The exhibition No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki at Asia Society shows a wide range of works by the late Chinese-born artist, Zao Wou-Ki. The works on view include the artist’s paintings, drawings, and lithographs from as early as the 1930s to his latest works just before his death in 2013. Most notably, it is only this year, three years after his death, that should mark his first museum exhibition in the United States. This is especially curious when considering the fact that Zao had already been given his first retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris as far back as 1981. Granted, Zao spent most of his adult life in France, which could arguably explain his greater recognition in Europe – However, it is worth investigating why it has taken the United States so long to develop an interest towards Zao’s works, whereas Europe and Asia had already been celebrating him for decades.
Widely referred to as a Chinese-French artist, Zao Wou-Ki grew up in a well-educated family in Jiangsu Province, attended Western schools and was taught traditional Chinese calligraphy by his father before moving to Paris in 1848. As an art student at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zao rejected traditional Chinese art as outdated and irrelevant to his art-making. Ironically, it was when he moved to France that Zao began to rediscover Chinese traditional art. After a visit to New York in 1957, which first exposed him to abstract expressionism, Zao’s art evolved into a fascinating fusion of Western and Chinese artistic elements. The paintings created in the later stage of Zao’s career are explosions of color, many of which allude to landscape, Chinese calligraphy, oracle bone carvings — so bold in color and wild in brushstroke that they remind of works by Jackson Pollock and other great Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. Zao’s career started in Europe, and, in his later years, he was recognized as an important artist in China, as well. However, the United States seemed to remain immune to the excitement. In fact, Zao’s last major painting exhibition in this country was held at the Pierre Matisse back in 1986.
When I first read the name Zao Wou-Ki, I wondered about the spelling and pronunciation. Very unlike the usual pinyin spelling, it could have perhaps been derived from Cantonese, Taiwanese, or perhaps some other format of romanization. At the very beginning of the curators’ talk, cleverly titled Why Zao? Why Now?, I quickly realized how wrong this assumption was. According to the curators, the artist himself had always preferred this way of spelling , as opposed to the use of pinyin, with which he would be Zhao Wuji (趙無極). What is more, the artist always painted a hybrid signature on his works that was made up of Chinese characters for the first part of his name and of Western orthography for the last part. When it comes to Zao Wou-Ki’s cultural and visual hybridity, this, indeed, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Considering the high-profile art institutions in the US that have hosted events surrounding Zao’s works this year, such as the two major auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s special Zao Wou-Ki sales, which took place in New York, one cannot help but wonder, “Why Zao? Why now?” This question not only serves as a catchy title, but deserves to be investigated more deeply in order to raise further questions, and, perhaps, bring us to the crux of Zao’s artwork itself. How is it that New York City, one of the strongest centers of contemporary art, has just now (re-)discovered Zao Wou-Ki?
A shocking anecdote here is that, only recently, a staff member at Colby College wished to remove an office painting (allegedly, the painting was not to this staff member’s liking). After art historians examined this painting, however, they found out that it was none other than one of Zao Wou-Ki’s works. How is it that the rest of the world has caught on so much faster than the United States, particularly when one could argue that a city like New York is known to never “miss out,” a city that helped coin the term FOMO – the fear of missing out – and, most importantly, the city that is usually two steps ahead of everyone else.
I think there is far more to this than what was concluded at the end of the Why Zao? Why Now? talk which was presented by the two guest curators, Melissa Walt and Ankeney Weitz. When confronted with the actual question “Why Now?”, the curators explained that Zao was never immersed enough in the New York art circle, and was, therefore, never discovered by that particular art world during his lifetime.
There are many counter-examples that can be found in more recent Chinese artists, such as Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjun, all of whom became prominent in the United States without having been well immersed within the New York art circle. Indeed, in his article “Zao Wou-Ki, Lately” (2004), Jonathan Hay explains that while Zao’s profile kept rising in both Europe and Asia, New York was turning to more conceptual themes and had little interest in Paris-based artists at the time.
I would also argue that Zao’s work was far too difficult to categorize, which made many in the United States shy away from including them in their canon. Zao, himself, stated that he was strongly influenced by the works of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne, and yet his later abstract works remind the viewer of the US-American postwar abstract expressionists.
On top of that, Zao mixes in elements that strongly allude to Chinese traditional painting, yet the works do not expose any strikingly “Chinese” or oriental characteristics that might differentiate them clearly from Western art. For instance, whereas Chinese artists such as Gu Wenda and Xu Bing (both extremely well-known in the United States) deliberately focus on Chinese characters in their signature works, Zao only integrates Chinese characters as part of his composition. Whereas the more recent video art by Chinese contemporary artist, Cao Fei, for example, depicts factory workers, air pollution, massive urbanization, and other topics typically associated with modern-day China, Zao alludes to landscape in ways that could be both Chinese or Western, contemporary or traditional.
One strong example of this is one of Zao’s earlier works from the Academy, which shows a landscape in Hangzhou, painted in a style that is a clear homage to Cézanne’s oil paintings. A similar artist, Zhang Hongtu, who, interestingly, also had his first museum retrospective in the US at the Queens Museum earlier this year, has made similar works – traditional Chinese landscape compositions that are painted in oil, and in a style that reflects Van Gogh’s, Cézanne’s and Monet’s style.
All of these aspects might explain Zao’s long incubation within the New York art world. The sudden fuel of interest that led to the rediscovery of his works may be largely due to the re-emergence of identity discourses in art and a growing fascination with China in the United States as a culture, instead of a booming economy.
This is why – finally, now – Zao’s works can be appreciated in the United States. Following this groundbreaking exhibition at Asia Society, many doors will continue to open for future research and further discoveries of his work.
No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki is on view at Asia Society Museum from September 9, 2016, to January 8, 2017. See additional works and learn more about the exhibition from the exhibition page, the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, and the “Why Zao, Why Now?” talk which took place September 12, 2016.
Lead image: Zao Wou-Ki – 05.03.65—Pour mon frère Wu- Wai (05.03.65—For my brother Wu-Wai), 1965. Oil on canvas, 26 × 39 in. (66 × 99.1 cm) Chao 2000 Trust. Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012. Courtesy of Asia Society Museum.