Zao Wou-Ki

Biography of Zao Wou-Ki

The most celebrated Chinese painter of his era, Zao Wou-Ki discovered an affinity between Western abstract composition and tradition Chinese techniques. Throughout his life he managed to inhabit various cultural identities, without ever becoming completely beholden to one.


Born in 1921 in Beijing, he began to draw with great freedom from the age of just 10. He attended the Western influenced art school, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he learned life drawing and the theory behind calligraphy.


In 1948 Zao Wou-Ki left China for Paris after becoming greatly influenced in the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In Paris he would spend much of his time in the Louvre, working on his art, as well as learning French. His discovery of the work of Paul Klee accelerated his embrace of abstraction. By now painting with increasing boldness, Zao Wou-Ki was able to combine expressive lines with vibrant color. He practiced a form of rhythmic composition, as he was able to balance controlled but energetic brushstrokes with a much broader and diluting wash.


After a period of Chinese-inspired painting—in which he used oil paints in a calligraphic style—Zou Wou-Ki made frequent visits to New York and got to know the Abstract Expressionists. His work then became more ethereal and dreamlike in appearance. In keeping with traditional Chinese landscapes, his paintings were just fragments of a much larger scene. By 1959 he stopped naming his works, preferring instead to write the date of their completion, so as to stop anyone ascribing visual associations to the work.


Zao Wou-Ki is a keen collaborator, and has worked with many poets, dance companies and other artists. He has produced numerous book projects as well as limited edition prints. His first solo show took place in Chongqing in 1941 before travelling on to Paris. He was included in the prestigious group show “The School of Paris 1959: The Internationals”, in 1959 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In 1994 he received Japan’s Imperial Prize for painting, and was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 2002. He died in 2013 in Switzerland, the same year that a retrospective of his work took place in Locarno, Switzerland. 

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