2007 circa Untitled Watercolor env 66 x 102
ZAO WOU-KI, Untitled (Tulips), ca. 2007; Watercolor on paper; Private collection, Switzerland © Zao Wou-Ki – ProLitteris

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Zao Wou-Ki: Watercolors and Ceramics

Apr 30, 2023 - Jul 16, 2023

Presented by: The Joe Orgill Family Fund for Exhibitions

Organized by: The Dixon Gallery and Gardens

Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-Ki’s lyrical watercolors and designs for ceramics blend the dynamic energy of Abstract Expressionism with the formal qualities of traditional Chinese calligraphy. Born in Beijing in 1920, he was named by his grandfather, who selected a moniker meaning “no limits,” an apt description of Zao’s approach to art and life.

After graduating from the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and teaching in China for several years, in 1948, Zao moved to Paris, where he became enmeshed in the postwar art scene. He settled in Montparnasse, the Left Bank neighborhood that was home to a community of avant-garde artists, including the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the American painter Sam Francis, and the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Amidst this intellectually stimulating milieu, Zao’s own artistic practice developed, and he began to embrace a freer, more expressionist style. In 1954, he produced his first purely abstract painting. In the United States, Abstract Expressionism was flourishing and artists such as Franz Kline were looking to Chinese calligraphy to inform their own emotive brushwork. But for Zao, calligraphy was not simply a passing influence; he once remarked, “Calligraphy is the original source and only guide for my painting.” Through his work, he attempted to identify a universal visual language that would supersede what he considered to be a false dichotomy between East and West.

Watercolor became a fertile ground for Zao’s artistic exploration and a way to further push the limits of his practice. He used watercolor as a means to explore technique, color, and form, without the need to develop oil paintings from these works. He appreciated the immediacy of the medium and continued to experiment with it until his death in 2013.

In 1964, Zao became a French citizen, though he always maintained ties to his homeland and intertwined Eastern and Western influences in his work. In 1979, he was invited by the French Ministry of Culture to produce designs for porcelain at the national foundry at Sèvres. This commission allowed him to again merge his knowledge of traditional Chinese porcelain painting with collaboration alongside the master artisans at France’s premier decorative arts manufactory.

Zao Wou-Ki: Watercolors and Ceramics offers Dixon visitors the opportunity to view an unparalleled selection of works drawn exclusively from European private collections. These works will be on view publicly for the first time, offering visitors a rare opportunity to consider the breadth of Zao’s oeuvre and his work across media. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that considers Zao’s role in the transnational history of abstraction, authored by guest curator Gilles Chazal, former director of the Petit Palais, Paris.