I n the decades following World War II, the period of unprecedented expansion gave rise to a plurality of artistic forms and movements. As American Abstract Expressionism was emerging as a force, parallel strains of innovation were occurring in Asia and around the world – opening to experimental movements, new trends in abstract artistic exploration and materialist aesthetics. Amidst deep ambivalence and war traumas, artists responded to the dramatic social changes in kind, unleashing an irrepressible creative spirit that has left behind a sea of iconic works that have defined the last century. This season, Sotheby’s is honoured to present a refined selection of post-war avant-garde paintings from the East and West, showcasing an international line-up of works by post-war masters including Kim Whanki, Lee Ufan, Kazuo Shiraga, Sam Francis, Robert Motherwell and Joan Mitchell.
Arguably the most prominent figure amongst the first generation of Korean Abstract artists and the most senior artist of this selection of Post-War abstract painters, Kim Whanki shaped a distinctive style of his own by fusing Eastern sensitivity and Western modernism, as seen in the exquisite Flight (circa. 1950-1960). Seeking to develop his singular approach to abstract painting, Kim moved from his homeland of Korea to Japan, returning to Seoul in 1937, before relocating to Paris in 1956 and settling in New York in 1963, influencing the stylistic shifts in his work and leading to his large-scale monochromatic canvases typical of his work at the end of his prodigious career. Executed circa 1950-1960, around the outbreak of the Korean War, Flight is situated within a critical transition period during which the artist experimented with thick outlines and planes of vivid colour, before the artist diluted his pigments in his New York canvases. This work hovers in the divine liminal space between figuration and abstraction, depicting a pair of graceful cranes, a traditional symbol of longevity and loyalty, rendered in elegantly pared down biomorphic shapes. The landscape is executed in a flattened perspective that reveals the artist’s emergent abstraction tendencies, featuring his unique pattern of blue, red and green dots that line the top of the canvas, a striking predecessor to the artist’s later iconic dot paintings.
From Point No. 780125 (1978) by Japan-based, Korean-born artist Lee Ufan embodies the groundbreaking art form of Dansaekhwa, drawing upon the methods and ideas of abstraction and minimalism in the creation of a distinctly Korean aesthetic from the mid-1970s. One of the leaders of the avant-garde Mono-ha ('the school of objects') group and a vanguard member of Dansaekhwa, Lee Ufan followed in the footsteps of the great Kim Whanki, considered by many as the father of Korean Abstract art, but who died in 1974 just as Dansaekhwa was emerging. The art of Dansaekhwa is distinguished by repetitive minimalist gestures, monochromatic palettes and emphasis on materiality. This work also exemplifies the concept of Mono-ha, a movement originating in Japan that eschewed traditional representational artworks in favour of a revitalised exploration of materials and their properties. Executed in 1978, From Point No. 780125 is a mature work from the From Point series, one of his most well known bodies of work, alongside his From Line series of the same period, before his subsequent Winds series in the1980s.
Kazuo Shiraga (Gutai)
Pioneering artist Kazuo Shiraga created a distinct artistic language fusing Eastern and Western sensibilities, winning the significant endorsement of French art historian and critic Michel Tapié, who was best known for his 1952 book Un Art autre (Art of Another Kind) in which he coined the term 'art informel' and advocated a break with traditional ideas of composition and form and the creation of something entirely new. Hailing from Shiraga’s Gutai period, T53 (1961) is a magnificent example of the artist’s action-based paintings, which the artist created by fastening a rope to the ceiling and swinging himself across the canvas, using his feet and body to heave, kick and swirl thick slabs and layers of paint onto the surface. As a leading member of the Gutai artistic movement, which rejected a more traditional approach to art making in favour of performative expression, T53 is emblematic of Shiraga’s dynamic canvases that are imbued with a distinct kinetic energy. Executed in the significant year of 1961, a turning point in his career after which Shiraga received international critical attention, the work has a distinguished provenance, first acquired from the esteemed Galerie Stadler in Paris, which honoured the artist with his first solo exhibition outside of Japan in 1962, before falling into private hands.
Kazuo Shiraga (Post-Gutai)
Created almost 50 years after the artist first swung across a canvas kicking and swirling paint with his feet, Yougen (2003) is an outstanding work from the end of Shiraga’s career, an exuberant example of his late abstract action paintings executed in his post-Gutai years. Having trained as a Buddhist monk in the early 1970s, Shiraga’s later works express a heightened consciousness within his gestural strokes, and also reveal a revived interest in the method and aesthetics of Eastern calligraphy. Yougen is a mature painting from the artist’s oeuvre, executed in beastly lacerations of red, purple and blue, exhibiting one of the most charged and exhilarating palettes within the artist’s highly acclaimed foot-painting lexicon.
The works of post-war American artist Sam Francis vividly fuse Western and Eastern aesthetics, using the Japanese concept of ma (loosely translated as 'gap' or 'space') – the interplay between form and non-form. Francis was enamoured by Japanese culture, first travelling to Japan in 1957 before returning to Tokyo in the 1960s. His subsequent works, typified by Untitled (1958) and Untitled (1990), adopt a striking approach to negative space, drawing upon East Asian aesthetics that emphasise totality, considering negative space a crucial part of the overall image. Further, Francis’ drip-like brushwork evokes the Japanese style of hatsuboku (splashed ink), employed in traditional landscapes incorporating abstracted, simplified forms and loose brushwork. Francis’s works are striking in their synthesis of elements of Abstract Expressionism, particularly the drips of Jackson Pollock and vivid colour and compositions of the work of Clyfford Still, and Eastern philosophy, to create a singular artistic language.
The influence of Japanese Calligraphy and Buddhist philosophy are also apparent in the works of American Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, as exemplified by the work Red, Cut by Black, in which a tenacious black line cuts through the middle of the image, bleeding into the planes of red and recalling the lyrical forms of traditional calligraphy. Executed between 1966 and 1967, Red, Cut by Black is a striking example of the artist’s renowned abstract paintings, thunderous in scale and colour and enveloping the viewer in its ravishing red surface. This work was created at an important period during the artist’s career—an avid collector of Japanese Calligraphy, Motherwell had just completed a series of ‘automatic’ pictures in ink on Japanese rice paper and his famous Elegies to the Spanish Republic paintings that feature sweeping and bulbous black forms on white backgrounds, and in 1967 the artist commenced his significant Open series of monochromatic planes of colour, interrupted by rectangular lines. Like many of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, Motherwell had been deeply affected by the horrors of World War II, grappling with the effects of his experiences using the language of abstraction. The work was executed at a pivotal moment for Motherwell in 1966-1967, having been honoured with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the year before in September 1965, a major accomplishment for the artist that launched his career to new heights.
A key member of the second-generation American Abstract Expressionist painters, Joan Mitchell was a leading figure in the otherwise male-dominated world of the New York Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, successfully forging her own distinct path and developing a dazzling, unique visual language. In Untitled from 1967, chromatic colour becomes Mitchell’s subject, gesturally yet thoughtfully applied to the canvas to express the memory of the artist’s view of the river Seine, as seen from her estate in the small French town of Vétheuil. Mitchell’s purchase of the estate in Vétheuil in 1967 was a turning point in the artist’s career, leading to a stylistic shift as seen in Untitled, embracing brighter colours and different compositional viewpoints. Untitled is a fearless abstract work from Mitchell’s acclaimed oeuvre, indicative of a physical painter whose work appears both careless and careful. Impressive in size, this work is a museum-quality master work, with a similar painting from the same year, My Landscape II, part of the distinguished collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.