Zao Wou-Ki No Limitsby David Carrier
Asia Society | September 9, 2016 – January 8, 2017
Colby College Museum of Art | February 4 – June 4, 2017
When painters migrate between previously distant visual cultures, novel artistic syntheses may seem possible. No country has a longer or more illustrious tradition of visual accomplishment than China. But until the 20th century, art in China mostly developed without directly responding to European painting. Zao Wou-Ki was one of the first Chinese painters to attempt a synthesis of these very different traditions. Born in Beijing in 1921, he studied painting at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, long an important art center, from 1935 until 1941. In 1948, he moved to Paris, where he met Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Hans Hartung, and the poet Henri Michaux—travelling widely to look at painting across Europe—and later visited and worked in New York, as well, where he became friends with Abstract Expressionist painters such as Franz Kline and Hans Hofmann and gained the support of important American dealers, collectors, and museums. After spending many years in France, where he exhibited successfully and extensively for decades, he returned to China, where in 1985 he became a guest professor in Hangzhou.
Zao’s frequently stated ambition was to marry the techniques of traditional Chinese ink-on-paper with Western techniques of oil painting—a goal he was well placed to pursue, given his early training in his native country and his deep familiarity with European art. Here, in the artist’s first retrospective exhibition in the United States, we see the emergence and the evolution of this dramatic process, beginning with his earliest, and initially figurative, works. The odd perspective of Untitled (Tennis players) (1945) owes something to Marc Chagall; and the marvelous Landscape in Hangzhou (1946) is, in effect, Southern China as seen by Paul Cézanne (both paintings were made in China). However, when Zao became established in Europe, he began creating fascinating paintings, such as Landscape (1951), which reworked traditional Chinese calligraphic techniques with reference to Paul Klee.
By the mid-1950s, he turned to making gestural abstractions, as his canvases grew larger. One might have expected an artist new to abstraction to respond to the gestural work of Willem de Kooning or Cy Twombly, but in fact, in Zao’s heavily worked, all-over surfaces you rather see obvious influence of the French-style Abstract Expressionism of Jean-Paul Riopelle and Georges Mathieu (both friends of his). In Chestnut (1955), the painting’s white field is broken along the center, as if a chestnut tree were pushing through the pigment; and in Red, blue, black (1957), the thick, dark red ground gives way at the center to black calligraphed lines concentrated within dense gestural brushwork. But the dilemma inherent in Zao’s basic project is that while calligraphic art requires a light touch, allowing the white of the paper to breathe, his oil paintings are uncomfortably weighty. Black Crowd (1954), also shown in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie International in 1955, feels more like one of Clyfford Still’s heavy-duty constructions than a Ming dynasty scroll. The 1955 painting Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55, a tribute to the Chinese poet, has all too little of the grace and spontaneity of the classical art of China. And as for Homage to Henri Matisse 1—02.02.86 (1986) (his version of Matisse’s Window at Collioure ): where Matisse dramatically centers the flat block of black within the window frame, Zao displays four vertical stripes of color, in what becomes a decorative composition.
Zao’s Four Drawings after Rembrandt (1949); his Flora and fauna (1951); and his great untitled drawings (three particular from 1972, 1980, and 2007), however, show that his calligraphic skills were astonishing even through to the very end of his life. The real problem he faced in seeking to be an abstract artist is that a synthesis of Chinese and Western traditions is extremely difficult. In Europe, the perfected realism of 19th-century naturalism led its dialectical opposite: modernist abstraction. But because traditional Chinese painting has long been poised between figuration and abstraction, many 20th-century Chinese artists have hesitated to embrace this Western tradition. Even as gifted an individual as Zao, this exhibition shows, had difficulty stepping entirely outside of his inherited tradition, but in responding to this daunting challenge, he produced some marvelous art.
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next book is The Contemporary Art Gallery.