In the early 1990s, Wu returned to complicated compositions and strong colors, making his pictures almost a world of black. Since the late 1990s he has combined characteristics of the 1980s period with the period of early 1990s and roamed freely between abstract styles and detailed depictions.
A painting depicting old trees by Wu Guanzhong
As Wu grew older, greater emotional conflict and catharsis began to show in his works.
His works number far fewer than other contemporary artists, since he was very strict and critical about his artistic output. It is widely known Wu would destroy pieces he did not feel satisfied with, no matter how long they had taken to complete.
In 2002, he was the first Chinese artist to be awarded the Medaille des Arts et Lettres (Art Academician of France) by the Academie des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France (French Academy of Fine Arts), which is regarded as the most prestigious art institute in France. Wu was the first Chinese to win the honor, the highest recognition of the great master's achievements in art.
For years, Wu's paintings were auctioned for astronomical prices.
At the 2007 spring auction of Beijing Poly International Auction Co. Ltd., Wu's colored ink painting Ancient City of Jiaohe fetched more than 40.7 million yuan ($5.96 million), then a record auction price for a work by a mainland artist. At the 2010 spring sale of Beijing Hanhai Auction Co. Ltd., Wu's 1974 oil painting Panoramic View of the Yangtze River, was sold at 57.12 million yuan ($8.36 million), which set a new record for his art.
Total sales of Wu's works at public auctions reached 1.78 billion yuan ($261 million) late last year, second only to top-selling Chinese artist Qi Baishi (1864-1957).
Wu, however, always saw rocketing prices as "probably the result of speculation in the art market."
"I am not sure whether the auction prices indicate the real value of paintings. But one thing is for sure: I believe paintings that withstand the test of time are real masterpieces," Wu said.
Despite the hefty prices, a cherished wish of Wu was to enable more people to enjoy his works. He insisted on donating his best works to public museums instead of selling them.
The recipients of his donations include the NAMOC, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Zhejiang Art Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Singapore Art Museum.
In 2008, Wu donated to the Singapore Art Museum his largest and most comprehensive collection of 113 oil and ink paintings valued at about $53 million. Together with an earlier single donation, the Singapore collection of 114 works painted over five decades represents Wu's entire creative oeuvre.
There is no boundary in terms of art, he said. Art belongs to the world, not to a certain nation or country.
"What gives me most joy and satisfaction is not the high prices my works fetch at auctions but public recognition of my artistic creations," he once said. "I believe art should always be made for the public, and society is the ultimate destination of my own artistic wealth."
Wu is also well-known for his forthrightness. True to his core beliefs, he often criticized artists' money-oriented attitudes toward art.
"It is a long way to go from being a painter to being an artist. Most stopped when they were painters, working to earn a living and becoming famous," he said. "Art draws its inspiration from the heart and soul and there is no way to sell those." n