Chinese modern master Zao Wouki to feature in US retrospective

Zao Wouki retrospective planned in New York amid renewal of American interest in Asian art

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 3:49am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 7:38am

Americans will be given an opportunity to rekindle their interest in Chinese modern master Zao Wouki in the first US retrospective exhibition of the late abstract painter.

The Asia Society, which has begun planning for the event to be held in about four years in New York, says it reflects growing US interest in Asia and a desire to rediscover its art history.

Melissa Chiu, senior vice-president for global arts and cultural programmes at the Asia Society in New York, said Zao was very well-known in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, but interest then waned.

"Although he was an important figure in Asia and to some extent in Europe, in America he was largely forgotten," Chiu said. She was speaking while in Hong Kong for a gala at the society's Hong Kong centre last night, which kicked off a week of art madness surrounding the Art Basel events that start on Thursday.

Chiu said the exhibition, only at an initial planning stage, would be held in collaboration with a liberal-arts school, Colby College, which runs an art museum in Maine. A detailed announcement is expected in six months.

Born in 1921 in Beijing, Zao studied painting at the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts before settling in Paris in 1948.

His early works were figurative but took an abstract course under the influence of Swiss painter Paul Klee's work, developing a unique brand of oil paintings that drew on his Chinese ink-painting roots. He died last year in Switzerland, aged 93.

His colourful yet enigmatic paintings are auction darlings in Asia. At Sotheby's first mainland auction in Beijing last year, Zao's painting Abstraction (1958) fetched 89.68 million yuan (HK$113 million), breaking the previous record for his work of US$11 million, set in Hong Kong just two months earlier.

Chiu said Zao was being rediscovered as part of a growing interest in modern art.

"The interest in modern art has been largely driven by the interest in the outside world. We see more interest in going back to find those important figures that have been largely forgotten," Chiu said.

In 2012, the Asia Society New York partnered with the Shanghai Art Museum to host "Revolutionary Ink", the first major solo exhibition of the late Wu Guanzhong, who belonged to the same generation of Chinese artists as Zao and studied in France.

Chiu said that although Wu was a big star in Asia, he was relatively unknown in the US. The show changed people's perceptions not only of him but also of ink art.

Last night, the Asia Society Hong Kong centre honoured Indian artist Bharti Kher, Taiwanese modern movement pioneer Liu Guosong, Japanese "superflat" artist Takashi Murakami and mainland contemporary artist Zhang Xiaogang for their artistic achievements.