The Colby College Museum of Art’s powerful show of the work of Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013) was years in the making. Zao’s paintings, drawings and prints straddle his life between China and France, with a notable connection to the United States. He may be best known as a postwar European painter. Artistically, however, he is best understood in the context of postwar American painting.

Zao learned traditional painting and calligraphy from his grandfather in China and then at the China Art Academy. Zao emigrated from Shanghai to Paris in 1948, where he was admired successful enough to forge his own excellent connections. In Paris, his studio was next door to Giacometti’s. He corresponded with Jean DuBuffet. He was championed by the poet Henri Michaux. He was close to ex-pat painters, including American Sam Francis and Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle, through whom he met Joan Mitchell, whose work is probably closest to Zao’s. (Colby’s excellent Mitchell is on view in a nearby gallery.)

By 1951, Zao had signed on with the prestigious Galerie Pierre in Paris. A year later, he was being shown in America. He developed an excellent relationship with Sam Kootz’s gallery in New York, and Kootz worked to get Zao’s work into many leading museums. (Work in this show is on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, etc.) After Kootz closed his gallery, Zao was added to Pierre Matisse’s blue chip gallery roster.

In the 1970s, Zao was welcomed back to China as a returning cultural hero, despite China’s lack of experience with abstraction, which was Zao’s prevalent mode after 1954.

But Zao’s cultural heart had moved to France. He became a citizen and in 1993 was inducted into the French Legion of Honor.

“Black Crowd,” 1954, oil on canvas, 45 x 35 . Photo courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

While he was a critical and commercial success, the inescapable takeaway from the Colby show is that Zao was a great painter. Nonetheless, his legacy is uncertain: How important is an artist too unique to have directly inspired other artists? His own art bristles with admiration for Matisse, Klee and even Sam Francis, among others. Or is it the other way around? Maybe we’re seeing more of Zao in Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis than we ever realized.

Regardless of legacy, Zao’s work is extraordinarily powerful. In fact, the triumph of Zao’s work is that it leads you to leave the story behind, to leave language behind. I saw the show with an artist who was more concerned with the art than the historical context – and she was overwhelmed by the emotional impact of the show. She had it exactly right: There is no better path to understanding Zao’s work than to look at it. Typically, I start with the work alone. But I didn’t this time, and I came to envy her richer, more subjective experience.

“Homage to John F. Kennedy,”
1963, oil on canvas, 45 x 31 inches. Photo courtesy Colby College Museum of Art

Zao’s comments about his work bristle with an exciting defiance, but they are subtle. “Calligraphy is the original source and only guide for my painting,” he once said. And here is a misleading seed. Zao’s work begins with the sense of recognition: We see calligraphy, and we look to words and language. While American postwar artists – like Zao’s friend Franz Kline – were thought to be creating languages, Zao moves from language through painting to thoughts outside of language. The effect of his work is to transcend language, and it succeeds in spades. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening, it leads you past the symbolic fictions (for they are not the things they say) of words.

Kandinsky and so many others have tried to codify languages of paintings, of colors, symbols or forms. Zao, like Mark Rothko, takes us in the other direction, but his seemingly jocular path isn’t necessarily friendly. He said, “I like people to be able to stroll in my works as I do when creating them,” but it ain’t no stroll in the Tuileries. His brush flickers like a calligraphic ink storm: We assume poetry, but there are no words in the forms and we float through space and time past vocabulary, past references, past recognition, past language, past rational thought.

Zao’s work bridges and shifts between Chinese painting, European modernism and Abstract Expressionism. We could consider the verticality of oil painting versus the verticality of the Chinese brush from which ink flows. But it’s best to look at Zao’s painting in real time. Despite their “here be dragons” destinations, they are their own maps to the ineffable.

Zao’s early work is strong, but in 1954, he breaks out with his vaporous and fiery “Red Pavilion,” an underworldly cascade of primitive calligraphic forms. His 1955 “Chestnut” seems to be built of calligraphic forms growing upward and outward like a thriving tree – until we sense the roots are charcoal black and disintegrating.

Connected as he was, I can’t imagine that Zao wasn’t influenced by Common Language Philosophy or Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist “The Bald Soprano” that debuted in Paris in 1950. In Ionesco’s play, the setting breaks down, then the story, then characters, then paragraphs, then logic, then sentences, then words, until finally the characters are left shouting vowel sounds. It starts off funny enough, but the ultimate effect is devastating.

“Red Pavilion,” 1954, oil on canvas, 25 x 21 inches. Photo courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

In Zao’s “Black Crowd” (1954), calligraphic columns attempt to rise in the Chinese format from the black bottom to the white top of the canvas, but the lighter left column’s root pulls back down toward a tiny white flash in the bottom right. The gravity of darkness prevails.

Zao’s 1963 homage to the assassinated John F. Kennedy swoops with an energy as powerful as any painting I have ever seen. It’s almost two simple strokes (so close to the form “dai” – “great”) and we want the stronger, top form to prevail, but it cannot, and we are pulled down and out of the bottom right.

“Mistral” (1957) represents the nasty late winter wind that cuts across France to the Mediterranean. The painting is a tour de force of terrifying abstraction, like an evil shadow devouring a wall of Lascaux cave painting. A bit of burning red is not warmth but a sign of what the darkness is devouring.

A canvas more than six feet wide from 1998 is a reworking of a stolen 1955 canvas, “The Fire.” It is fire, but like a human soul in the form of the earth’s molten core.

“Homage to Henri Matisse,” 1986, oil on canvas, 63 x 51 .
At left, “Homage to John F. Kennedy,”
1963, oil on canvas, 45 x 31 inches. Photo courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

Zao’s “Homage to Henri Matisse” is even darker, but lusciously so. It’s a version of Matisse’s most abstract (Rothko-esque) canvas: an open window is a black space framed by pale pink, white and turquoise bars. Zao softens the scene to vast metaphysical effect.

Most mysterious and beautiful is a large four-panel abstraction finished in 1990. It looks like a yellow Sam Francis with bleeding red, smeared purple and spattered blue forms. If the yellow were white, it could pass for a Francis. But Francis is affable and joyous. This is more like what Jonah would have seen inside the whale.

Don’t get me wrong, Zao is no less glorious than he is tragic. The Metropolitan’s seemingly single white stroke painting on black is breathtaking. Everywhere, Zao’s ability with a brush can amaze. His small watercolors can delight as well as dance with darkness. His ink drawings are deliriously sophisticated.

“I want to paint that which cannot be seen,” said Zao. Oh, but what he painted can still be felt. Nothing I might say could match the beautiful sadness on the face of my artist friend seated before the work, so moved she couldn’t continue.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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“Chestnut,” 1955, oil on canvas, 39 by 25 inches. Photo courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art