Zao Wou-Ki Dead at 93

Chinese-French abstract painter Zao Wou-Ki, a significant figure in 20th-century Chinese art, died yesterday at his home in Switzerland aged 93, a lawyer for his wife said.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network mourn the loss of this important modernist master.

A lawyer for Zao's son, who was in a legal battle with his father's wife to obtain power-of-attorney over the artist, confirmed the death and said Zao, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, had been hospitalized twice since the end of March.

Zao Wou Ki was born in a cultivated family and studied calligraphy in his childhood and from 1935 to 1941 painting at the school of Fine Arts in Hangzhou.

In 1948, he went with his wife Lan-lan, a composer, to Paris to live on the same block in Montparnasse where the classes of Émile Othon Friesz took place.

His earliest exhibitions in France were met with praise from Miró and Picasso.

Husband and wife each pursued his/her own career, their son having stayed on in China with his paternal grandparents.

In the mid-1950s, they were divorced, and in 1957, Zao Wou-ki decided to visit the United States where his younger brother Chao Wu-Wai was living in Montclair, New Jersey, close to the art scene of New York City.

His good friends, M. and Mme. Pierre Soulages, travelled with him. Zao wanted to learn more about Pop Art, which was then beginning to grab a lot of attention world-wide.

He was not interested in their aesthetic and said that he had a difficult time understanding its raison d'être – not surprising since he was unfamiliar with American popular culture. He enjoyed meeting the artists at their watering holes, the Cedars and the Five Spot for long evenings of talk.

While in the US, he painted seven canvases at his brother’s house. There are relatively few items dating from that year (1957).

Years later, the largest canvas was given by his brother, Chao Wu-Wai, to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

He left the US after a six week stay, travelling to Tokyo and then Hong Kong, where he met his future wife, actress Zhu Ying, a beautiful movie star with two young children. She later became a sculptor who received admiring and critical praise. She committed suicide at the height of her career.


Zao Wou Ki's works, influenced by Paul Klee, are orientated to abstraction. He names them with the date in which he finishes them, and in them, masses of colors appear to materialize a creating world, like a big bang, where light structures the canvas. He works often big formats in triptychs and diptychs.

While his work is stylistically similar to the Abstract Expressionists whom he met while traveling in New York, he is also influenced by Impressionism. Zao Wou-ki stated that he had been influenced by the works of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne.[4][5]
His meeting with Henri Michaux pushed him to review his Indian ink techniques, always based in Chinese traditional drawings.

Zao Wou-ki was a member of the Académie des beaux-arts, and was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime.

One of his paintings recently sold for a record price equivalent to 2 million USD at Sotheby's in Hong Kong.

Former French President Jacques Chirac was offered a painting by Zao Wu Ki by his ministers during their last meeting.