Georges Mathieu - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, November 30, 2021 | Phillips
  • “My painting is the painting of energy, of fever, excitement of life.” 
    — Georges Mathieu


    Executed in 1980, Georges Mathieu’s Saxifrage grips viewers with a commanding immediacy, emanating the entrancing energy and lyrical expressivity that define the artist’s iconic and pioneering oeuvre. Refined over decades, Mathieu’s preference for smaller, more domestic-sized canvases at this point in his career draws attention to the focused, powerfully charged yet enthrallingly graceful compositions, which upon close viewing reveal depths of densely layered pigment. Here Mathieu employs his signature hues of bright crimson and chalk-white on a charcoal ground, with striking accents of canary yellow and turquoise. The artist’s gestural applications of paint, which often involved him dripping pigment straight from the tube, exude speed, fluidity, tension, and poise, leading the eye to involuntarily plumb the complex strata of criss-crossing paint projections. At the edges of the central form, supple arcs are executed with a masterful flourish, lifting the rigorous configuration into flight: the wholly abstract and non-signifying composition has become – through gesture, energy, and pigment alone – a sign of its own making. 



    The artist in front of the present work, Saxifrage, at the Théâtre Municipal, Brive, France, 1984, on the occasion of the exhibition Quelques aspects récents de l'Oeuvre peint de Georges Mathieu. 1976-1984


    Pioneer of Lyrical Abstraction


    A self-taught artist, Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) led an extraordinary life and career as one of the foremost founding fathers of post-war European lyrical abstraction. Beginning with figuration, Mathieu swiftly turned to abstraction in the 1940s against the backdrop of war-torn Europe. In 1945, two years before Jackson Pollock created his first drip painting, Mathieu experimented with dripping paint directly from tube to canvas, and by the early 1950s had refined and matured his technique. Seeking more intuitive and organic forms than the prevailing fashion of geometric abstraction, Mathieu published manifestos to define his conception of a lyrical abstraction, postulating four conditions: the primary of speed of execution, to avoid interference of the artist’s consciousness; no pre-existing shapes, as the painter must not rely on any references or signs; no pre-meditated moves, as painting must not be a cognitive process; and an ecstatic state of mind, which requires an almost trance-like state of concentration.




    Georges Mathieu painting in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 10 October 1954
    © Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2021



    Mathieu’s aesthetic is characterised by intuitive gestures charged with dynamic tension and calligraphic grace, always executed with speed and an intensely focused energy akin to a trance-like state. In parallel to – and hand-in-hand with – his four tenets of artistic creation, Mathieu introduced a performative dimension to his practice, creating paintings during highly publicised performances that fused art, dance, and performance. Under the gaze of large audiences, Mathieu started and completed monumental canvases rapidly, moving and painting as if under a trance, such that, in Bernard Marcadé’s words, ‘a genuine confrontation occurs between himself and his canvas, where rituals of martial art, dance and trance all come together’ i.The resulting works are not mere traces of his performances but the end product – the newly created sign, which according to Mathieu preceded meaning.  




    Georges Mathieu, Painting, 1952
    Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
    © Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2021


    Global Acclaim in Post-war Era


    “Georges Mathieu, the transatlantic painter I admire most.” 
    — Clement Greenberg, 1959


    Mathieu’s practice received instant recognition locally and abroad. He held his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1950 at the Galerie René Drouin and made his New York debut at the Stable Gallery in 1952; in 1953, his works were acquired into the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. In Japan, the Gutai Manifesto of 1956 singled out Mathieu and Pollock as key inspirations for the Gutai group’s artistic creation, and in 1957 Mathieu was invited by Jiro Yoshihara to Japan, where he famously created 21 paintings in the space of three days, including 8-metre and 15-metre canvases. In the same year, Mathieu traversed the world, painting live for audiences in Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United States.



    Notably, Mathieu’s performances pre-dated Allan Kaprow’s Happenings of the 1960s and Yves Klein’s Anthropometry series, just as his painterly methods developed prior to Pollock’s drip technique. So ground-breaking was Mathieu’s practice that Clement Greenberg, one of the most influential American art critics of the post-war period, declared his stamp of approval regarding the work of the French artist. In 1959, after seeing Mathieu’s paintings at the Kootz Gallery in New York, Greenberg proclaimed Mathieu to be ‘the strongest of all new European painters’ii and ‘the transatlantic painter [he] admire[d] most’iii.The American critic’s praise is particularly noteworthy when bearing in mind the transatlantic rivalry felt from artists who were spearheading Abstract Expressionism in the United States.  



    Saxifrage: Genesis of the Final Years


    Following experiments in the 1960s and 1970s involving geometric variations and the applied arts, Mathieu returned in the 1980s to the untethered lyricism of his 1950s period with a newfound freedom and virtuosity. In reintroducing the techniques he had previously put aside, Mathieu’s works from the 1980s, which follow the artist’s major 1978 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, display the confidence and poise of a maestro at the peak of his powers. Working on a smaller scale, Mathieu retains or even amplifies the urgent ferocity of each application of pigment, while channelling heightened precision and focus and a noticeably more grounded energy.




    Installation views of Georges Mathieu’s 1978 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris
    © Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2021



    Whereas towards the mid-to-late 1980s Mathieu moved towards an all-over aesthetic, eschewing the central form, the present Saxifrage was created in 1980, at the genesis of Mathieu’s final decade of artistic production on canvas, and still retains a central composition. The compact painting constitutes a sublime echo of the monumental canvases earlier in Mathieu’s career: the charcoal ground gives the impression of cavernous depths, while the concise red-on-white-on-black palette employed in the rigorous central matrix simulates the intoxicating and incandescent combustion of potent intrinsic energy.




    Detail of the present work



    Each flowering of gestural pigment constitutes an exquisite explosion of paint and colour, orchestrated within a sublime balance between centripetal and centrifugal forces within the painting. Radiating pure energy and creation, Saxifrage embodies the great French painter’s ambition to create ‘an abstraction not enclosed by rules, dogmas or canons of beauty – an open abstraction that is free’.iv



    Collector’s Digest


    Critical and market reception towards Mathieu’s oeuvre is undergoing a steady revival in recent years. In 2019, Nahmad Contemporary mounted the first US exhibition in almost three decades of Mathieu’s work in New York, including four monumental paintings created for his 1978 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Later that year, Perrotin announced exclusive representation of the Mathieu estate together with Nahmad Contemporary, and the galleries showed previously unseen works by the artist at Art Basel 2019. This was followed by a solo booth at Frieze Masters in London in October 2019 and a major exhibition organised by both galleries at Perrotin Hong Kong in November 2019.


    Also in 2019, on the occasion of Artistic License. Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection organised by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Richard Prince included two major Mathieu paintings in his selection, accompanied by a statement reminding the world of the transnational nature of the post-war abstraction movement. Apart from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mathieu’s works are also held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, amongst many others.




     CoBo Social In Conversation With Édouard Lombard, Director of Comité Georges Mathieu, 25 June 2021



    Most recently, the K11 Art Foundation and the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong & Macau co-presented Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu at the K11 Musea in 2021. The exhibition coincided with robust Asian interest in the artist, evidenced by recent auction results. In September 2021, artnet published an article focusing on Perrotin and Nahmad Contemporary’s ongoing Mathieu shows in New York and in the resurging market interest in the artist.




    Bernard Marcadé, ‘Pretentious? Moi?’, Tate Etc., issue 18, January 2010

    ii Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, 1961  

    iii Clement Greenberg, quoted in Georges Mathieu, Le massacre de la sensibilité, Paris, 1966

    iv Georges Mathieu, quoted in Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du tachisme, Paris, 1963

    • Provenance

      Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist in 1991)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Brive, Théâtre Municipal, Quelques aspects récents de l'oeuvre peint de Georges Mathieu 1976-1984, 27 June - 16 September 1984
      Avignon, Palais des Papes, Mathieu, Retrospective et Oeuvres récentes, 7 August – 25 October 1985
      Hong Kong, K11 MUSEA, Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu, 19 May - 4 July 2021, p. 37 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Georges Mathieu, Mathieu: 50 ans de création, Paris, 2003, pp. 412-413 (illustrated)



signed 'Mathieu' lower right; further titled '"SAXIFRAGE II"' on the stretcher
oil on canvas
97.5 x 195 cm. (38 3/8 x 76 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1980, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity GM80058 issued by the Comité Georges Mathieu.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for HK$2,520,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021