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    Zao Wou-ki, 92; painter straddled styles, traditions

    NEW YORK — Zao Wou-ki, a Chinese emigre who merged Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions in his abstract paintings — helping to shape avant-garde art in postwar Europe and attracting a newly wealthy Asian following that made him one of the most commercially successful living artists in either hemisphere — died on April 9 in Nyon, Switzerland. He was 92.

    The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said a spokesman for his wife, Francoise Marquet, a former curator of the Museum of Modern Art of Paris.

    Mr. Zao’s paintings, which are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Tate Modern, among others, have sold at auction in recent years for between $1 million and $2 million each. Since 2011, when sales of his paintings totaled $90 million, art journals and art dealers have frequently referred to him as the top-selling living Chinese artist.


    Finding his own identity in that label — as a Chinese artist — was the crucible of Mr. Zao’s artistic vision.

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    Leaving China just before the Communist takeover, Mr. Zao settled in 1948 in Paris, where his first sustained exposure to Western modernist painting left him ambivalent about the classical forms of landscape and calligraphic ink painting in which he had been trained. He loved the work of the impressionists and expressionists, and of contemporary artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

    But through nonobjective Western painting, especially the work of Paul Klee, who was influenced by traditional Chinese and Japanese art, Mr. Zao gained insights into what the British art historian Michael Sullivan called ‘‘the Abstract Expressionist element in his own tradition.’’

    As Mr. Zao explained in a 1962 interview with the French magazine Preuves, ‘‘Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China.’’

    He added, ‘‘Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris I owe this return to my deepest origins.’’ He became a French citizen in 1964.


    Mr. Zao’s canvases, known for their striking Modernist lines combined with color subtleties and three-dimensional perspective suggestive of Chinese landscape painting, began selling briskly in the 1960s.

    He was generally well received by critics. In a 1986 review in The New York Times, John Russell praised his ‘‘rare gift for metamorphosis’’ and quoted approvingly from the catalog’s observation that Mr. Zao’s paintings achieved a sort of quantum duality, seeming to occupy two places at once: They ‘‘take us to a space not yet defined but in abeyance, hesitant, hovering one last moment before plummeting into what later will be order.’’