Zao Wou-Ki

(About art, and my life, rather than language.)

In the NYT national edition today (but apparently printed first on the 11th), an obit (by Paul Vitello) for painter Zao Wou-Ki, “Zao Wou-ki, Abstract Painter, Dies at 92”:

Zao Wou-ki, a Chinese émigré who merged Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions in his abstract paintings — helping to shape avant-garde art in postwar Europe and attracting a newly wealthy Asian following that made him one of the most commercially successful living artists in either hemisphere — died on April 9 in Nyon, Switzerland.

… Mr. Zao’s paintings, which are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern, among others, have sold at auction in recent years for between $1 million and $2 million each. Since 2011, when sales of his paintings totaled $90 million, art journals and art dealers have frequently referred to him as the top-selling living Chinese artist.

Finding his own identity in that label — as a Chinese artist — was the crucible of Mr. Zao’s artistic vision.

Leaving China just ahead of the Communist takeover, Mr. Zao settled in 1948 in Paris, where his first sustained exposure to Western Modernist painting left him feeling ambivalent about the classical forms of landscape and calligraphic ink painting in which he had been trained. He loved the work of the Impressionists and Expressionists, and of contemporary artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

But through nonobjective Western painting, especially the work of Paul Klee, who was influenced by traditional Chinese and Japanese art, Mr. Zao gained new insights into what the British art historian Michael Sullivan called “the Abstract Expressionist element in his own tradition.”

Putting aside the issue of money in the art market (now a feature of virtually all artists’ obits), there’s the remarkable blending of Chinese and European Modernist artististic traditions in Zao’s work (the Times renders his name with family name first, Chinese-style). And a story from my life.

Three more or less random selections from Zao’s paintings:




Now the personal story. Many years ago Ann Daingerfield Zwicky and I visited an older colleague (in philosophy) who was hoping to angle an appointment for me in linguistics at his institution — a colleague with considerable amounts of (family) money, who lived in an amazing house. At dinner, in a gigantic baronial hall with significant modern art on the walls, when our hosts were briefly out of the room, Ann pointed towards a large canvas that pretty much dominated the room, whispering that she was pretty sure it was a Zao Wou-Ki.

When our hosts returned, Ann asked politely about it, and we got an enthusiastic response from them, with a story about their having picked it up in Paris a while before. They were, rightfully, very pleased with it. Oh my.

That was in the early 1960s. It hadn’t occurred to me that Zao was still alive.


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