Images hesitate between being and not being. Powerful forces move in dynamic space where background and foreground at times seem to interchange. Colors are as fresh and precious as lacquer. Craftmanship is flawless.

The world that Zao Wou-ki paints is surely one of the rarest and loveliest of those created by man. We see in his art a perfect blending of the cultures of the East and the West.

Zao Wou-ki, Peking-born, received a complete formation as a highly gifted conventional Chinese painter and held a professorial post at the Academy of Hangchow, his alma mater. Chancing on colored reproductions of European paintings wakened him to a different type of beauty, and in 1948 the artist, then twenty-seven, came to Europe.

This move was most propitious. After a period of intense study of old and new masters in the great museums of Europe, he settled in Paris. There, Zao, earnest , talented, and personable, soon made lasting friendships with artists of the avant-garde.

He participated enthusiastically in their experiments and researches, during which he encountered many others who, like him, were searching for liberation from a civilization that had become an iron collar. They came from all parts of the world and looked in every direction. Because of their restlessness, Zao regained an appreciation of his own heritage and resolved that instead of rejecting the Oriental for the Occidental, he would bring about a marriage between the two.

Was there ever a country that honored the line more than China? Every mark had a meaning. Zao attributes the suppleness of his wrist, which he says is ''like the neck of a goose,'' to his long years of drawing calligraphy. He likes to quote the words of the monk Shi Tao: The lightness of the wrist will make the brush fly and dance with a happy detachment. Its variants permit effects of a natu- ralness full of abandon; meta- morphoses engender the unex- pected and the bizarre; and when the wrist is animated by the spirit, rivers and mountains de- liver up their souls.

Modern in appearance, his paintings remain ancient in essence. He had been taught the old Chinese concept: art is the fulfillment of a philosophy of life, the realization of a dream of total communication with the universe. Zao found that these high traditions could be expressed even more vividly in Western lyrical abstract painting.

He makes no preliminary sketches, explaining, ''I never know what I am going to do. The painting lives and evolves slowly as I improvise. My only guide is the picture emerging step by step. . . . I am not an intellectual painter, rather a physical one. I give of myself, project myself.''

Alone in his studio, never satisfied with immediate effects, he works eight to ten hours a day for three or four months on a canvas, yet somehow retains the look of spontaneity.

The accompanying photo is of a softly luminous picture that exemplifies his general rule: each painting must elaborate only one color harmony. Its chromatic scheme ranges from highlighted bisque to the profound red-brown of an exotic wood.

He returns, by instinct, perhaps, to an early Chinese custom of conveying the impression that very minute people are completely integrated into the landscape of the painting and they silently urge, almost force, us to enter and become a part of the action.

It is a game to be played thoughtfully; it then becomes a truly extraordinary aesthetic experience. Zao has the uncanny ability to cause one to feel the quivering of the invisible within the visible.

Americans, with their love of personal involvement, will be glad to know that the works of Zao Wou-ki can be seen in more than thirty museums and public collections in this country.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.