Compositionally harmonized yet optically complex, Untitled is truly singular in Cheong Soo Pieng’s impressive and varied oeuvre. Hailing from the maestro’s highly experimental period, this 1972 mixed media piece stands as a compelling testament to his forays into abstraction and his appetite for what was contemporaneously avant-garde around the world. Untitled renders a strong composition so quintessential of Soo Pieng’s bold sense of experimentation, drawing inspiration from the schools of minimalism, cubism and op-art movements that were prevalent in the 1960s-70s. Yet, the present lot is far from derivative, as it also epitomizes the signature elements of the Nanyang artist and his dedication to an Eastern understanding of balance. Exceptionally rare, Untitled is one of the few known works by Soo Pieng of this nature.
Characterized by delicate geometric shapes and presented as a diptych, this work is an impressive example of how post-war abstract movements aimed to cultivate the eye and mind in the very experience of viewership. By carefully employing pieces of cut canvas against a black background, Soo Pieng arrives at a studious yet whimsical encounter.
Comprising of two canvases, the work shows two largely rectangular compositions hovering against a black background. Contained within each piece are smaller renditions of geometric forms such as squares, circular shapes and irregular rectangles, that come together to create a subtle tension between symmetry and asymmetry. While these elements are composed in a methodical and meticulous manner, Untitled embraces an organic sensibility that is representative of Soo Pieng’s rare multimedia works from the 1970s. With an incredible sensitivity to material, the artist here employs collage to create optical illusions and three-dimensionality to great effect. He punctiliously cuts out small squares of canvas in various sizes, and arranges them to create checkered patterns against the black negative space. These tiny pieces of canvas are painted in various tones ranging from ivory to light brown, creating a mosaic-like harmony that brings to mind the metal elements in some of the artist’s relief works. The tonal undulations developed in Soo Pieng’s precise placement lend depth and movement to the grid-like formulation. Certain areas appear to protrude into the viewer’s space, while others seemingly recede into the distance. These montages are outlined with a thin string that adds a textural relief and appears to contain the moving forms within.
Soo Pieng began delving into abstract art after his exhibitions in London at Redfern Gallery in 1961 and Frost & Reed Gallery in 1962, becoming part of a wave of cutting-edge artists around the world who sought to find a new visual language and identity in the aftermath of World War II and post-colonialism. While the West was rebuilding itself in the midst of a Cold War, the Southeast Asian region witnessed a transformation as newly independent nations grappled with the onslaught of industrialization and rapid urbanization. Abstraction became a means of liberating artists, allowing them to make sense of the chaos, emptiness and fullness of a fast-changing world—a chance to make changes in their own artistic traditions and develop wholly new visual identities. A pioneering figure in the Nanyang movement, Soo Pieng developed a truly inventive approach, vigorously experimenting and using abstraction as a way to express the endless possibilities now available. In contrast to his abstract works from the early 60s, which had a more painterly quality to them, Untitled is exemplary of Soo Pieng’s mature abstract style that was moving towards geometrical figures and patterns.
Entrancing and commanding by its visual presence, the soothing yet boldly whimsical symphony of circles and squares challenges the viewer to ruminate on the fundamentals of form and life itself. In an effort to make sense of life post-war and post colonialism, Soo Pieng plays with the core tenets of physicality and materiality. Not only does he break free from the confines of pure representation and renditions of verisimilitude, he also questions the process of painting itself. Deconstructing the ubiquitous standard of using a brush to apply paint to a single canvas, Soo Pieng explores the possibilities of the medium by using the canvas as more than merely a base, but also as a means to create texture, subject matter, patterns, and imbue the composition with a sense of space and depth. In a one of a kind approach to art, he unites the quintessentially Southeast Asian history of craftwork with the Western discourse of abstraction, formulating the principal doctrines of his opus. The result is a potent interplay of positive and negative space, an amalgamation of East and West that rejoices the all-encompassing sublimity of life.
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