Collect’s Pick: 3 Masters of Abstraction to Look out for in Sotheby’s Spring Sales
Chief editor and writer of Collect
With market insights and tasteful angles, Collect’s Pick brings to collectors careful selections of outstanding art and design collectibles and noteworthy trends. The first of the series falls into the week of Sotheby’s spring auction, one of the first physical events that are setting the Hong Kong art market in motion once again. Evidently, the landscape of the art world has undergone tremendous transformations, but if there is one thing that has not changed, it is the mood for collecting timeless art. When it comes to works that not only speak as much to the past as to the present but also communicate across cultures, three masters of post-war abstraction deserve special attention.
Presented together in the modern evening sales on the 27th of April, the works of Georges Mathieu, Hsiao Chin and Fernando Zóbel are poised to achieve impressive results. While the three masters share the same language of abstraction in their art, their distinctive visual vocabularies are distillations of their own unique intercultural experiences and experimental endeavours grounded in their personal pursuit of a singular artistic identity and their exceptional sensitivity to forms, colours and materials, resulting in highly idiosyncratic expressions that helped shape post-war art in their own right.
Georges Mathieu (1921 – 2012)
Celebrated as the father of Lyrical Abstraction and the first avant garde to introduce the performative dimension in painting pioneering action painting, Georges Mathieu has recently been rediscovered, particularly in Asia, for his significant contributions to art history in an international scale. Not only did he facilitate exchange between European and American abstraction, but he also greatly influenced the art historical Gutai movement in Japan.
Manifesting calligraphic gesture, bold expression and unbridled spontaneity, Mathieu’s works often fuse historical subject matters, his global presence as well as his understanding of both Western and Eastern cultures into a kind of theatrical experiences on canvas. Offered in this season are two art historical works of the artists – Jadis et Maintenant (1961) and 1429 (1982), both are close comparables to the record-breaking works of the artist as well as his contemporaries in recent years. (For example, Mathieu’s La libération d’Orléans par Jeanne d’Arc was sold in 2020 for HKD 4,125,000, and his Tuz Gölü for HKD 18,325,000 in 2021; Zao Wouki’s 13.02.62 was sold for HKD 162,926,000, also in 2021, all at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.) Compared to these works, the estimates of the two (HKD 1,000,000 - 2,000,000 and HKD 2,000,000 - 4,000,000 respectively) on offer are highly attractive.
Georges Mathieu, Jadis et Maintenant, Oil on canvas, 1961, 97 x 130.5cm
(Lot 1021, Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Auction 2022, Modern Evening Auction)
Painted during the artist’s “zen period”, Jadis et Maintenant reveals Mathieu’s indebtedness to Eastern calligraphy. Spirited black lines rhythmically dance across the canvas as if trying to reconcile the intense contrast of red and white in the background, which at once brings to mind the composition of Zao Wouki’s 13.02.62 as well as the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko. Exhibited in the esteemed Palais de Papes in Avignon in 1985, this painting is a cross-cultural dialogue on artistic expression and speaks to the artist’s historical relevance. 1429, on the other hand, is a semi-representational that pays tribute to the triumphant victory of France against England in the Siege of Orléans. Executed in his mature “barbaric period” and with its title referencing the historic year, it is a response to an important work commissioned by renowned historian Régine Pernoud, La liberation d’Orléans par Jeanne d’Arc, now housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans. Displaying a kind of haptic aesthetics with its zealous brushstrokes and vibrant colours, 1429 situates viewers within the moment of the hard-earned victory and exemplifies Mathieu’s exceptional technical prowess.
Georges Mathieu, 1429, Oil on canvas, 1982, 97 x 195cm
(Lot 1020, Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Auction 2022, Modern Evening Auction)
Hsiao Chin (b. 1935)
Hsiao Chin is undeniably one of the most influential figures in the post-war era who was active in both the Eastern and Western art scene. Although Hsiao spent most of his career in Europe, his artistic practice of over seven decades is firmly rooted in Chinese culture. The artist expresses his understanding of his cultural heritage and its connection with his own personal encounters and Western culture through a unique form of abstraction cultivated from his impressive intercultural experiences and tireless intellectual pursuit. Marked by symbolic forms, dynamic brushwork and complex but vigorous colour system, his works stand at the intersection of the traditional and the modern, the East and West.
Devoted to the study of Chinese philosophies, Buddhism and mysticism, Hsiao was instrumental in introducing a contemplative practice in art, opening up a new dimension in abstraction in the post-war era. He co-founded the Punto Art Movement in 1961, which quickly spread across Europe and became an international movement that effectively forged cultural exchange between the East and West by emphasising the spirituality in art, the interconnectedness of the universe and the search for inner self through artistic practice.
The end of the 1990s was a point of enlightenment for Hsiao Chin, who found himself able to embrace life entirely and wished to share his passion and the eternal love with the world through his paintings. Painted in 1999, Concerto-5 is a magnificent work from this period to be offered in the upcoming evening sale. It features the artist’s most iconic visual idioms – the dynamic composition, the harmonious use of undulating brushstrokes and splashing technique of vivid colours, and the movement of colour fields unleashing the chi and energies from the infinite universe. Poignantly melding ancient wisdom and innovative expression, it was exhibited in his solo exhibition in the Musée Guimet in 2019, a nod to the master’s significant contribution to the development of modern art in Europe and Asia.
Hsiao Chin, Concerto-5, Acrylic on canvas, 120 x 180cm, 1999
(Lot 1032, Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Auction 2022, Modern Evening Auction)
While the work is the first appearance of the Concerto series in the evening sale, other works from the same period have already achieved impressive results. In the evening sale of the last autumn sale, Hsiao’s Flying Over The Eternal Garden-15 (1998) was sold for HK$2,394,000, the fifth auction record of the artist and the first piece in Hsiao’s oeuvre of the 1990s to attain the top 5 auction record. Based on its iconic style and large scale, Concerto-5 is one of Hsiao’s most important works of the late 1990s. The estimate of HK$800,000 to 1,600,000 are considered undervalued in comparison to other masters or even young emerging artists.
Fernando Zóbel (1924 – 1984)
Spanish-Filipino artist Fernando Zóbel was a central figure in shaping the artistic currents of both Spain and the Philippines after the war; he ardently promoted abstraction through not only his prolific artistic creations but also patronage, teaching and writing. Characterised by calculated compositions, elegant atmosphere and careful arrangement of light and colours, Zóbel’s works possess a complex emotional power. His distinctive visual language was partly the result of his globetrotting career and great exposure to different cultures, from Chinese painting and calligraphy to Japanese zen gardens to American Abstract Expressionism, but his painterly foundation was firmly rooted in his Spanish and Filipino lineage. Many of his works engage with the traditions, histories and the artist’s own memory of the two countries through Zóbel’s unique vision and multicultural perspective.
Fernando Zóbel, Sin Titulo, Oil on canvas, 144 x 112.5cm, circa 1964-1965
(Lot 1017, Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Auction 2022, Modern Evening Auction)
The work offered in the upcoming auction, titled Sin Titulo (1964-65), is a preeminent example of Zóbel’s extraordinary creativity and technical virtuosity. Poised between precision and amorphism, movement and stillness, light and darkness, the composition is typical of the artist’s witty yet contemplative style. The bright square on top, alluding to the “windows” in the works of Mark Rothko whom Zóbel greatly admired, is a portal to the heavenly sky, while the nebulous dark form at the bottom, calling to mind the works of Adolph Gottlieb, brings our consciousness back on earth. In the tension between ethereality and groundedness, the painting offers a spiritual viewing experience. The grid composed of meticulously painted small squares conveys a sense of order and rationality, but the artist curiously allows viewers and himself to wander off with the bright orange square to the right, adding another intriguing layer to the imagery. At once rational and emotional, the work is a testament to the arresting visual power of Zóbel’s oeuvre. Also, its vertical composition and large scale are very rare in the market; an above estimate result is to be expected.
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