It’s a revelation. The Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is presenting an exceptional exhibition dedicated to the large-scale works (up to 6 metres in length) of the painter Zao Wou-Ki, a practice he started in the 1950s.
Born in China in 1920, he died in Paris in 2013 and it’s fair to say that he’s now considered an eminent figure in the history of post-war French painting.
For the Taiwanese, his largest group of collectors outside France, his painting style clearly bears certain Chinese qualities, yet ones that the painter has taken a long time to adopt.
Yann Hendgen, artistic director of the Zao Wou-Ki foundation, explains who the artist’s collectors are today and discusses the main lenders to the exhibition:
What this absolutely spectacular show demonstrates is that Zao Wou-Ki is steeped in American abstraction.
Coincidentally, the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris is currently exhibiting the American abstract painters influenced by Claude Monet of the Waterlilies (cf the report on this subject).
So if you want to do it properly, to be immersed in this history of global abstraction that emerged at the end of the Second World War, you should first go and admire the works by Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell and Mark Rothko on the other side of the Seine, and then head over to the MAM and draw your own conclusions.
Because when Zao, who is a citizen of the world, paints on a large scale he paints in a style that seems “made in the USA”.
He visited the United States from 1957 and in France he also met with artists like Joan Mitchell and the Canadian Jean Paul Riopelle.
It was in the 1950s that he renounced figurative painting, but his compositions, which were made spontaneously forgoing preparatory studies, could be seen to be referencing nature: the sea, a lake, a mountain, all portrayed in great detail.
They are sensual pieces, filled with textural details, and they look just as good seen up close as from afar.
Zao Wou-Ki works with music (contemporary, classical, jazz) and the exhibition’s co-curator Eric Verhagen explains how this has inspired some of his paintings.
With regards to the influence of art from his country of origin, Eric Verhagen asserts that it was the artist and writer Henri Michaux who encouraged him in this.
It was Michaux who suggested using ink, and there’s an exceptional black and white series in this medium reminiscent of Pollock’s drip paintings on display in the exhibition.
In Paris, Zao Wou-Ki would meet with the abstract painter Sam Francis (1923-1994). “We were all young artists between the ages of 25 and 28. We were all living the same adventure”, Zao said.
If this exhibition seems exceptionally accomplished, it is also because it avoids the pitfalls within the artist’s own body of work.
All the forty-odd paintings exhibited here, having been chosen with great care, are powerful and avoid repetition.
An immersion in sublime painting.
Until 6 January. www.mam.paris.fr