F or collectors of modern and contemporary art, this December holds the promise of more than just seasonal festivities. Rounding out a successful and spectacular year, Modern and Contemporary Auction – slated for 13 December – brings a bespoke line-up of highly anticipated works by sought-after modern masters and contemporary luminaries. In advance of the sale, we've spotlighted some artists who have blazed new trails in times past and present, with oeuvres that are deserving of the recognition.
Liu Ye, Composition With Moonlight, 2005
“Everything I paint is someone or something I love. A lot of my sources come from the movies…Or my source might be another artwork, like Miffy or Mondrian’s work. Very few are from reality. Reality isn’t very interesting. I’m afraid of reality.”
His words ring true in Composition With Moonlight, an artwork starring two antithetical protagonists: a blue-and-yellow Mondrian painting, and a little girl gazing at it, her back turned to the observer. Ranking among Liu Ye's most enduring motifs, works by Mondrian have featured in the artist’s compositions since the early 1990s, yet this depiction’s delicate size and blue hue imparts a silent and mystical power. Here, Mondrian’s Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow (1930) hangs on the otherwise bare, blue wall, transcending beyond the confines of its canvas into the surrounding composition and beyond. Expertly synthesising Eastern and Western influences, Composition With Moonlight is at once a playful provocation of the fairytale sensibilities of Liu Ye’s childhood, and a strict emulation of the compositional rigor of Mondrian. This dreamlike and mysterious combination prompts the question: is the child on the canvas a reflection of Liu himself?
Yoshitomo Nara, Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!, 2011
As a young artist in the 1980s, Yoshitomo Nara found resonance with the anti-establishment ethos of punk music, with lyrics from bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols echoing throughout his artwork. Late at night, usually when he was working alone in his studio with punk rock blaring from the speakers, his imagination would take on a life of its own, channeling his past ghosts and present emotions into his wide-eyed, Kawaii-style characters. In this particular diptych, the starring protagonists are two of Nara’s “Ramonas”, recurring characters inspired by the New York punk band, Ramones, who were often described as Bizarro World Beatles with a devil-may-care attitude. In this depiction, the Ramonas appear to be performing on stage with all their might and main, one arm raised in defiance, the other wrangling the microphone, tipping their proverbial hat to the Ramones song Blitzkrieg Bop. Of particular note is the canvas itself: a found signboard that Nara likely happened upon. Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! is the only painted diptych of Nara’s to be rendered on found material, making this an incredibly special piece.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon), 1969
Mark Rothko's Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon) stars two rufescent rectangles emblazoned against a burnt orange background, which together, project the illusion of a lit surface. The incandescent abstraction, executed during the artist's final decade, serves as a meaningful culmination of his decades-long investigation into form, surface, composition and colour, during which he became renowned for his otherworldly colour field depictions of space and light. Remarkably, it is one of less than 100 works of acrylic on paper produced in the artist’s final years. Even more remarkably, it is among only 10 of its kind in the same period to be characterised by such bright, chromatic hues, and the only work to be offered at auction that makes reference to the colour ‘salmon’ in its title. It is also the artist’s first major work to be offered at auction in Asia. Rare indeed, in more ways than one.
Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (S), 2014
The Japanese pumpkin, or kabocha, is a leitmotif that appears consistently across Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's works, from flat canvases and abstract compositions to gallery-wide installations. Pumpkin (S) is a rare and highly coveted work by Kusama, having been created for the artist’s installation at Victoria Miro Gallery in 2014, a noteworthy year for Kusama whose work was on exhibit at three international museum exhibitions. This particular sculpture, defined by a gleaming polished bronze shell, is given dramatic detail by way of monochromatic polka dots inspired by the surface of the naturally occurring pumpkin. The depiction is a departure from Kusama's customary stylised ribbons of yellow and black multi-sized spots. It is also Kusama's maiden attempt at working with bronze on such a monumental scale. It took her a total of two years to bring the artwork to life.
Chu Teh-Chun, Lumière suave, 1991
French-Chinese artist Chu Teh-Chun's works are overarched by both 20th-century Western abstraction and traditional Chinese painting styles. This is none more evident than in Lumière suave, a composition that blurs the boundaries between colours and gives the observer carte blanche to interpret the image any way they like. In Lumière suave, the lyrical abstraction of rounded quadrangles moves along a yellow-blue spectrum, conjuring the impression of a boat out at sea, ensconced between cresting waves and thunderous skies (or anything else one might imagine). Chu's works hold a mirror to French painter Nicolas de Stäel, by whom he was inspired to embrace bold strokes of colour, to evoke Chinese calligraphy. A classic case in point is Sans titre (1978), where orderly dots and squiggles in brooding tones present a tapestry of veiled stories, with Chinese characters subtly masquerading as painterly flourishes.
Zao Wou-Ki, 21.11.71, 1971
A postwar master and one of the best-selling Chinese painters of his time, Zao Wou-Ki alchemised principles of modernism, calligraphy and traditional Chinese landscape painting into a style that became uniquely his own, steeped with contrasting tones, elaborate linework, and lyrical abstraction. In 21.11.71, piercing blues meet sand tones along the painting’s midline, indicating, perhaps, the coalescence of the sky and the earth. As is typical of traditional Chinese landscapes, the painting is likely a microcosm of a larger scene, one of many puzzle pieces that form a bigger, metaphorical picture. Zao’s oeuvre underwent a significant metamorphosis over the years, evolving from an early Oracle-bone style to a more exuberant style in the 1960s. By 1971, he had stopped naming his paintings altogether, instead titling them by their date of completion in a bid to keep them unencumbered from preconceptions. Another notable work of his, titled 06.10.70, is a masterpiece where broad brush strokes bring alive imaginary peaks and valleys. The overlap of brown and black tones could be emblematic of Zao’s Chinese heritage and Western abstractionism, writ large across his oeuvre.