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Zao Wou-Ki. Décembre 89–Février 90—Quadriptyque (December 89–February 90—Quadriptych), 1989–90. Oil on canvas. Each canvas: 63 3⁄4 × 39 3⁄8 in. (162 × 100 cm); overall: 63 3⁄4 × 157 1⁄2 in. (162 × 400 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Jean-Louis Losi

NEW YORK, NY.- “No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki” co-organized by Asia Society Museum and Colby College Museum of Art, is the first retrospective of the work of Zao Wou-Ki (1920–2013) in the United States. The exhibition aims to reintroduce American audiences to the singular achievements of this pioneering Chinese-French artist, who melded eastern and western aesthetic sensibilities in his paintings, as a key figure within post-World War II abstraction. 

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Zao Wou-Ki. Pavillon rouge (Red pavilion), 1954. Oil on canvas. 25 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (64.8 x 54 cm). Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University, Gift of Dr. Harvey Picker '36, 1994.2.3. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography: Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University

“No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki” takes its title from the Chinese meaning of Wou-Ki, “without limitation,” a state of being that the artist embodied through his art. One of the first artists of the Chinese diaspora to achieve international recognition, Zao was born in Beijing and spent his formative years in Shanghai and Hangzhou, where he pursued artistic study at the China Academy of Art. In 1948, he emigrated from Shanghai to Paris, where he was championed by French intellectuals and artists and in subsequent years became a major fixture in the European art world. In the 1950s and 1960s, American museums and private collectors avidly acquired his paintings, and his work was shown in numerous exhibitions including a 1968 solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the last American museum show of Zao’s work until now. 

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Zao Wou-Ki. Sans titre (Paysage) [Untitled (Landscape)], 1949. Oil on board. 11 × 14 in. (27.9 × 35.6 cm). Chao 2000 Trust. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012.

The importance of Zao’s work derives from his singular adaption of visual characteristics of Chinese art within twentieth-century oil-painting idioms. In Zao’s hands, abstraction reflected the encounter between two worlds and embraces both European modernism and Chinese metaphysical principles. His groundbreaking internationalist aesthetic marks him as a key figure of twentieth-century transculturalism. 

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Zao Wou-Ki. 27.02.98, 1998. Oil on canvas. 51 1⁄8 × 76 3⁄4 in. (130 × 195 cm) Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Rights Reserved.

“No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki” comprises 49 works in oil, ink, print, and watercolor, spanning more than six decades and includes loans from major institutions in the United States and in Europe. The exhibition is curated by Melissa Walt and Ankeney Weitz, Colby College Museum of Art, and Michelle Yun, Asia Society Museum. 

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Zao Wou-Ki. Paysage (Landscape), 1951. Oil on canvas. 25 5⁄8 × 31 7⁄8 in. (65.2 × 81 cm). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Gift of Norbert Schimmel, 1957.65. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography courtesy of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College.

“No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki” is organized into three sections. The first, Calligraphy is the Starting Point, shows a transitional moment in Zao’s work during the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. His early mastery of Chinese ink and brush techniques had led him to seek the challenges of painting in oil. But after several years in Paris, he looked back to his formative training as he shaped his artistic voice. “Paradoxically, it is to Paris that I owe my return to my [Chinese] roots,” Zao commented in 1961.  

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Zao Wou-Ki. Lune noire (Black moon), 1953. Oil on canvas. 45 × 57 5⁄8 in. (114.3 × 146.4 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Zadok / Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography courtesy of Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University.

The second section of the exhibition, To Learn is To Create, showcases earlier works made between 1945 and 1954, a period in which Zao tapped diverse visual traditions and methods, ranging from European painters such as Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee, to ancient Chinese bronze inscriptions, rubbings from Han-dynasty tomb decorations, and Tang- and Song-dynasty landscape paintings. The third section, A Place to Wander, looks at his mature works across the mediums of oil, ink, and watercolor, painted between 1965 and 2007, that embrace abstraction while exploring landscape, scenery, and the forces of nature.

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Zao Wou-Ki. Water Music, 1957. Oil on canvas. 20 × 28 in. (50.8 × 71.1 cm). Chao 2000 Trust. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012.

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Zao Wou-Ki. 05.03.65Pour mon frère Wu-Wai (05.03.65—For my brother Wu-Wai), 1965. Oil on canvas. 26 × 39 in. (66 × 99.1 cm). Chao 2000 Trust. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012

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Zao Wou-Ki. 13.01.76, 1976. Oil on canvas. 59 × 63 3⁄4 in. (150 × 162 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Rights Reserved.

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Zao Wou-Ki. Signes en mouvement (Signs in motion), 1957. Etching in five colors. Plate: 19 1⁄2 × 14 3⁄4 in. (49.5 × 37.4 cm). Sheet: 26 × 19 13⁄16 in. (66 × 50.3 cm). Edition 10 of 60. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Baekeland / Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography courtesy of Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University.

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Zao Wou-Ki. Sans titre (Untitled), 1963. Etching with aquatint in five colors. Image: 19 3⁄8 × 17 in. (49.2 × 43.2 cm). Sheet: 22 1⁄8 × 19 1⁄2 in. (56.2 × 49.5 cm). Edition 61 of 90. Gift of Roslyn Bakst Goldman, Class of 1959, and John L. Goldman, JD 1959. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography courtesy of Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University.

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Zao Wou-Ki. Rouge, bleu, noir (Red, blue, black), 1957. Oil on canvas. 291⁄2 × 32 in. (74.9 × 81.3 cm). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Benjamin and Lilian Hertzberg, 2007.29. ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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Zao Wou-Ki. 22.11.63—Hommage à John F. Kennedy (22.11.63—Homage to John F. Kennedy), 1963. Oil on canvas. 45 5⁄8 × 31 7⁄8 in. (116 × 81 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Christie’s, 2010–2011.

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Zao Wou-Ki. 21.10.66, 1966. Oil on canvas. Diam. 39 3⁄8 in. (100 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Christie’s, 2010–2011

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Zao Wou-Ki. 09.07.67, 1967. Oil on canvas. 59 × 63 3⁄4 in. (150 × 162 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Rights Reserved.

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Zao Wou-Ki. 15.04.77, 1977. Oil on canvas. 78 3⁄4 × 63 3⁄4 in. (200 × 162 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich.

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Zao Wou-Ki. 18.03.85, 1985. Oil on canvas. 63 3⁄4 × 59 in. (162 × 150 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Rights Reserved.

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Zao Wou-Ki. Sans titre (Untitled), 1994. Watercolor on paper. 17 × 12 in. (43.2 × 30.5 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Rights Reserved.

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Zao Wou-Ki. Sans titre Untitled, 2007. Chinese ink on paper. 36 5⁄8 × 38 1⁄4 in. (93 × 97 cm). Private collection, Taiwan. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard.

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Zao Wou-Ki. Untitled (Teapot and Vase with Twigs), 1951. Oil on canvas. 21 3⁄8 × 25 1⁄2 in. (54.3 × 64.8 cm). Abrams Family Collection. ©Zao Wou-Ki/ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Ivory Serra.