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    Sale 2173

    Latin American Sale

    28 - 29 May 2009, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 31

    Wifredo Lam (Cuban 1902-1982)

    Non combustible

    Price Realised  


    Wifredo Lam (Cuban 1902-1982)
    Non combustible
    oil on canvas
    35½ x 43 in. (90.2 x 109.2 cm.)
    Painted in 1950.

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    "My return to Cuba meant, above all, a great stimulation of my imagination, as well as the exteriorization of my world," Lam later recounted of his homecoming in 1941. "I responded always to the presence of factors which emanated from our history and our geography, tropical flowers, and black culture."[1] Lam led a peripatetic existence in the years following his celebrated return to Cuba, dividing his time between New York, Havana and Paris until settling permanently in Europe in the early 1950s. His work gained a more international audience during this important period, reflecting both the cosmopolitan horizons of his mature painting and his nomadic lifestyle, which brought him into contact with the New York School, the CoBrA group, and the Afro-Cubanist movement. "Fifty-percent Cartesian and fifty-percent savage" by his own admission, Lam created a body of work that powerfully assimilated the African cultural diaspora into a visual language drawn from Europe. "In this way his artistic vocabulary began to parallel the synthesis and syncretization of African, European, and Amerindian cultures that occurred through out the Americas," the noted Lam scholar Lowery Stokes Sims has observed, and the paintings of this period viscerally embody the hybrid cultural reality of the New World.[2]

    Lam's return to Cuba coincided with an upsurge of interest in Caribbean culture, spanning the Négritude movement of his friend Aimé Césaire and the pioneering ethnographic and anthropological studies of Lydia Cabrera and Fernando Ortíz. Within that atmosphere, a primary source of inspiration for his new imagery was the symbolism of the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion Santería, which he had studied as a child with his godmother. Figurative elements in Lam's paintings-- for instance, the horned head of Non combustible--may be traced to attributes of deities within the totemic universe of Santería, but the iconography became increasingly fluid and less systematized by 1950. Lam invoked this ritual imagery in an expansive sense, intimating a cosmic vision that, while conditioned by the rich African presence of his native Cuba, conveyed universally shared values and metaphysical phenomena.

    Enriched by his study of Afro-Caribbean iconography and growing personal collection of African and Oceanic art, Lam nevertheless asserted the primacy of aesthetic values over cultural politics, marrying a sophisticated visual language with evocative themes in his mature works. "Lam continued to use the post-Cubist fragmentation of forms and shallow space typical of his Parisian compositions," Valerie Fletcher has remarked of Lam's newly emerging style of the late 1940s. "But he now also experimented with the Surrealist methodology of metamorphosing his subjects into quasihuman, quasibestial creatures. These efforts yielded brutally powerful results that passed far beyond Cubist formalism."[3] Lam's palette shifted to darker olives and browns, colors that he explained were deeper and more profound, and as his palette grew more limited his forms became flatter and more hieratic. The dim, sumptuous quality of Lam's surfaces during this period is distinctive: charcoal lines sketched both on the canvas and on top of the painted surface, as in the present work, give his painting a subtly textured, velvety quality. The pensive nature of this work is, furthermore, characteristic of the artists increasing interest in the evocation of metaphysical space. The furtive shadowy presences of Non combustible suggest what Sims has termed "dimensional simultaneity", or the concurrency of multiple states of being and existence. "The forms span the composition on the horizontal as if in transit between two worlds," Sims has noted. "The elements in these depictions diamond or triangular entities, fins, wings, cane stalks and thorny spines, shadowy netherworld presences belong to a repertoire of images that in the 1950s came to encompass Lam's working vocabulary."[4]

    Abby McEwen.

    [1] Wifredo Lam, quoted in L. S. Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002, 35.
    [2] Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 34.
    [3] V. Fletcher, Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers, Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1992, 175.
    [4] Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 115.


    Acquired from the artist (Paris, 1961).
    By descent to the present owner.

    Saleroom Notice

    Please note the correct medium for this work is oil on canvas.

    Eskil Lam has kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work.

    Pre-Lot Text



    J. Charpier, Lam, Paris, Éditions Georges Fall, Musée de Poche, 1960, p. 25 (illustrated in color).
    Exhibition catalogue, Wifredo Lam, Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Art Gallery, 1961, p. 24 (illustrated).
    M. Leiris, Lam, Milan, Fratelli Fabbri, 1970, no. 104 (illustrated in color).
    "Le Surréalisme," XX siècle, special issue, Paris, 1975 (illustrated).
    M.P. Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, 1st ed., Barcelona/Paris, Poligrafa/Cercle d'Art, 1976, p. 98, no. 103 (illustrated in color).
    Exhibition catalogue, Dada and Surrealistm in Chicago Collections, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984, p. 162 (illustrated).
    M.P. Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, 2nd ed., Barcelona/Paris, Poligrafa/Cercle d'Art, 1989, p. 102, no. 103 (illustrated in color).
    Exhibition catalogue, The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States, 1920-1970, New York, The Bronx Museum of Arts, 1989, p. 168, no. 113 (illustrated in color).
    L. Laurin-Lam and E. Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I 1923-1960, Acatos, Lausanne, 1996, p. 148 (illustrated in color) and p. 434, no. 50.50 (illustrated).


    Havana, Parque Central, Lam: Obras Recientes, October 1950.
    London, Institute of Contemporary Art, Wifredo Lam, 1952.
    Paris, Galerie Maeght, Lam: Peintures Récentes, 1955.
    Malmö, Sweden, Galerie Colibri, Wifredo Lam, September 1955.
    Paris, Galerie du Dragon, Peintures et oeuvres graphiques, June 1955.
    Kassel, Germany, Museum Fridericianum, Documenta II, Paintings, 1959.
    Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, The United States Collects Pan American Art, January 1959.
    Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Art Gallery, Wifredo Lam, January 1961.
    Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Dada and Surrealism in Chicago Collections, December 1984- January 1985.
    New York, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States, 1920-1970, September 1988- January 1989, no. 113. This exhibition later traveled to El Paso, El Paso Museum of Art, February- April 1989; San Diego, San Diego Museum of Art, May- July 1989; San Juan, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, August- October 1989; and Vero Beach, Center for the Arts, January- March 1990.