Abstract Narratives: Zao Wou-ki Exhibition Review

By Mengyue Wu

The first retrospective exhibition of Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013)[1] in the United States, No Limits: Zao Wou-ki, was on view at the Asia Society[2], New York, from September 9, 2016 to January 8, 2017. In the age of globalization, the exhibition’s title “No Limits” not only refers to Zao’s first name, which literally means limitless in Chinese, but also implies the expatriate experience of Zao and the transnational art world in which Zao was actively involved. Zao grew up in Dantu, a small city in the Southeast of China, moved to Montparnasse, Paris at the age of 28, and visited the United States in 1950s. Zao was highly regarded in his lifetime and is hailed as the most successful Chinese artist at present for his abstract paintings.

Although Zao’s abstract artworks stylistically resemble works of American abstract artists active in the 50s, Zao employed his expressionist background to depict emotive narratives through abstract forms, showing significant influence from the Parisian impressionists and post-impressionists, and most importantly, from the tradition of Chinese ink painting. Through an analysis of the painting Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55 (1955) at the exhibition, I will critique the “abstract narrative” style of Zao, whose multi-cultural background and transnational experience significantly shape his art.

The exhibition was divided into two parts: Zao’s early work in one room, and his mature work in another. The small, bright room housed works Zao produced in college, at the China Art Academy. While the small room displayed mostly water color paintings of tea pots and trees, the other room exhibited Zao’s more abstract and large-scale oil paintings. Located on the opposite side of the hall, the large room tripled the size of the small one, whilst its zigzag path forced viewers to look at these paintings in a designed sequence. Despite the physical separation between Zao’s earlier works and his mature paintings, one cannot deny the continuity in his art practice, especially his consistent fascination with representation. In fact, the zigzag path inside the larger exhibition space intensifies the logic of Zao’s art, which is to represent the world with abstract visual languages, through a post-impressionist approach as well as a traditional Chinese ink painting practice. The legibility of subjects may dwindle as Zao’s style becomes more mature, but the subject matter neither disappears nor gives way to a pure abstraction; Zao’s representations of the real world are dissolved into symbols and colors on gigantic canvases.

Upon entering the large room, viewers would be absorbed into an immersive experience by looking at an enormous blue painting against a black plastic wall. This is Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55, a larger than life sized portrait of Chu Yun, a historical figure from the ancient Chinese state, Chu. Chu Yun drowned himself in the Miluo River after Qin conquered his homeland on the fifth of May. At first sight, any viewer with some basic knowledge of Western modern art may find Homage to Chu Yun reminiscent of the abstract-expressionist works of Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock, because the painting seems to consist of random, energetic splashes of paint. However, this painting is more of a portrait without figures than a pure abstract-expressionist painting. Narrative consists of a major part of this work. Relying on colors, lines and script, Honage to Chu Yun memorizes and dramatizes the climactic moment of Chu Yun’s suicidal jump into the Miluo river. As the first painting to be viewed in the second exhibition room, this work is possibly among Zao’s early experiments with abstraction, and it serves as an exemplar model to illustrate the “abstract narrative” style.

Every element in Homage to Chu Yun is created with intention in order to tell a story with abstract vocabulary. Among all tools, color is the most straightforward and easily identifiable feature to elucidate the narrative. In the painting, Zao only uses four colors—blue, black, red and white—for narrative rather than aesthetic purposes. The colors are associated with different objects based on their physical likeness. Recalling the title and the theme of the work, the deep blue background refers to the cold Miluo River, the reddish orange heap in the center of the picture is the warm body of Qu Yuan falling into the river, the black clusters around the red paint are fish swimming towards Qu’s body, and the white paint in the upper part of the painting suggests the bubbles generated by the instant splash as the body hits the water. To give the painting some visual complexity, Zao uses different tones of these four colors, but no extra color is used, for irrelevant colors would be distracting. The dramatic moment of Qu yuan’s heroic jump is captured through four specific colors and their according positions.

Colors alone may fail to reveal the story in its full clarity, but Zao further enhances the narrative through symbols from ancient Chinese oracle scripts and modern Chinese characters. The fish are represented not only by the black color from the fish scales, but also by their physical shapes. Looking closely to the right of the dark black cluster below the red paint, viewers may find that the “X” or “又” shaped cross-lines resemble a fish tail, while the circle resembles the body of a fish.  On the lower left side, a few strokes form the shape a fish. These simplified forms may be inspired by the ancient Chinese oracle scripts, which are quasi-abstract symbols derived from shapes of things in the natural world. A more abstract yet more explicit image derived from modern Chinese script is also visible on the left margin. The small square with two horizontal lines and a vertical line is very likely a fragment from the center of the modern Chinese character “鱼,” meaning fish. Although the modern fragment may not be as figurative as the oracle scripts, it is more straightforward to people who read Modern Chinese. By using words, Zao further illustrates the shapes of fish, thereby making the narrative more legible.

Zao must be familiar with both the ancient and the modern scripts, as he grew up in China and went to the China Art Academy, which was known for its strict training in traditional Chinese art. Zao’s practice of integrating scripts into paintings may find precedents in the West—the canonical introduction of alternate planes in Pablo Picasso’s collages—but it is unfair to argue that Zao’s painting is derivative. Unlike the phonetically developed Latin alphabet, the ancient Chinese oracle scripts were created based on forms and shapes, so writing script is roughly equivalent to painting. Picasso used phonetics to add the fourth dimension of an object, while Zao uses words that are symbolic in their nature as abstract elements to provide clear definitions to otherwise ambiguous images. The evolution of Chinese script is an abbreviated history of abstraction, as characters become increasingly simplified and decreasingly figurative in forms, but more effective for writing and reading. Zao’s use of writing is also reminiscent of the inscriptions in the traditional Chinese literati scroll painting. Literati artists usually comment and sign their names in calligraphy on the left margin of hanging scrolls; the continuous, linear black brushstrokes on the left margin of Homage to Chu Yun resemble the inscriptions, in terms of the format and the location. The Chinese scripts of fish and the reference to inscriptions all point to Zao’s connection with traditional Chinese art.

Besides fish, a legendary creature commonly associated with Qu Yuan—the dragon—also emerges from the seemingly chaotic brushstrokes. The rough, dry black lines trace an up-side-down dragon, which consists of a white belly, horse-like head, a long tail, a claw, and back fins. These features accord with descriptions of dragons in Chinese folklore and artworks throughout Chinese history. For example, in Chen Rong’s famous scroll painting Nine Dragons (1244), and the dragons also feature a reptile’s body and scales, tails, falcon claws, and horse heads. Zao’s dragon is almost a simplified and abstracted version of Chen’s dragon, with extremely similar claws, tails and heads.

The inclusion of a dragon in the center of the painting is probably to evoke the connections between Chu Yun and dragons. In the lunar calendar, the fifth of May is considered to have the strongest sun around the time of summer solstice, as the daylight in the northern hemisphere is the longest. Like the sun, the dragon is a masculine symbol whose images are often used to decorate the boats for the dragon boat race. The dragon boat race is a traditional activity to honor the death of Chu Yun in China on the fifth of May, or the so-called Dragon Boat Festival. This semi-religious and semi-entertaining sport has more than a thousand year’s history since it was invented in the Warring Stets period. Each participating boat has dragon decorations on the front. During the festival, there is another tradition to throw zongzi, a sticky-rice dish, into the Miluo river, in order to prevent the dragons and fish from eating Chu’s body. Thus, in the painting, near Qu’s body could be a dragon waiting to consume his flesh, in reference to the folklore. With these connections, the dragon image reinforces the theme and title of Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55, the glorification of the heroic act of Chu Yun on the special day of his anniversary.

Hidden in the abstraction is the breathtaking moment of Chu Yun’s legendary jump. From Zao’s deliberate choice of colors, the accurate positions of colors, and the lines depicting fish and the dragon, Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55 is a portrait without figures. In 1955, Zao had been abroad for seven years since he departed for Paris in 1948, but at this point, Zao still painted themes related to Chinese folklore, and retained a propensity to paint figures. Thanks to the display of Zao’s early works in the small room, viewers were prepared with some background of Zao’s early art training and were able to notice the continuity in his artworks. Zao’s art does not defy representation like other artists active in the 1950s; rather, he embraces narratives and embedded stories in abstract forms.


[1] More information about Zao Wou-ki can be found on the website “Foundation Zao=Wouki,”www.zaowouki.org.

[2] Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society is a nonpartisan, nonprofit institution located on the 70th Street of New York City, dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context. Information about Asia Society can be found on asiasociety.org.


Mengyue Wu is an undergraduate student at New York University, major in Art History.
Her academic interests lie in modern and contemporary art, East Asian Art, and transnationalism.
Her current research project concerns artists’ expatriate experience, and its influence on their art.
She can be contacted via: mw2940@nyu.edu