This season, Sotheby’s is proud to offer a colourful and rare piece from Zobel’s early Saeta series, which marked an important breakthrough in his prolific career. The Saeta refers to a traditional solo a capella song in the Flamenco tradition in Catholic Spain; it is known for its mournful power and emotive intensity. Likewise, Zobel’s Saeta series conveys a hypnotic and meditative effect; for comparison, a similar work to the present lot from the series titled Saeta Blanca Sobre Ocre (1957) currently hangs in the collection of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Indeed, the title of this beautiful work, ‘attempts to suggest something both improvised and deeply felt… You might say that the underlying theme is movement… stated in terms of line.’ (Rafael Perez-Madero, ZOBEL/ LA SERIE BLANCA, Ediciones Rayuela, Madrid, 1978, p. 85) This present painting exemplifies Zobel’s ability to capture movement in the simplest of forms and exudes a contemplative quality that permeates the master’s approach to art.
Zobel began working on the Saeta series in 1955 following his visit to a Rothko exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design. Zobel remarked, ‘In theoretical sense I knew it was possible to paint abstractly, but Rothko’s demonstration convinced me completely…I felt obliged to paint but I had abandoned the need to ‘represent’.’ (Rod. Paras-Perez, Fernando Zobel, Eugenio Lopez Foundation, Inc., Manila, 1990, p.136) The Rothko exhibition proved pivotal to Zobel’s commitment to abstraction as it revealed to him the expressive potential of colour in its own right. Like the paintings in the Rothko Chapel, Zobel’s Saeta works communicate a meditative, almost mystical sensation to the viewer.
In this painting, Zobel abandoned the traditional paintbrush for a surgical syringe in order to achieve calligraphic lines of the utmost precision, a technique which became the hallmark of his Saeta series. The white lines trace across the canvas with controlled and graceful delicacy, converging in a dense cluster that seems to pulse with energy at the centre of the painting. This is an effect achieved by Zobel’s tediously mastered and completely unique method. The Saeta series was highly significant to the development of Zobel’s style and artistic identity, marking a definitive break from his earlier figurative tendencies and turning towards abstraction.
The white lattice set against a mellow, yellow background, interwoven with bands of green and pink precedes Zobel’s characteristic use of black and white in his Saeta series. Such an early exploration of pigments and mood bestows upon this work a great rarity. The luminous colours seamlessly blend into one another, creating a palpable tranquillity and imbuing the work with an ethereal quality suggestive of Zobel’s memories of travelling through beautiful Spanish and Filipino landscapes.
The contrast between a tense, dynamic lattice of lines against a softly modulated background that calmly expands underneath is lucidly captivating. Instead of having an impenetrable, opaque surface as the backdrop for his painting, Zobel chooses to employ variated tints, allowing the viewer’s gaze to enter in and out of the painting. The allure of this particular work’s chromatic radiance pays homage to Rothko’s powerfully emotive and atmospheric colour field paintings.
This rare painting demonstrates Zobel’s mastery of line, colour theory and movement. The critic Cid Reyes describes Zobel’s Saeta series as ‘almost always bathed in shadows, mists, like exercises in chiaroscuro with lines emerging and vanishing and then re-emerging through thin glazed wisps of lightly brushed paint’. (Fernando Zobel quoted in an interview by Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art, Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1989, p. 50) During his studies at Harvard, Zobel encountered the works of American abstract expressionists such as Pollock and Franz Kline, which led to an active and highly intellectual engagement with the American artists’ various techniques. However, Zobel remained uncompromisingly original in the development of his own artistic vocabulary internalising the prevailing trend in the West and merging it with Eastern approaches. Whilst Saeta may recall the highly expressive drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, Zobel’s restrained colour palette, controlled application of light and thin lines that dance across the surface of the canvas, make the present work markedly different. It does not possess the same visceral, almost apocalyptic quality characteristic of Pollock’s paintings.
Rather, Saeta shares more of an affinity with the spiritual and contemplative nature of Oriental calligraphy, an art form that Zobel was fascinated by and took classes in. A crucial aspect of Zobel’s abstraction, the importance of gesture, was greatly inspired by Oriental calligraphy. What appears to be an exercise in spontaneity, suggested by the lively, expressive and almost effortless manner in which the lines interact, is in fact a product of Zobel’s adherence to a highly vigorous exercise of creating multiple drafts before the definitive drawing appeared on canvas, a practice that informs the very aesthetics of Far Eastern calligraphy.
Saeta bears a mesmerising sense of dynamism in its electrifying web of lines that sprawl across the canvas. These lines in their exquisite fineness also possess an almost whimsical quality as they converge, disperse and perform large swooping arabesques. Sublime in its large scale and seductive in its sunset hue, Saeta 1956 imagines an otherworldly dreamscape that unfolds before its audience’s eyes. This important work truly embodies the emotive power of gestural abstraction and is a veritable testament to abstract painting’s ability to transcend language, culture or specific geographic locales to reach a universal audience.
Zobel’s Saeta is resplendent in its glowing yellow colour, large format and exquisite beauty, standing as an important precursor to the artist’s later works as he furthers his exploration of the dialectics of space and motion.
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