I n the early 20th century, the art historical canon saw abstraction take a firm root; in the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, in the spiritually guided canvases of Hilma af Klint and Kandinsky, and in the pure geometric forms of Malevich, just to name a few. In the decades following, it has branched into a myriad of forms and schools of thought, and remains a vital current in contemporary painting. Here we highlight seven works by artists who have pioneered new approaches in abstract painting since 1950, all of which will be offered in Sotheby’s Contemporary auctions in Hong Kong this autumn. From the exuberant Abstract Expressionism of Lynne Drexler and the hypnotic Op Art of Bridget Riley, to the multimedia compositions of Sterling Ruby and Mark Bradford, each of these artists have introduced new approaches, ideas and techniques to the narrative of Abstract Art.
Lynne Drexler, The Concert, 1959
Once overlooked by the art establishment, Lynne Drexler is now part of a generation of female artists who are revered within the artistic canon. The Concert is a vivacious painting produced in the late 1950s when the artist was coming of age as a member of the legendary New York School group of post-war Abstract Expressionists. It was at this time that Drexler developed a characteristic style marked by exuberant brushstrokes and a vibrant colour palette. Music was integral to Drexler’s practice – she would religiously attend the opera, bringing with her coloured pencils and a sketchbook to draw in her seat during the performance. The Concert is a rare early work of museum-quality, embodying her desire to fuse rhythm and tonality in music with colour and composition in painting.
Bridget Riley, Delos, 1983
An icon of British art, Bridget Riley’s legendary geometric paintings play with optical phenomena to interrogate the experience of seeing itself. Delos belongs to Riley’s cycle of Egyptian Palette paintings produced following her studies at the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings during the winter of 1979 to 1980. In this magnificent painting, the intensely vibrant and bold chromatic palette she discovered in Egypt engulfs our field of vision.
“Colours are organised on the canvas so that the eye can travel over the surface in a way parallel to the way it moves over nature. It should feel caressed and soothed, experience frictions and ruptures, glide and drift. Vision can be arrested, tripped up or pulled back in order to float free again.”
Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004), 2004
Radiating with a hypnotic energy, Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Yellow Butterfly Orange Mark Grotjahn 2004) is a mesmerising example from the American artist’s renowned Butterfly series. The name of the series is derived from the way in which rays of colour emerge from a central vanishing point, extending out across the canvas like a butterfly’s wings. The sublime gradations of yellow are punctuated by a provocative orange signature at the edge of the canvas, boldly disrupting the magnetic force of the pictorial space.
Christopher Wool, Not, Not, 2004
Wool has created a body of work which has pushed the limits of abstract painting, and Not, Not is an exemplary example from the artist’s Grey Paintings series. Its origins, however, lie in a happy accident. In 2000, frustrated with a piece he was working on, Wool took up a turpentine-soaked rag to blot out part of the canvas. Instead of complete erasure of the enamel paint, he was left with a smeared grey wash – an effect he embraced for its strange and compelling beauty. This became the blueprint for the Grey Paintings, a simultaneous act of creation and destruction that leaves its enigmatic trace across the landscape of the canvas.
Mark Bradford, Exodus, 2006
Although Bradford refers to these works as paintings, there is relatively little paint involved in these large-scale multimedia compositions. Bradford works with found paper rescued from the streets of South Central Los Angeles. This could be fragments of billboards, street flyers and posters pulled from telegraph poles, or even the end papers used in hair styling at the salon where he once worked. His dialogue with the material of his community (both literally and metaphorically) and his engagement with the history of painting are, for Bradford, both forms of abstraction.
“I may pull the raw material from a very specific place, culturally from a particular place, but then I abstract it.”
“I’m only really interested in abstraction; but social abstraction, not just the 1950s abstraction. The painting practice will always be a painting practice but we’re living in a post-studio world, and this has to do with the relationship with things that are going on outside,” he says.
Jean-Paul Riopelle, Untitled, 1964
The Canadian painter and sculptor Jean-Paul Riopelle developed a signature style of applying paint directly to the canvas by smearing it with a palette knife. Applied with improvised, spontaneous gestures, a swiftness of expression was fundamental to Riopelle’s approach:
"When I hesitate, I do not paint; when I paint, I do not hesitate.”
Each layer of Riopelle’s exuberant and dense impasto celebrates the visceral quality of paint. Untitled is an intricate and mesmerising example of Riopelle’s dynamic artistic language, placing an emphasis on the unconscious as a driving force behind abstract painting.
Sterling Ruby, Eluding Helios (7105), 2019
The work of Los Angeles-based artist Sterling Ruby is difficult to pin down; he is famed for the diversity of mediums in which he works, from painting, collage and sculpture to ceramics and video. Another considerable aspect of his output has been clothing and textile production, and in Eluding Helios (7105) we find scraps of Ruby’s trademark treated fabric collaged with acrylic and oil paint. In the bright, molten hot yellows and oranges the surface of the canvas becomes a photosphere, with the opaque fabric cuttings appearing like sunspots across its surface.