Chinese Painter Zao Wou-ki Dies at 93

Zao Wou-ki (Zhao Wuji 赵无极), the Chinese-French abstract painter once lauded as the highest-selling living Chinese artistdied on Tuesday at the age of 93. Reuters reports:

Abstract master Zao Wou-ki, one of China’s most significant artists whose works routinely fetch millions of dollars at auction, has died in Switzerland aged 93.

Zao, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, died on Tuesday and had been in hospital for 10 days in the western Swiss town of Nyon, his widow’s lawyer Marc Bonnant told Reuters.

[…]”He mixed Western influences with his Chinese identity to give his work a universal scope,” [French Foreign Minister] Fabius said in a statement. “With him, we are losing an emblematic figure of lyrical abstraction whose work made ​​an outstanding contribution.”

The New York Times outlines Zao’s emigration to France, his artistic lineage, and the popular reception of his work in the west:

Mr. Zao, who was born in Beijing in 1921, moved to France in 1948, just before the 1949 Communist takeover of China. He became a French citizen in 1964.

[…]Mr. Zao’s abstract works — influenced by both European abstraction and traditional Chinese brushwork — quickly drew the attention of galleries in New York and Paris, where he was regularly showing by the 1950s. He befriended contemporaries like Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró.

[…]Considered one of the School of Paris artists, Mr. Zao was lauded in his adopted country, which held retrospectives of his works at major venues like the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (1981), the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (2003) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (2008). His works are also in the collections of museums like the Tate in London and the Guggenheim in New York.

Recognition came later in his homeland, where the art scene was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution.[…]

After waning in popularity in the 1990s, there was renewed demand for Zao’s work, especially in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The artist’s career was rejuvenated following a major retrospective in Paris in 2003. Since then, his blend of Chinese techniques with Western modernist aesthetics has caught the eye of wealthy Asian collectors – especially from Taiwan and mainland China – who have paid significant sums for his works.

In 2011, Mr. Zao was the top-selling, living Chinese artist at auction, with his works fetching $90 million in sales that year. Demand remains strong: Last week, his painting “10.03.83” sold for $4.8 million at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post explains the progression of Zao’s influences, noting that his cosmopolitanism “bridged east and west,” making him a hit in western and Chinese art circles:

Art dealer Daphne King of Alisan Fine Arts, one of the first galleries to exhibit Zao’s art works in Hong Kong in 1993, said Zao was among a generation of Chinese artists studying in the West.

[…]Being exposed to Western art changed Zao’s artistic course. In 1951, he discovered Paul Klee’s paintings at museums in Bern and Geneva and it this was a big influence on him.

[…]Zao’s works were not just about the prices, said King. “Westerners thought he was Chinese, but Chinese thought he was very westernised. His works bridge the east and west,” she said.

Also see prior CDT coverage of contemporary art in China.

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