Jean Hélion - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 18, 2017 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Louis Hélion Blair, Virginia
    Nicolas Hélion (acquired from the above in the 1990s)
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Literature

    Jean Hélion, Carnets IV, 1939, p. 189
    Jacqueline Hélion, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint de Jean Hélion, (, no. 1373

  • Catalogue Essay

    Jean Hélion began experimenting with abstraction in 1929, following the lead of artists such as Piet Mondrian and the De Stijl movement. Along with Théo van Doesburg, Hélion founded the relatively short-lived revue Art Concret, which later expanded and became known as Abstraction-Création, involving the collaboration of artists such as Jean Arp, Albert Gleizes, Auguste Herbin and Robert Delaunay. Collectively, this group moved away from the rigidity that dominated the abstract aesthetic, bending the rules by incorporating curved lines and volumetric forms into their compositions. As a tireless proponent of abstract art, Hélion traveled to London where he met Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in 1934. Between 1935 and 1939 he made extensive trips to the United States where he was credited with influencing the work of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionist artists through his painting and philosophical notions of art. However, it was not New York, but rather Rockbridge Baths, Virginia, that Hélion found most conducive to his art, away from the distractions and influences of his friends in New York or Paris. Painted in Rockbridge, Virginia, the present work was near completion when Hélion abruptly left America to return to France, due to the start of World War II in Europe. Variously described in the artist's own carnets recording his work on a near daily basis, as "finished" and "to be completed" in the later part of September 1939, this work and most of his belongings in his Virginia studio were left by Hélion in the care of his neighbor. His son, Louis, recovered the painting some years later and then sold it to his half-brother, Nicolas, in the 1990's.

    On the occasion of Hélion’s fourth New York exhibition in 1940, the critic Meyer Schapiro singled him out as “the outstanding abstract painter of the younger generation of American and European artists. Painters here follow his work as the most advanced and masterly of its kind” (Jean Hélion. Works 1935-1939 , exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2004, p. 190). The current Abstraction is a seminal example of Hélion’s mature style. Various geometric forms push and pull against one another, just barely modeled, existing in this discrete realm of his creation. The composition’s vibrant layering of forms borders on figuration, yet the overlapping curves, bars, and lines are ultimately non-representational. The rhythm of the forms both in their subtle color relationships and their contrasts of vertical and horizontal orientation is critical to the harmony of the composition. A dynamic energy is generated by the play of curved and straight edges, and there is an implication of gravity in the way that Hélion has weighted the arrangement towards the bottom of the canvas even as two errant elements float towards the top. Vaguely reminiscent of natural forms, one gets the sense of Hélion’s impending renunciation of abstraction in favor of a more representative style. Much like one of his icons and contemporaries, Fernand Léger, Hélion ultimately transitioned to a more realistic style, but his abstractions of the 1930s would continue to inform this later work. Abstraction is the culmination of a life’s study in painting and a pivotal work from one of the most interesting and developmentally rich periods of the artist’s storied career.



stamped with the artist's signature and inscribed "Hélion p. 189" on the reverse
oil on canvas
53 x 69 in. (134.6 x 175.3 cm.)
Painted in 1939.
Phillips is grateful for the assistance of Louis and Jacqueline Hélion in the cataloguing and research of this work.

$500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for $514,000

Contact Specialist
Kate Bryan
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New York
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2017