Born in Beijing in 1920 to an affluent family descended from the Song Dynasty and having begun courses in traditional Chinese painting techniques at the age of fourteen, the artist Zao Wou-Ki was primed for a career in traditional Chinese art. But in his late teens and early 20s he was drawn away from the Chinese techniques he’d learned and toward oil painting. He moved to France when he was 28, and, upon befriending the symbolist painter and poet Henri Michaux and, later, the expressionist painter Paul Klee, he became enamored with the art of the West, especially Abstract Expressionism, which he embraced during a trip throughout the United States in 1957.
On until January 6, 2019, “Zao Wou-Ki: Space is Silence,” at the City of Paris’ Museum of Modern Art, looks to show the bridge between Asian and Western artwork that no one has accomplished or personified better than Wou-Ki. The exhibition includes 40 paintings and drawings, including a collection of his ink drawings from 2006 that have not before been shown publicly. Curated by Francois Michaud, the museum’s head curator of patrimony, and Erik Verhagen, an art historian at the University of Valenciennes in northern France, the show leans heavily on Wou-Ki’s adopted Frenchness. (Wou-Ki became a French citizen and lived most of his adult life in Paris.) His work was often in dialogue with French, especially Parisian, artists, both past and present, including Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and the composer Edgar Varese. His painting “15.12.76-triptyque,” an homage to Monet, deploys Monet’s color palette in an Abstract Expressionist mode. In “Hommage a Henri Matisse I 02.02.86,” he employs the same tactic, this time turning Matisse’s colors and blocky figurations into a flattened game of color that resembles any number of vertical works by Mark Rothko.
Although the emphasis in the show is largely on Wou-Ki’s French instincts (there’s a wonderful video of him lighting a cigarette as he walks through his Parisian courtyard and enters his studio to stare at a blank canvas), it’s largely Anglo-Saxon artists that Wou-Ki took from, with many of his works looking like combinations of canvases from Joan Mitchell, Francis Bacon, and Cy Twombly. But while a number of the paintings on show might appear derivative, it is their bridge to Asian art that makes them special.
From the early 1970s onward, he began indulging in “ink wash” paintings, painting boldly then letting the ink drip and dry where it liked. From here, he transitioned to using more earthy colors and Chinese symbols, which he tucked into paintings. Many of his works have the quality of literati painting, an idealized scholarly form of Chinese painting that represents a place of beauty — usually a landscape — with an expressive description in calligraphic letters next to it. The name of the show comes from a line written by Michaux, but so much of Wou-Ki’s work feels frenetic, like someone trying to find space and silence rather than living in it as Michaux’s line implies. And yet, there are a few, with large holes of space in their corners, like “01.10.73” and “03.12.74,” both of which are evocative of Willem de Kooning’s work (with whom, incidentally, Wou-Ki was recently shown at the Levy Gorvy Gallery in New York City).
Even as he never considered himself an “Asian artist,” Wou-Ki’s work maintains its originality and importance to European abstraction for its nods to Chinese, and sometimes Japanese, art. It’s forever true that what we run from is so often what comes to consume us, define us. For instance, a triptych that takes up an entire wall entitled “Le vent pousse la mer triptyque” (“The Wind Pushes the Sea Triptych”) is a stunning seascape of shades of blue with only the smallest, figurative boat in the corner. Even in “Hommage a Claude Monet fevrier-juin 91-triptyque” Wou-Ki includes Chinese symbols. The show ends with a clear embrace of the East, as if Wou-Ki had, by the 2000s (he died five years ago), finally contended himself to what had so long defined him. In “Le temple des han triptyque” (“The Temple of Han Triptych”), Wou-Ki sketches out a depiction of the Temple of Han that looks as if Monet had tried to draw the Parthenon in pink. Words run vertically down its side — a revolutionary form of the literati painting.
“Zao Wou-Ki: The Space Is Silence” is on view at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art through January 6, 2019. More information: http://www.mam.paris.fr/en/
Founder: Louise Blouin