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b. 1921, Peking, China; d. 2013, Nyon, Switzerland
Zhao Wou-Ki (who adopted the name Zao after 1947) was born on February 13, 1921, in Peking (now Beijing). In 1935 he began attending the National School of Arts, Hangchow, where he became a drawing instructor in 1941. In both his schooling and teaching, Zao moved freely between Chinese painting techniques and Western-inspired abstract compositions and found a profound affinity between the two traditions.
In 1947 Zao moved to Paris and quickly rose to prominence as an abstract gestural painter, befriending other artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró. Abstraction had not fared well in France during the immediate post–World War II period, as its apparent lack of content or subject matter made it seem ill equipped to tackle the brutal realities of the war and its aftermath. But Zao and other artists associated with the École de Paris (School of Paris) were determined to show that abstract painting could speak to this very condition through the intuitive language of color and line. To this end, Zao began to paint more boldly than ever, combining expressive lines with deeply saturated color. In the mid-1950s he incorporated Chinese influences more directly, sometimes using actual calligraphy instead of loose and winding brushstrokes. During this period, Zao frequently traveled to New York, where he met Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and other Abstract Expressionists. Later in the 1970s, Zao’s paintings become less focused on line and gesture, striving instead toward an ambient and dreamlike atmosphere in which foreground and background are entirely blurred. Taken in its entirety, Zao’s oeuvre reflects a continual struggle—the artist’s gesture versus the painter’s canvas.
While primarily a painter, Zao collaborated frequently with artists working in other mediums. He worked with the Chiang Ching Dance Company to project slides of his landscapes as the background for a performance at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, New York, in 1979. He also illustrated many books of poetry, his earliest collaborations being Henri Michaux’s Lecture, which included eight colored lithographs, and Harry Roskolenko’s Paris Poems, both from 1950. His book projects inspired him to produce a large number of prints and engravings in paper.
Zao’s international exhibitions include his first solo show, in Shanghai (1941), and his first one-person show in Paris, at Galerie Creuze (1949), followed by many others throughout his career. He repeatedly showed in New York at the Kootz Gallery between 1958 and the gallery’s closing in 1967, with a solo exhibition in 1959, and at Pierre Matisse Gallery (1980, 1986). (I. M. Pei wrote the introduction to the 1980 Pierre Matisse Gallery catalogue.) He was included in the group show The School of Paris 1959: The Internationals (1959), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and retrospectives of his work have been presented at Hayden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge (1964); Museum Folkwang, Essen, West Germany (1965); Fine Arts Museum, Taipei (1993); and Jeu de Paume, Paris (2003). He received Japan’s Imperial Prize for painting (1994) and was elected to the Académie des beaux-arts, Paris (2002). Zao died on April 9, 2013, in Nyon, Switzerland.