French-Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki amalgamates modernist art-making techniques with traditional Chinese literati painting; as he characterizes his own work, “Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two.” (1) Born in 1921 in Beijing, Zao studied painting at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, eventually becoming both a master of postwar art and the highest-selling Chinese painter of his generation.

During his time at the Academy, his main source of inspiration came from Paul Klee. Along with Klee, he drew great influence from Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. Zao also deeply admired the works of New York School artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline; this is evident in his paintings that adopt Abstract Expressionist techniques such as gestural brushstrokes, expressive content, and an emphasis on artistic process. Zao moved to Paris in 1948, a transition that represented his dismissal of his own heritage as well as his wariness of Chinese-influenced art. For Zao and his contemporaries, Paris represented the epicenter of modern art; residing there meant he was able to immerse himself in the Parisian culture that undoubtedly manifested in his work during this period.

Despite his desire to move away from Chinese influence, Zao’s work retains a sense of transparency and fluidity that is evocative of Chinese landscape painting. By 1954 Zao


had developed a distinctive style that was fueled by its contrasting colors and lyrical abstraction. He avoided the use of ink for much of his career as he felt it was too deeply rooted within Chinese-influenced art. Rather, he opted for the medium of oil paint, handled in a calligraphic style. During his move away from representational painting, Zao began to work on a much larger scale, frequently incorporating archaic ideographs taken from Shang Bronzes and oracle bone inscriptions.

Zao’s paintings strive to represent the artist’s “interior energies” by evoking an acute sense of limitlessness. (2) His first large retrospective took place in 1965 at the Folkwang museum in Essen and his work can be found in the collections of the Tate Modern, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

1. “Zao Wou-Ki,” Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/zao-wou-ki/biography, accessed June 20, 2016.
2. “Zao Wou-Ki,” Artsy, https://www.artsy.net/artist/zao-wou-ki-zhao-wu-ji, accessed June 20, 2016.

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