Global Abstractions: Property from a Distinguished Private Collection

May–November 2021 | New York | Paris | Hong Kong

E merging from World War II, abstract painting served as a means of reflection, of processing, and of global unity through a shared visual language. As many European artists had fled to the United States, there was a meeting of styles and conversations surrounding art that had not happened previously, and this allowed for deeper reflection as New York became a center of artistic activity—Abstract Expressionism became the first American art movement to achieve international influence. Soon, however, abstract art would begin to flourish worldwide, with movements such as Gutai, Art Brut, Tachisme, and CoBrA all contributing to an international artistic dialogue. Artists historically began to defy traditional modes of representation and artistic expression and instead began to forge new paths in abstract art.

Sotheby’s is honored to present Global Abstractions: Property from a Distinguished Private Collection, an incomparable group of paintings that embody a comprehensive narrative of global abstraction between 1950 and 1970 that are being offered in the Contemporary Art Day and Evening Auctions in May 2021. These prominent painters characterize the independence and innovation that was the ethos of their time, with an emphasis on dynamic and energetic gestural works. Immediacy of expression was paramount, and this was driven by a sense of starting over after the war. In the words of American artist Barnett Newman, “After the monstrosity of the war, what do we do? What is there to paint? We have to start all over again.” It is rare to come across a collection so singularly and intimately focused on one artistic movement. The passionate commitment witnessed in the selection of these works, with particular care taken to select one painting most representative of each lauded artist belonging to this movement, demonstrates the admirable intuition necessary to effectively compose a global narrative of abstraction.

LEFT: Joan Mitchell. Film still from Portrait of an Abstract Painter. Photographer unknown. RIGHT: Mark Rothko in his studio, 1961. Photographer unknown.

Post-war years were a fertile, if troubled, time for art. This contradiction fueled creation: “It is ironic but not contradictory that in a society…in which political repression weighed as heavily as it did in the United States, abstract expressionism was for many the expression of freedom: the freedom to creative controversial works of art, the freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists completely without fetters.” (Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, Chicago 1983, p. 201) In the United States, Abstract Expressionism was ineluctable. Paintings by leading artists such as Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt are highlights of this collection, and demonstrate an astute understanding of the movement's post-war narrative. Joan Mitchell’s Untitled is alive with gestural dynamism and is an exquisite example of her singular command of painterly expression. Belonging to her most celebrated period—the 1950s—ribbons of color swirl and dive rhythmically on the canvas. Energetic strokes against a creamy white canvas contrast visually with Mark Rothko’s Untitled from 1968. Similarly motivated by color, emotion, and the ability of the two to evoke meaning specific to the viewer, Rothko’s simple black rectangles seem to float on the plum-colored paper mounted on board. Though the finished paintings differ, it is the process that is at the core of modernist abstraction, in New York and across the globe.

Detail of Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968. Lot 245 in the Contemporary Art Day Auction.
Kazuo Shiraga in his studio, 1960. Amagasaki Cultural Center.

In Japan, artists were challenging expectations not only through their choice in materials, but also through their methods. Deeply tied to radical performance, Gutai was founded by Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, and art historian Yve-Alain Boise has said that the actions of the group “constitute one of the most important moments of post-war Japanese culture.” Similarly to concurrent abstract movements around the world, Gutai was rooted in pure creative freedom. Kazuo Shiraga’s creative process was intimately tied to performance; suspended in a harness above his canvas, he would paint with his bare feet, ultimately bestowing distinctive texture and impasto to his abstract swirls. Chosen for this collection, BB 76 epitomizes the power and physicality that defined Shiraga’s oeuvre, and is an impressive, dynamic example of his seminal series of paintings.

Canadian Abstract Expressionist painter Jean-Paul Riopelle emigrated to Paris in 1949, where he lived with Joan Mitchell on Rue Frémicourt, and the two engaged in valuable artistic dialogue. Riopelle’s oeuvre emphasizes materiality; in the late 1950s he began to create thick impasto on the canvas surface, resulting in impressive detail suffused with rich color. Belonging to this collection, Taillis boasts a kaleidoscopic whirl of deep reds, blues, and ochre with a distinctive black line throughout, a masterful example of Riopelle’s distinctive method. Also in France, Tachisme held color as all. The French word “tache” translates to “stain” or splash of paint, and artists approached abstraction through blending the geometric and the expressive. This is evidently demonstrated in Serge Poliakoff’s Vert et brun from 1957, an impressive example from his body of work which presents questions of spatiality, form, and color.

LEFT: Jean Dubuffet, 1960. Photo by Paolo Monti. RIGHT: Manolo Millares. Photographer unknown.

Artists were pioneering their own movements and approaches to painting, such as Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut in France and avant-garde group El Paso in Spain. Works in this collection include Dubuffet’s Tête Constellée and Manolo Millares’s Cuadro 83, which belong to those movements, respectively. Both were alternative responses in the scope of Abstract Expressionism, largely denying mainstream approaches to creation and medium with the aim to challenge traditional notions of fine art. Their rich intermixing of elements incorporated materials such as burlap, wood, sand, and gravel. Millares’s choice of medium indicates deep ties with personal and collective history as a native to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; the Guanche people of the Canary Islands had historically used burlap to mummify their dead. Reeling from the horrors of war, it is telling that Millares would deepen his resonance with a material associated with death; using these elements, the artist would explore the possibilities of painting beyond formal restrictions and contort the canvas—a visible reflection of an artist transformed by the devastation of war. Manipulating saturated color that is capable of conveying mood and poetic space, the artists belonging to this unparalleled collection pioneered an entirely new approach to painting that harnesses the emotive and expressive power of process, medium, and gesture.

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