The Masters of Abstraction

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The exploration of abstraction has been the defining artistic achievement of the Modern and Contemporary periods. The expressive possibilities, seeming endless, have captured the imagination of scores of artists, many of whom seek vastly different ends, if through a shared visual language. Indeed the 20th century saw fascinating innovation at the hands of masters like Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and countless others. The Contemporary Art Evening Auction represents an extraordinary range of artists and practices that elucidate the many forms of abstract painting.

The Masters of Abstraction

  • Joan Mitchell, L’Arbre de Phyllis, 1991. Estimate $3,000,000–5,000,000.
    Serving as triumphant conclusion to a long and exceptional artistic evolution, the striking visual dynamism of L’Arbre de Phyllis reveals the artist’s affinity for the American action painters, among whom she lived and worked in the initial decade of her mature career. As one of the few women to garner significant critical acclaim within the predominantly male Eighth Street Club, Mitchell is remembered by art history as the leading female voice of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
  • Helen Frankenthaler, Newfoundland, 1975. Estimate $1,500,000–2,000,000.
    Frankenthaler’s signature form of abstraction was achieved by diluting her paint and allowing it to completely soak into the fibers of the raw, unprimed canvas. The thinned paint literally fused with its fibrous support, drawing attention to the canvas as an integral part of the art itself, and representing an abrupt departure from the materiality of paint central to the work of the Abstract Expressionists. The effect she is able to achieve is color that is rich yet luminous, voluminous yet light.
  • Julie Mehretu, Arcade, 2005. Estimate $2,500,000–3,500,000.
    Achieving an immediate and emphatic graphic impact, Julie Mehretu’s Arcade from 2005 confronts the viewer with a dizzying abstract matrix that conjures infinity in its depth, intricacy, and multi-dimensionality. A superb example of Mehretu’s signature mode and executed upon a dramatic scale, the present work achieves a layering and compression of form, line, and hue that defies preconceived limitations of two-dimensional painting.
  • Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960. Estimate $35,000,000–50,000,000.
    A veritable treatise upon the absolute limits of painterly abstraction, the luminous canvas of Untitled, 1960 transmits an aura of the ethereal that is enthrallingly immersive, engulfing the viewer entirely within its utterly captivating compositional dynamism and chromatic intensity. The three clearly distinct—yet inextricably intertwined—zones of radiant color imbue the canvas with a tangible magnetic charge that draws the viewer ever, irresistibly inward.
  • Gerhard Richter, Kerzenschein (Candlelight), 1984. Estimate $7,000,000–9,000,000.
    Unlike the wild abandon of his Neo-expressionist contemporaries, Richter approached his abstract paintings with painstaking care, obsessively seeking the conceptual boundary between purpose and chance in painting. The artist achieved this balance of provocative visual chaos and carefully controlled execution by applying paint in careful layers, only to scrape, smudge, and pull the pigment back, transforming the visual field and radically destabilizing any sense of depth.
  • Adolph Gottlieb, Swing, 1970. Estimate $1,000,000–1,500,000.
    As much a Color Field painter as an Abstract Expressionist, Gottlieb explained his use of color thus: "I want to express the utmost intensity of the color, bring out the quality, make it expressive…so that it exists as sensation and a feeling that it will carry nuances not necessarily inherent in the color, which are brought out by juxtaposition."
  • Willem de Kooning, Untitled X, 1975. Estimate $8,000,000–12,000,000.
    Nowhere is de Kooning’s grand ability as a master of color and gesture more poetically asserted than in the virtuosic and richly saturated Untitled X. The present work emphatically reinforces one of the most vital characteristics of de Kooning’s prodigious and celebrated oeuvre: his continual, unrelenting insistence upon exploration, freedom, and growth.
  • Cecily Brown, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, 2000-2001. Estimate $3,000,000–4,000,000.
    Playfully challenging traditionally perceived boundaries of abstraction and figuration, Confessions of a Window Cleaner illuminates the extraordinary potential of paint to unpack the admixture of sensorial faculties that makes up our human experience of seeing.
  • Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circle, 1960. Estimate $10,000,000–15,000,000.
    Painted in 1960, the present work is the crowning embodiment of Krasner’s Umber paintings, the highly lauded series of twenty-four works that, in recent years, have risen to acclaim as the creative pinnacle of her celebrated oeuvre. Created in the years following the sudden and tragic death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, the Umbers are defined by a gestural intensity and ambition of scale unprecedented in Krasner’s earlier output; serving both as testament to and catharsis of the intensive emotional turmoil which fueled her practice at this crucial nexus, these extraordinary paintings remain the most compelling and psychologically evocative compositions of Krasner’s career.
  • Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red on Red), 1969. Estimate $7,000,000–10,000,000.
    A paragon of Rothko’s expressive command of pigment, Untitled (Red on Red) demonstrates the artist’s profound ability to communicate spatial depth and volume through abstract form. Two rectangular panels—comprising layers of brick red and deep crimson—fill almost the entire composition and hover atop a backdrop of translucent washes of light red. Traces of scarlet pigment brim to the surface along the work’s perimeter. Viewers can feel the touch of Rothko’s brushstroke; they can sense the movement of his gesture across the modulated planes.
  • Philip Guston, Outdoors, 1964. Estimate $1,000,000–1,500,000.
    Capitalizing on the conflict between abstraction and figuration to forge new ground, Outdoors suggests through a frenzied patchwork of agitated brushstrokes the softly illuminated horizon of a darkened landscape while also possessing a weightiness and tangible corporality that foreshadow the artist’s later figurative paintings, the central black orb broadly insinuating the cartoonish cyclops heads that would become Guston’s recurring visual element. Drawing from his Color Field contemporaries, Guston paints with a visual density and prophetic, atmospheric quality that recall the work of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
  • Hans Hofmann, Te Deum, 1964. Estimate $4,000,000–6,000,000.
    Echoing the hymn from which it takes its name, Te Deum performs a symphony of various tempos through its endless explorations of surface treatment. In his teaching, Hofmann described color in terms of “the tone scales in music,” which “can be played in Major or Minor;” each color scale, he explained, accords to “a rhythm entirely its own.”
  • Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue), 1969. Estimate $9,000,000–12,000,000.
    An illuminating vision executed in a captivating shimmer of chromatic dynamism and peerless painterly finesse, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) from 1969 is an indisputably dazzling embodiment of the artist’s legendary abstractions. Emerging from a flickering ground of azure blue, two fields varying in tonality – one a striking crimson and the other a rich burgundy – radiate a steady heat. Built up of innumerable delicate strokes and thin washes, these luminescent forms emphatically attest to the artist’s mastery of light, color, and form.
  • Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134, 1974. Estimate $9,000,000–12,000,000.
    The unequivocal pinnacle of Motherwell’s canonical oeuvre, the sophisticated and cogent graphic sensibility of his Elegies confirms art’s cathartic role in humanity’s confrontation with the harsh realities of the modern era, specifically the unimaginable injustices caused by war and its aftermath.
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