Zobel’s first creative and visual epiphany on color manifested in 1954, when he encountered Mark Rothko’s colour fields for the first time and found himself ‘fascinated and disconcerted by the eloquence’ of Rothko’s expansive shades. From then on, Zobel moved away from representational painting, allowing the elements of color and line alone to become the very subject of the work, rather than solely as a tool for expression. It was said of Zobel that he ‘painted in circles’, beginning his career with a fascination for color and luminosity, then moving away from color entirely in favour of a monochromatic palette. However, towards the end, he progressively reintroduced diverse hues into his work, of which Naranja y Gris is one of his most elegant studies.
From 1964 onward, the artist had developed a new painting method, glazing each layer of oil paint over the other to create a sense of depth to his tones. As such, this piece is composed using Zobel’s signature blending and subtlety, featuring orange and greys vividly concentrated in the centre and intermingling outwards to create translucent blue and peach shading across the upper half of the canvas.
Zobel had long been preoccupied with capturing the essence of movement in abstract form - in his own words, ‘the movement of leaves, blades of grass, trees, birds, people…observed, sensed, never imitated, but…translated’. The seeming dissipation of color to the very edges therefore imparts a dynamism upon this otherwise flat plane, a sense of movement expressed ‘metaphorically’ through paint alone.
Strikingly, the delineation marking off the field of colour from the white canvas on the left is made clinically straight, as with a fixed ruler, but the daub of brilliant, opaque paint in the middle disrupts this boundary, organically spilling over into the white space in scattered droplets. Conversely, it tapers off into an imperfect line on the right, appearing as if the grey has gradually faded into white below. Here, the artist embraces the flexibility of line - however ironic this seems - whether mechanically drawn or organic and freely rendered. Across all his works, Zobel combined strict geometry and spatial divisions with the natural fluidity of paint, to create a calculated, yet deeply spontaneous aesthetic.
Fully celebrating the potential of line and shade for personal expression, Zobel continually strived to reduce his forms to the most rudimentary abstract shapes, in order to convey the most essential emotions. Naranja y Gris is a visually arresting, technical work by one of the most imaginative Southeast Asian abstract artists of the 20th century, showcasing a return to his intricate colour compositions and a special use of orange.
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