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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Zao Wou Ki

Untitled, Zao Wou Ki
As I've reiterated a few times before, I don't often expound upon oriental art. I don't want to suggest that such works are in any way inferior to western art (often just the opposite), but that it is simply...different. Therein lies the problem. My own appreciation of art is not broad enough to encompass this difference. I can appreciate the beauty of both Eastern and Western art, but in essence, I simply don't understand oriental aesthetics. And therefore, what I don't understand I don't often touch upon. However (there's always the "however"), today I came upon the work of a Chinese/French painter by the name of Zao Wou Ki. Don't let the hyphenated ethnicity fool you, his art is as Chinese as any you're likely to find by a modern day artist. (He was born in 1920 and died in 2013.) And pardon me for playing favorites, but I really like his work. If I had between ten and fourteen-million dollars to spare, I'd certainly want to own one.

Abstraction, 1958, Zao Wou Ki--a cool $14.7-million
You read that right, the Zao Wou Ki painting Abstraction (above), sold at Sotheby's in December, 2013, for $14,718,000. The average price for this artist is said to be around $3.4-million. Zao Wou Ki's work consistently sells at auction among the top prices paid for works by a Chinese artist. So what is it about Zao Wou Ki's paintings that have struck such a high note among art lovers that they would pay that kind of money for this type of art? Certainly no one factor accounts for it all. First of all the artist is dead, which always adds to the appeal and price of his or her art. Zao Wou Ki's numbers jumped appreciably after his death. Second, though Zao is Chinese by birth his work isn't representative of either Chinese or French art. He represents himself. For me personally, Zao's work sits on the knife edge between Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism. I look at a painting such as his Untitled (top) watercolor. The colors and composition suggest Chinese floral painting, yet it's far more abstract than any Chinese artist would create. And, as the titled itself suggests, despite appearances it may, in fact, not be a floral work at all, but simply colorful pigments beautifully arrayed across a sheet of pure, white paper. That "is it or isn't it" element for me constitutes the major appeal Zao's work excites.

Zao painted a merger of French and Chinese art.
Zao Wou-Ki - 51, (1951), Zao Wou Ki
Born in Beijing with family roots in Dantu, Zhenjiang, and Jiangsu provinces Zao's childhood was spent in his hometown of Dantu where he studied calligraphy, one of the core elements in all Chinese art. From 1935 to 1941 Zao moved on to painting at the China Academy of Art. In 1948, the artist emigrated with his wife, a composer, to Paris to live. His earliest exhibitions in France were met with praise from such brand name artists as Joan Miró and Picasso. The influenced of Paul Klee (left), is plainly evident in Zao's work from this period as is his orientation toward ab-straction. Zao's paintings are titled with the date in which he finished them. In Zao's later work, his masses of colors appear to materialize worlds where light structures the canvas. He has worked in both triptych and diptych formats. Although Zao's work is stylistically similar to the Abstract Expres-sionists, which he first encountered while travelling in New York, Zao was also influenced by Impressionism (below) and by the works of Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne.

Homage to Claude Monet, 1991, Zao Wou Ki
Portrait of a Lady, 1949, Zao Wou Ki
Not all of Zao's work, especially in the early years, as witnessed by his Portrait of a Lady (left), from 1949, was abstract. At a time when Zao was still searching for his own artistic essence, his work ranged broadly over a wide spectrum of styles and content. In 1970, Zao Wou Ki's first autobiography was published in France, acknowledging the artist's accomplish-ments. French television had also pro-duced a special series of Zao's art in 1969. He was invited by Japan National Museum of Contemporary Art for an exhi-bition, and held a second retrospective exhibition of his life's work at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal. Zao considered his paintings created during 1960-1970 to have been his best works. Many art critics agreee, praising his ab-stract paintings from that period. As a result, Zao acquired enormous fame far beyond what he had never expected.

20.10.69, 1969, Zao Wou Ki
20.10.69 (above) inherited the lights, flames and mystery that can only be found in Zao's work from the 1960s. It also serves as a harbinger for the strong images seen in his paintings from the 1970s. Its base color of beige is colorful while at the same time boasting a narrow range of hues. His strong brushstrokes make this a very kinetic work of art. All the layers in Zao's paintings are graceful and delicate, as if blown by the winds. The light yellows and snow whites decorating the piece add a sense of brave beauty suggesting a landscape but stopping just short of depicting one. The same could be said for Mr. Zao's Oil 28.12.99 (below) which suggests a frigid seashore, causing the eye to search the work for details which might confirm such content...except that there are none. It's an abstraction. It only suggests; it doesn't depict.

Mr. Zao's oil 28.12.99, 1999,  Zao Wou Ki


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