HONG KONG — Zao Wou-ki, one of the few Chinese-born painters to be considered a master of 20th-century modern art in the West, died at his home in Switzerland on Tuesday. He was 92. His death was reported by the French news media and confirmed by a dealer who worked closely with him.
Mr. Zao, who was born in Beijing in 1921, moved to France in 1948, just before the 1949 Communist takeover of China. He became a French citizen in 1964.
“Zao Wou-ki was the most important Chinese artist to have left before the revolution,” said Pascal de Sarthe, a Hong Kong-based French gallerist who knew Mr. Zao and has been dealing in his works for 18 years. “The art world has lost a giant, especially in this part of the world.”
Mr. Zao’s abstract works — influenced by both European abstraction and traditional Chinese brushwork — quickly drew the attention of galleries in New York and Paris, where he was regularly showing by the 1950s. He befriended contemporaries like Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró.
Considered one of the School of Paris artists, Mr. Zao was lauded in his adopted country, which held retrospectives of his works at major venues like the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (1981), the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (2003) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (2008). His works are also in the collections of museums such as the Tate in London and the Guggenheim in New York.
Recognition came later in his homeland, where the art scene was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. It was not until 1983 that the Chinese minister of culture invited him to do his first exhibitions since he left China 35 years earlier. In the 1990s, his paintings were shown in major museum exhibitions and retrospectives in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
By the 2000s, newly affluent Chinese collectors were taking a greater interest in paintings by Mr. Zao, even though he was elderly and in ill health and had stopped producing new work in any significant quantity. His most prized pieces had been collected decades earlier by buyers who were loath to let them go.
In October 2011, Chinese buyers vied for an abstract 1968 painting that sold at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong for a record- breaking 68.98 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $8.8 million.
“Zao’s paintings are extremely rare,” said Mr. de Sarthe, whose gallery will be showing one Zao work at the first Art Basel Hong Kong next month. “It’s almost easier to find a Picasso.”
Source: The New York Times obituary of the artist.
Zao Wou-Ki, Seen as Modern Art Master, Dies at 92 By JOYCE LAU.
Published: April 11, 2013.