mr. Zao’s work first took off in the 1970s and ’80s in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Most of the works he sold are held there privately. By the 2000s, when newly affluent Chinese collectors began to take interest in his work and learned that much of it was already sold, the market price for a Zao soared. In October 2011, Chinese buyers vied for an abstract 1968 painting that sold at auction for $8.8 million.
In interviews, Mr. Zao said his identity as an artist was forged in a difficult, years-long internal battle between Eastern and Western aesthetic values, fought on the field of every canvas he painted. (“It was harder than learning English,” he once said.) “Sometimes you must wear yourself out trying to understand,” he said.
What he understood in the end, he said, was simple: “Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two.”