In Southeast Asia, one of the most important exemplars of innovative painters was Spanish-Filipino artist Fernando Zobel de Ayala. While his career spanned diverse approaches to abstraction, his early invention of a method that employed a surgical syringe instead of a brush truly distinguished him as an artist with a vision. Embodied in Zobel’s coveted Saeta series, this technique exemplified the artist’s belief in art’s ability to comment, capture and perform reality in the rawest of forms.
Fernando Zobel’s importance and legacy in the Philippines and the rest of the world continues till today – the recent 2017 Venice Biennale featured a Zobel retrospective titled Contrapuntos mounted by the Ayala Museum.
Exuding a deeply warm and fiery range of orange, the Saeta 47 proclaims the tenacity and brilliance of the artist’s practice. Painted in 1959, it is a thrilling masterpiece and reveals the sheer power of colour. Following a pivotal visit to a Rothko exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design, and inspired to “abandon the need to ‘represent’”, the ambitious Fernando Zobel embarked on the Saeta series. Over this brief, yet exciting period of the mid-late 1950s, Zobel explored abstraction with a renewed understanding of his work’s potential to articulate the purest of sensations. The result of these explorations - subtle colouring, intense movements, performed gestures and the mastery of a fresh approach - is shown impressively in Saeta 47.
Remarkably rare and immediately striking, the present work signifies a critical point in the development of Zobel’s practice. While many of Zobel’s Saetas were rendered in subdued hues with dark, almost black lines, this 1959 work is an exceptional find. Painted in a bright, brilliant orange, Saeta 47 showcases the artist’s daring interpretation of Rothko’s core artistic principals. Likewise, it displays the beauty of the artist’s syringe technique - thin lines of light and dark orange dance across the canvas with a captivating finesse.
The title of this series - Saeta - refers to a traditional solo a capella song in the Flamenco tradition in Catholic Spain. It is known for its mournful power and emotive intensity. Zobel interprets this notion of action and power in his work, imbuing pieces like Saeta 47 with a profound immediacy. Informed by Eastern philosophies and Western artistic approaches, Zobel traversed both the meditative and expressionistic veins of different schools of thought. Throughout his body of work, Zobel delivers an analytical and cerebral expression of movement, exemplified in the present lot.
In Saeta 47, the splendid rays of strong, burning orange, tempered by swatches of dark brown, insist on viewers to both encounter and meditate the presence of the work. Exquisitely intertwining between the undulating tones of the background are the lines squeezed ever so quickly by Zobel’s syringe.
Zobel’s replacement of the brush is noteworthy. Since a brush allows pigment to be stored within the brush hairs and to be applied with varied pressure, there is a certain level of control. However, in Zobel’s method, paint is squeezed through the thin hole of a syringe when pressure is applied at the plunger. As such, paint pushes through at various speeds, almost spontaneously. Zobel, as inventor of this technique, also mastered ways to control and maximize the results of the syringe. He would practice his compositions on paper, to rehearse the choreography of his hand movement and gestures, before executing the exact lines he desired on the canvas. This allowed Zobel to create extremely thin, swift lines in dynamic webs with the utmost accuracy.
Saeta 47 is an especially unique piece as Zobel used two variations of colour for his lines – a darker reddish orange, and a lighter yellow tint orange. These allow the viewer to appreciate the subtle notes in the temper or rhythm of the movement. Upon viewing this work, one may note how the different colours bring out the varying hues in the background or the surface of the white canvas revealed under thinly applied paint. The lines in Saeta 47 pierce the space sharply, akin to dance between two people as the light and dark lines overlap and intertwine, at once echoing and complimenting each other.
Bursting forth in a torrent of fiercely expressive movement, Zobel’s magnificent Saeta 47 invokes an aesthetic grandeur that is utterly irresistible. An iconic work painting from a seminal moment in the Zobel’s highly-celebrated career, Saeta 47 bespeaks Zobel’s nuanced dialogue between colour, line, form and movement. Resplendent in its glowing orange colour and captivating beauty, the present painting is a testament to Zobel’s distinct process and artistic prowess.
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