No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki exhibit celebrated at Colby Museum of Art

The Colby Museum of Art welcomed the pioneering exhibit No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki for an expansive four-month stay, filling the floors of both the lower and upper galleries with bursts of color and diaphanous shapes. While this exhibit has been open to the public since February, the Colby Museum put together an event this past Thursday to celebrate the exhibit’s success after five years of research and maneuvering from the Museum and its partners. This celebration also came at a good time to remind the Colby community to take their chance to see No Limits.

No Limits is a compilation of works of the Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-Ki. As a Chinese artist who immigrated to Paris in his twenties after World War II, Wou-Ki was influenced by both the Chinese artistic tradition that he was educated in and the post-war European avant-garde that drew him to Paris. It was Wou-Kis union of the two styles that made his work a unique and significant influence  on the field of art, as he worked to introduce the new movement of abstraction to what he felt was a repetitive practice of Chinese landscape painting. Through his painting, Wou-Ki became a pioneering voice of transculturalism in post-war art, continuing to travel around the world to experience diverse techniques and cultures.

Wou-Ki earned incredible success internationally over his lifetime. He may have been the most popular Chinese painter within their lifetime, and his paintings were complimented by even Picasso and Joan Miró, who were also some of his influences.

Wou-Ki’s work is filled with impressionistic effects, expressing vivid moods with his abstract gestures and intense coloring. His artwork is mostly oil paintings on canvas, but he varies his medium greatly within the artwork displayed in No Limits, another aspect of the experimentation that inspired this exhibit’s name. Wou-Ki’s paintings are incredibly evocative, and the experience of viewing his art often feels more synesthetic than purely visual.

In light of Wou-Kis tendency to invoke music with his work, as well as his lifelong involvement with music, the Museum arranged a concert as a part of the celebration. The concert featured faculty from the Colby Department of Music, spanning eight different instruments and a diverse array of musical styles. All of the pieces performed, from Handel’s “Water Music” to a set of jazz improvisation, were tied to some part of Wou-Ki’s history, as the curators of the exhibit explained.

Wou-Ki was not only a member of the Parisian art world, but was also closely tied to music. He was familiar with the work of influential avant-garde composers as Pierre Boulez and Edgard Varèse, along with the more traditional classical repertoire of Handel and Mozart. A painting known to have been inspired by Handel’s “Water Music” was displayed as the piece was performed as a duet by Colby violin teacher and conductor Jinwook Park and professor Yuri Funahashi. Another piece featured was “Density 21.5 for Solo Flute,” written by Wou-Ki’s close friend Edgard Varèse and performed by flute teacher Nicole Rabata. Wou-Ki, a well-trained singer, is also known to have performed in a voice concert, two of which were sung by voice teacher Timothy Johnson. Finally, three of Wou-Ki’s paintings were displayed as a band improvised in free jazz inspired by the artwork, played by band director Eric Thomas, music professor Jonathan Hallstrom, University of Maine Farmington music professor Gustavo Aguilar, and jazz musician Duane Edwards.

This exhibit is the first showing of  Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings in America in decades, and the first retrospective exhibit in the United States. No Limits was organized jointly by the Colby College Museum of Art and the Asia Society Museum in New York.  It was co-curated by research associate Dr. Melissa Walt and chaired art professor Dr. Ankeney Weitz from Colby, along with Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Michelle Yun from the Asia Society. Establishing this collection, they said at the celebration, required several years of hard work and research, but it was worth it to be able to display Zao Wou-Ki’s artwork. No Limits: Zao Wou-Ki is on display at the Colby Museum of Art until June 4.