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Zao Wou-Ki: No Limits

Tristan Friedman

Oct 09, 2017

Zao Wou-Ki is one of the most influential and well-known Chinese painters of the 20th century. While his Chinese origins play a significant role in establishing his own artistic language, his style is in no way limited to his Chinese roots. In 1948, Zao left Shanghai for Paris to explore the western world befriending prominent artistic figures around the world such as Sam Francis, Johnny Friedleander, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Mitchell. These personal connections helped to greater establish his fluency in both Chinese and European stylistic dialects.




“Finally, now, I love myself as a Chinese person, because when you see all of these museums and look at many people’s paintings, you finally realize that without even sensing it, you have been infused with the best essence of China… Xu Chi said to me: ‘to learn is to create.’ I will use that saying to end this letter.”(63).

– Letter dated August 31, 1948, from Zao to Chinese colleague.




Zao Wou-Ki, Rouge, bleu, noir (Red, blue, black), 1957. Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 32 in. (74.9 x 81.2 cm). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. Gift of Benjamin and Lilian Hertzberg, 2007.29. © Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich.

His modern educational roots were balanced with traditional Chinese practices and as such his work exhibits calligraphic elements as well as the finest examples of a western style of abstraction. Zao’s travels exposed him to diverse visual references as well as introduced him to a dynamic set of artistic and cultural influences from around the world. His extensive exposure to international cultures enabled his transcendence of standard artistic categorization. Simultaneously his dissimilar set of influences facilitated the emergence of Zao’s completely original style capable of conveying intense emotion and special perception through abstracted imagery.

Zao Wou-Ki: No Limits is a comprehensive exhibition showcasing some of Zao Wou-Ki’s work from the years 1943 to 2003. No Limits is the direct translation of Wou-Ki, and Zao delivers on his title with his seemingly limitless stylistic influences. The collection of work displayed in No Limits exhibits the ease with which Zao moves between the artistic styles of traditional China and the West.



 “Chinese in spirit, modern and French in some of their aspects, Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings realize a most enjoyable synthesis, and show that their author is a born painter from whom both his country and ours can expect a great deal” wrote Bernard Dorival, curator of the Musée national d’art modern in Paris for Zao’s solo exhibition in June 1949 at Galerie Creuze (Catalogue 13). On show at the Colby College Museum of Art from February to June of 2017, No Limits is the product of an expertly curated collection of work that details his artistic and stylistic evolution throughout his career from his initial goal “to form a single expressive form” (No Limits Catalogue Weitz and Walt 13) to creating a fully immersive style for both himself and the viewer.

A vehicle for immersive style of painting was Zao’s admiration for master painters such as Marc Chagall is evident in the work Untitled (Tennis Players). Zao achieves a similar dreamlike quality pertinent to Chagall’s work through distorting the perspective of an otherwise familiar scene. The vivid color palate and rough, streaky quality of his lines help to alter the space of the painting forcing the viewer to reflect for a moment on what, at first, seems to be a familiar compilation of symbols and imagery. What appears to be male and female figures playing tennis are only differentiated through the implications of their color and brown streak behind the woman’s head implying a flowing hairdo. The varying angles make the painting unsettling as Zao plays with space and distortion, which profoundly convey the essence of traditional Chinese painting and their tendency to obstruct perspective. This painting is a clear effort by Zao to emulate his influences more directly. He gradually moves into abstraction in the following years.

Zao Wou-Ki, Vent (Wind), 1954, Oil on canvas, 76 x 34 in. (195 x 96.5 cm). Musee National d'art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich.


“Calligraphy is the original source and the only guide for my painting.”(81). His dark gestural lines at the forefront of his work take clear influence in traditional Chinese calligraphy. Despite his gradual transition towards total abstraction, these calligraphic elements remain a staple throughout Zao’s work.


Vent (Wind), 1954 is considered to be one of Zao’s first abstract paintings. The title suggests the gradual nature of this transition as it alludes to the intention of the work as a direct representation of the title. The aforementioned calligraphic strokes appear throughout this work highlighted by bursts of white, which then fade into shades of gray, blue, and green. The composition is very ethereal capturing the ghostlike coolness of the wind. In this 1954 example, we see Zao synthesizing elements of Western artistry alongside Chinese tradition, forging his personal stylistic language within the greater art historical narrative.


21.10.66, 1966 is a work that stands out in the collection. Encountering this unique piece in its circular format traps you. Zao projects his own view of his fabricated world through his artistic style. As you stand before it, you find yourself swirling throughout the dark lines, which are made to glow using vivid yellow and lighter gray paint fading into deeper colors towards the bottom. The lines swirl through the rounded canvas, which gives the essence of organic movement in its most abstracted form.


“I like people to be able to stroll around my works as I do when creating them”(15). Much of his work demonstrates the ease with which he existed between artistic traditions of China and the West. When he moved to New York City his transition to total abstraction was complete while his Chinese tendancies remained paramount in his worl. He wanted both he and the viewer to be fully immersed in his style. To achieve this, he explored largescale formats such as in the piece (Overleaf) Décembre 89-Février 90- Quadriptyque. This enormous four-paneled work enrapts the viewer in a new world, a world demnds exploration through its strong declarations of color and organic form.



Zao Wou-Ki, 21.10.66, 1966. Oil on canvas. Diam. Approx. 39in (100cm). Private collections, Taiwan. © Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich.



Zao Wou-Ki is a master poswar abstract painter, but to limit his artistic identity to a single genre would fail to recognize the inclusive nature of his artistic style. He built his own universe defined by his split identity while he was in constant communication with the inflences around him. These qualities characterize his work as a conversation between two parts of Zao’s identity. What emerges from this dialogue is a spectacular, thought provoking collection of masterpieces which, when curated together, defines what it means to be limitless.




Cover Image: Zao Wou-Ki, Décembre 89–Février 90—Quadriptyque (December 89–February 90—Quadriptych) (detail), 1989–90. Oil on canvas. Each canvas: 63 3/4 x 39 3/8 in. (162 x 100 cm); overall: 63 3/4 x 157 1/2 in. (162 x 400 cm). Private collections, Taiwan. © Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Jean-Louis Losi