Simon Hantaï - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Folding comes from nothing. You simply have to place yourself in the position of someone who has not seen anything; to place yourself inside the canvas. You can fill the folded canvas without knowing where the edges are. You no longer know where it stops. You can even (...) paint with your eyes closed.”
    —Simon Hantaï

    Coming to auction for the first time, Tabula is an exquisite example of the artist’s iconic series of the same name. Executed on a vast scale, this 1976 work captures the rhythmic qualities and all-over harmonies that best characterises the series; its squares of dazzling yellow vibrating against the white ground, creating a gridded format which attempts to contain the bristling energy of the composition. A major figure in painterly abstraction, whose innovative technical and conceptual experiments redefined the terms of both minimal and abstract painting in the 1960s and 70s, Simon Hantaï was undoubtably a pioneer, and yet his painterly roots were deeply embedded in the legacies of the early 20th century avant-garde.


    Simon Hantaī in his studio. Image: © Édouard Boubat / DACS, London 2023, Artwork: © Archives Simon Hantaï / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023


    Born in Hungary in 1922, Hantaï studied at the School of Fine Art in Budapest before relocating to Paris in 1948. Staying in the city long after his visa was revoked, Hantaï would eventually acquire French citizenship, going on to represent his adopted country at La Biennale di Venezia in 1982, just months before he withdrew from public life.


    Finding his feet as an artist in a new city, it wasn’t long before Hantaï became familiar with the circle of Surrealist artists and writers gravitating around André Breton - who was so taken by the young artist that he even provided the essay for his first exhibition catalogue. Experimenting with a variety of different painterly techniques, Hantaï quickly moved beyond the early figurative canvases of his student days, although the sensitivity to colour and the early influence of Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse would form the basis of his first forays into abstraction. With the Surrealists, Hantaï was exposed to Breton’s desire to liberate the mind from the limitations of reason and restrictive expectations of bourgeois society, becoming especially interested in the concept of automatism, whereby the conscious mind was supressed during the process of artmaking in order to encourage the more intuitive workings of the unconscious to come to the fore.


    American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock was similarly taken with the compositional possibilities of automatism, letting paint drip and splatter in unplanned striations as he moved around canvas laid out on the floor. Pioneering the concept of action painting in this way, Pollock radically repositioned the artist in, rather than apart from the work, placing a new emphasis on process and the physicality of painting itself. Seeing Pollock’s work for the first time in 1955 proved decisive, forcing a break between Hantaï and Breton, who refused to acknowledge action painting as a mode of automatism, and allowing the artist to move beyond Surrealist principles and the dominant modes of European painting.


    Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock in action. Image: © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate, Courtesy Center for Creative Photography


    Focusing more closely on the physical nature of the canvas, Hantaï began working on the ground on a monumental scale. Going further than Pollock in his investigations into the materiality of the canvas and his understanding that it could be worked and manipulated by the artist before the application of paint, in 1960 the artist invented his pliage or ‘folding’ method – a major innovation that would profoundly shape the way he conceptualised painting and would go on to define the rest of his career over several distinct bodies of work. Folding  or knotting the canvas, applying paint, and then unfolding it to reveal distinctive, unplanned interactions of colour and negative space, Hantaï’s automatism pushed beyond notions of the unconscious mind of the artist, but tapped into the incipient energy and force of the canvas itself, especially when activated through colour.

     “With pliage, it is the problem of modernity [in] painting that is being addressed; for me, [the] two extremes of contemporary modern painting [are], on the one hand, the decentered space of Pollock, and on the other, Matisse’s paper cutouts, in which drawing is totally absorbed by colour […] I was thinking that I needed to see how Matisse’s colour could be introduced into the random space of Pollock and what would happen when it was.”
    —Simon Hantaï

    Starting with his Mariales series in 1960, Hantaï began to apply this technique, finding in it ways of approaching the major formal developments that preoccupied the early 20th century avant-garde including the sense of pictorial space and perception developed by Cubism, the structural harmonies of Paul Cezanne’s architectonic treatment of form, and the play of colour, pattern, and ground found in Matisse’s cutouts. Working on his Études series in the late 1960s, the relationship between his pliage experiments and Matisse’s collaged compositions was brought into high relief as the dialogue between form and ground began to come increasingly to the fore. Originally intended as a maquette for a ceramic mural, the bold colour contrasts, immersive scale, and more unusual regularity of its all-over patterning make Matisse’s 1953 Grande decoration aux masques especially relevant to a discussion of the present work, and to the pictorial tensions at play across the Tabula series more broadly, Hantaï quickly realising that ‘the relation and interaction between the gouache cutouts that Matisse began to produce in the 1940s and their white grounds […] ensured both the purity and the intensity of their colour.’i


    Henri Matisse, Grande decoration aux masques, 1953, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Alisa Mellon Bruce Fund, Artwork: © Succession H. Matisse / DACS 2023


    His most extensive and exhaustive body of work, the Tabulas occupied the artist for a decade between 1973 and 1982, these works now ranking amongst the defining examples of his oeuvre. A stunning and immersive example from this important series, the present work was executed in 1976, a moment of culmination and maturation in his practice and the same year as the first major retrospective of his work was mounted at the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou. His defining and most important series, the Tabula works have been exhibited extensively, awarded special attention in the recent blockbuster Simon Hantaï. The Centenary Exhibition mounted by the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2022. Showing a group of large, yellow Tabulas together, the exhibition foregrounded the immersive effect of the artist’s innovative technique, and the spiritual resonances achieved by his yellow works in particular.   


    Rendered in a regulated lattice format that recalls the colour grids of Gerhard Richter as much as it looks back to the stunning decorative details of Bonnard’s paintings of his partner Marthe bathing, the bright yellow seems to pulse against the white ground beneath, gently activating the entire composition. Indeed, it is this contrast between paint and ground which gives the yellow its depth and intensity. Deeply rhythmic, the present work speaks powerfully to Hantaï’s careful observation of colour and its effects, and of his abiding interest in the material reality of the canvas and the physical act of painting itself.


    Simon Hantaï. The Centenary Exhibition, Fondation Lous Vuitton, Paris, 2022


    Collector’s Digest

    • One of the most significant artists working in the second half of the 20th century, Simon Hantaï continued a tradition of avant-garde experiment, radically redefining the terms of abstraction and minimalism through his radically innovative Pliage technique.

    • Following his first major retrospective at the Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou in 1976 - the same year as the current work’s execution – the artist has been honoured with several solo exhibitions at prestigious institutions worldwide, including The Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts, the Ludwig Museum, Budapest and two major retrospectives in Paris, one at the Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou in 2013 and more recently, the 2022 centenary exhibition hosted by the Fondation Louis Vuitton.



    i Anne Baldessari, ‘Simon Hantaï: Les Blancs de la Couleur, La Couleur du Blanc’, Gagosian Quarterly, Spring 2022, online.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris
      Private Collection, Europe
      Guttklein Fine Art, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Jean Fournier, Tabulas, Suite Récente, 14 October - 15 November 1980
      CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain de Bordeaux, Simon Hantaï, 1960-1976, 15 May - 29 August 1981, p. 25
      Paris, Guttklein Fine Art, De la Peinture [1960-1980], 17 November 2016 – 3 February 2017, no. 7, n.p. (illustrated)
      Paris, Guttklein Fine Art, Neutre(s), 6 September – 6 October 2018



acrylic on canvas
262.5 x 461 cm (103 3/8 x 181 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1976.

This work will be included in the catalogue raisonné of works by Simon Hantaï currently being prepared by the Archives Simon Hantaï.

Full Cataloguing

£450,000 - 650,000 ‡♠

Sold for £508,000

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023