Born in Beijing in 1921, Zao Wou-Ki learned the art of calligraphy from his grandfather at the age of ten. He subsequently studied fine arts in Hangzhou from 1935 to 1941 and was highly influenced by the French Impressionists and members of the Parisian avant-garde, citing artists such as Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso as inspirations.
In 1948 he moved to Paris and settled in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, an area frequented by major artists, poets, and writers associated with the avant-garde in the early twentieth century. In Paris, Zao studied under the instruction of Emile Othon Friesz and attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Following the artist’s first exhibition in Paris at Galerie Creuze in 1949, he received much encouragement and praise from notable artists such as Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Alberto Giacometti. Soon after, Zao explored the technique of lithography at the Desjobert printing shop and his first lithographs provided inspiration to the writer Henri Michaux, resulting in eight poems. This would be the start of a long friendship and artistic collaboration between Zao and Michaux.
In addition to exploring the concepts and forms put forth by his contemporaries in Paris such as Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, Nicolas de Staël, Viera da Silva, and Jean-Paul Riopelle, Zao was greatly influenced by the work of Paul Klee. Throughout the coming decades, Zao would continue to expand his familiarity with various techniques such as calligraphy, lithography, and engraving, producing numerous works on paper (sometimes on an incredibly large scale), as well as producing wistfully painted works of china and porcelain.
His most recent exhibition from September 16-October 11, 2008, at Marlborough Gallery, New York, featured a variety of works on paper and ceramic produced within the past three years. Among these works was an array of inks on paper as well as large scale colored serigraphs. Zao’s work can be found in over one hundred museums and collections worldwide including the the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal, Canada; Fonds National D’Art Contemporain, Paris, France; Musée National D’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Fondation François Pinault, Paris, France; The Tate Gallery London, England; Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany; Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria; Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium; Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; National Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing, China; Hong Kong Museum of Art, China; Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan; Taiwan Museum of Art; National Museum of History, Taipei,Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan; Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona, Spain; The Museum of Tel Aviv, Israel; Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Milan, Italy; Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan; Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan; National Museum of Art, Japan; Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico; Museo Tamayo de Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City, Mexico; Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal; Collection Thyssen Bornemisza, Castagnola, Switzerland.
On April 9th, 2013, at the age of 93 Zao Wou-ki passed away at his home in Switzerland.