Finding Zao Wou-Ki

A Global Project

In organizing the first retrospective of Zao Wou-Ki in the United States, Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art Ankeney Weitz,  along with her co-curators Melissa Walt, research associate at Colby College, and Michelle Yun, senior curator of modern and contemporary art at Asia Society, were tasked not only with studying the painter’s work but also locating them. In this post for The Lantern, Professor Weitz reflects on the nearly decade global hunt for Zao’s work.

Fig. 1.Traces dans la ville (Tracks in the City), 1954. Oil on canvas, 51 15/16 x 64 in. (131.9 x 162.6 cm). Gift of The Honorable Sherwood Tarlow, 1993.016

Two of the questions I have been hearing frequently since the opening of No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki on Mayflower Hill are Where did you get all of these paintings? and How did you find them?

To answer these questions, I have to go back to the beginning of the project, to our very first discovery: Colby’s very own Zao Wou-Ki painting, Traces dans la ville (Tracks in the City) (Fig. 1, 1954). When I first came to Colby in 1998, Hugh Gourley, the former director of the Museum, mentioned to me that we had a painting by a Chinese abstract oil painter named Zao Wou-Ki. Melissa Walt, who had arrived in Waterville that same fall, and who was researching twentieth-century émigré Chinese painters, joined me in a viewing of the work. We were both deeply moved and intrigued by the painting; soon Zao Wou-Ki became a frequent topic of our conversations as we began to notice the appearance of his works at auction, and the astounding, ever-increasing prices they were commanding. Melissa had written about Zao Wou-Ki in her doctoral dissertation and knew of his prominence in the history of modern Chinese art; she thought the time was ripe to present an exhibition of his paintings. In 2009, we began to think seriously about this project.

Fig 2. Marronnier (Chestnut), 1955. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 25 1/2 in. (100.3 x 64.8 cm). Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University. Gift of Harvey Picker ’36, 1994.2.4

One painting does not an exhibition make, however, and thus the hunt began for other works in American collections. Using a collections list published in Jean Leymarie’s book Zao Wou-Ki (Barcelona: Poligrafa, 1978), we wrote to museum registrars around the United States, asking for photographs of and information about works known to be in their collections. This process quickly turned up notable paintings, including several in the exhibition: Mistral (1957) from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lune noire (1953) from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell, and Foule noire (1955) from Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. But some of the museums were harder to identify; for instance, we never found works purported to be in the mysterious “Atlanta Art Center” or the “Virgin Island Museum, St. Thomas.” By early 2010, we were sending “cold-call” emails to registrars, mostly at other university and college museums, which yielded several previously unknown paintings, including Marronnier (Fig. 2, 1955) and Pavillon rouge (1954) from the Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University, among other choice finds. Many more museums reported extensive holdings of Zao Wou-Ki prints.

Another avenue of discovery opened through the generosity of Pierre Levai, director of the Marlborough Gallery in New York City and supporter of the Colby College Museum of Art (the Marlborough Gallery in the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the works of Alex Katz was named in his honor), who graciously provided a personal introduction to Zao Wou-Ki and his family. In June 2010 we visited his studio in Paris, armed with an illustrated list of our discoveries and a proposal to organize a small exhibition of Zao’s early paintings from American collections. Sensing our determination and sincerity, Madame Françoise Marquet-Zao, the artist’s wife, began to introduce us to private collectors in the United States and around the world, and thus our list grew longer. We drove to towns in New Hampshire, visited the massive art depot at the Free Port in Geneva, and met with gallerists in New York City and Hong Kong. We also learned that Zao Wou-Ki’s sister-in-law, Phebe Chao, lived just three hours from Waterville, and we so enjoyed hearing her stories of Zao Wou-Ki that we invited her to contribute a short reminiscence to the catalog.

Within a few years, our small project had grown into something much more ambitious. When the Asia Society Museum agreed to join the collaboration, Michelle Yun, senior curator of modern and contemporary art, received calls from owners of Zao Wou-Ki paintings in New York. The beautiful still life Untitled (Teapot and Vase with Twigs) (1951) from the Abrams Family Collection was among the late discoveries brought to us through her efforts.

Since the opening of the exhibition last year, we have continued to learn of Zao Wou-Ki paintings and prints in American museum and private collections. Although we were unable to include these works in our exhibition, we are always thrilled to learn of their existence, especially since Madame Marquet-Zao and Mr. Yann Hendgen, artistic director of the Fondation Zao Wou-Ki in Geneva, are preparing a catalogue raisonné of Mr. Zao’s oil painting oeuvre. We happily send every discovery to them, in the hopes that our small project can help contribute to the larger, more definitive record of his artistic output.