The image of an artist retreating from society and completing their work in isolation appears frequently throughout the history of art. This trope, however, has no place in the life of Zao Wou-Ki, for whom friendship had an outsized importance. In this post, Melissa Walt, co-curator of our current exhibition No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki and research associate at Colby College, explores the artist’s singular friendship with the architect I. M. Pei.
Friendships were the lifeblood of Zao Wou-Ki’s personal and professional lives. His talent, intelligence, and personality charmed and attracted people everywhere he went. His circle of friends—dispersed across three continents—grew ever larger over the course of his long life, and came to include a diverse array of talents and personalities. 15.04.77, a large abstract oil painting on view in No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki, stands as testament to one of these friendships: Zao’s five-plus-decade relationship with architect I. M. Pei.
Zao Wou-Ki (1920–2013) and I. M. Pei (b. 1917) met in Paris in 1951. Zao had been in France three years, and his reputation was growing. Pei was in Paris on a Harvard fellowship when he came upon Zao’s work at Galerie Pierre. Pierre Loeb, the owner and Zao’s gallerist, suggested the two expatriates might enjoy meeting. They did. Soon artist and architect found they shared more in common than their Chinese backgrounds and careers away from China. Their fathers, they discovered, were colleagues in the world of Shanghai banking—a career that, even as children, both Zao and Pei had spurned in favor of artistic pursuits.
Like Zao, Pei found success in a world removed from his upbringing. He came to America in 1934 to study at MIT, and later at Harvard. Pei’s career flourished in America. His professional success was built upon a modernist vision distant from the Confucian past but indebted to certain of its traditions and aesthetics—much as Zao’s paintings and prints were. Pei’s designs for the John F. Kennedy Library (Boston), the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), and the Bank of China (Hong Kong) are recognized for the elegant resolution between man-made and natural environments; Pei attributes this trait to his love of Chinese gardens, which began when he was a child at his family’s ancestral home in Suzhou.
The works of Zao and Pei benefited from their complex cultural backgrounds. Competent in the aesthetic traditions of China, they found an escape from their shared past in modernism. Throughout their respective careers, however, Chinese tradition continued to inform and enrich their creations. 15.04.77 evokes this shared aesthetic. In Zao’s painting, oil takes on the characteristics of Chinese ink, splashed across the surface of the canvas. Color is used sparingly, and the overall effect of the work—size, palette, composition—is monumental. Part Chinese landscape and part abstract expressionism, it spoke to Pei’s minimalist sensibility—enough so for the architect to acquire the painting for his personal collection.
Of Zao’s many friendships in America, the one with Pei was the closest and the most enduring. For over half a century, they saw one another whenever their busy schedules allowed. The global scope of Pei’s practice took him to Paris frequently. Dinners, at fine restaurants or chez Zao, were much anticipated occasions for both men. Pei, accompanied by his wife, Eileen, also visited Zao outside Paris, at the artist’s country and seaside retreats. Pei reciprocated the hospitality whenever Zao came to New York, attending Zao’s gallery openings, and then catching up over dinner at Pei’s home, often in the company of other New York friends and acquaintances.
Their friendship extended beyond socializing, with both men taking pleasure in advancing each other’s careers. Pei was a staunch advocate of Zao’s painting. In 1980, he reminisced about their friendship in Zao Wou-Ki: Paintings and Drawings, 1976–80. Pei contributed the introduction to this catalog, which accompanied Zao’s first solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. The affection he felt for Zao is clear in the lavish praise, which likens Zao’s work to that of such disparate masters as Paul Klee and Ni Zan. Pei, maybe more than anyone, appreciated the multitude of sources—ancient and modern, Chinese and Western—from which Zao drew inspiration.
The admiration extended beyond mere words. For large projects in China and Singapore, Pei commissioned works from Zao to complement his architectural vision: two large abstract ink compositions for Beijing’s Fragrant Hill Hotel (1982), and a massive oil painting triptych for Raffles City in Singapore (1986). The work of artist and architect were united once more in China, twenty years later, at the Suzhou Museum. Pei had suggested an exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink paintings for the museum’s inaugural celebration. Black & White Dream graced the galleries of the new Pei-designed museum, with Zao Wou-Ki’s inks in dialogue with those of two younger expatriate artists, Xu Bing and Cai Guo-qiang. It was, in part, a valedictory presentation for octogenarians Zao and Pei, but also afforded an opportunity to showcase the global impact of Chinese artists across generations and disciplines.
Designing buildings afforded Pei frequent opportunities to commission art for new spaces. The occasions for Zao to reciprocate were limited to personal projects—for instance, a renovation of Zao’s country home outside Paris. In another juxtaposition of past and present, Zao turned to his friend, the leading modernist architect, to suggest ways to bring more light into the interior and studio spaces of his fourteenth-century château. In 1982, Zao had a hand in a more significant public project. Emile Biasini, France’s former minister of culture, was charged with finding an architect for a renovation of the Louvre, and he turned to Zao for help. Having learned of the friendship between Zao and Pei, Biasini asked him to arrange an introduction. Zao was pleased to play intermediary for an invitation that led to one of Pei’s most dramatic projects—the glass pyramids in the courtyard of the old royal palace.
Zao Wou-Ki and I. M. Pei maintained their remarkable friendship across the decades, from the middle of the twentieth century into the early years of the twenty-first. The relationship between these modernist masters had its roots in their common cultural history, but flourished in environments distant from that time and place. 15.04.77 offers us a glimpse of their bond. Zao once remarked that he liked viewers to be able to wander in his works, as he did when he painted them. For the years that 15.04.77 hung in Pei’s home, the architect was able to do just that. At a gala preview of No Limits hosted by I. M. Pei at Asia Society in New York, the ninety-nine-year-old architect went directly to the painting, settling himself before it, as though communing with an old friend.