NEW YORK - A champion of abstraction who turned to figuration in his later years, Jean Hélion is an artist whose career and influence span not only styles, but also continents.
Hélion made his first forays into abstraction in Paris in the late 1920s, gravitating towards the strictly linear techniques of artists involved in the De Stijl movement, such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. He later became involved with the Abstraction-Création association, a group that counted Jean Arp, Wassily Kandinsky and Albert Gleizes among its members. Collectively, this group moved away from the rigidity that dominated the abstract aesthetic, bending the rules by incorporating curved lines and volumetric forms into their compositions.
JEAN HÉLION IN HIS STUDIO, 1934.
In 1932, Hélion made his first pivotal trip to America, a place he would revisit frequently, and often for extended periods of time, until 1946. These sojourns proved highly influential in the development of Hélion’s own unique brand of abstraction. While New York introduced Hélion to a vast circle of prominent artists – among them Alexander Calder and Arshile Gorky – it is perhaps Hélion’s studio at Rockbridge Baths, Virginia that allowed Hélion’s work to develop its distinctive aesthetic. He recalled, “… I left New York and took refuge in the mountains of Virginia, where I had already built a workshop out of Californian redwood. I wanted to be able to think, far from all influences. I wanted to let my abstract art develop towards its end.”
JEAN HÉLION WITH ÉQUILIBRE IN HIS STUDIO AT ROCKBRIDGE BATHS, VIRGINIA, 1937.
Virginia provided Hélion the freedom to experiment and to push abstraction outside the boundary of the established aesthetic in Europe and New York. As early as 1933, when Hélion first began to work in the Virginia studio, he felt his work drifting away from the pure abstraction of his peers. He recalled, “My body must have itched, making me discover between the fundamental lines an element, an ‘organism,’ a ‘being,’ circulating, swinging, complex, a cell. I immediately found my way back to forms. I had to transform the lines into reacting elements.” By 1938, the studio at Rockbridge Baths had become the setting for Hélion’s decisive break with abstraction in favor of figuration.
JEAN HÉLION, ÉQUILIBRE. ESTIMATE $1,000,000–1,500,000.
Équilibre, painted in 1936, is a prime product of the Rockbridge studio and typifies the experimental years leading up to the artist’s abandonment of abstraction. The composition’s vibrant layering of forms borders on figuration, yet the overlapping curves, bars and lines ultimately represent nothing. At this pivotal point in his career, Hélion remembers realising that “the lines curved bit by bit, and as soon as they started to curve they took on figurative capabilities, they conjured up things that existed elsewhere.” This road to figuration is understated yet nevertheless present in the sensuous abstraction of Équilibre.