Saeta 23, Generalife

Saeta 23, Generalife
signed 'Zobel' (lower right); signed, dated, titled and inscribed ‘SAETA XXIII Generalife Julio 1957, Para Sergia y Billy Abueva, Zobel, Sept 1957’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
61 x 127 cm. (24 x 50 in.)
Painted in 1957
Gifted to Napoleón Abueva and his wife Sergia on the occasion of their wedding
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Asia

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

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Lot Essay

Spanish-Filipino artist Fernando Zobel de Ayala has captivated many with the flamboyant forms of his abstract lyricism, filled with gestural elegance. Zobel’s legacy is his work; admired both for his extensive process of experimentation and deep contemplation, he remains one of the most revered abstractionists of his generation. His works transcend geography and time, retaining its mysticism and allure, while continuing to inspire a universal audience even today, as evidenced by his most recent retrospective Contrapuntos, showcased in the 2017 Venice Biennale.

Saeta 23, Generalife is a remarkable piece from Zobel’s highly acclaimed Saeta series, which marked a monumental shift from figuration to abstraction in the artist’s prolific career. The word saeta itself comes from the Latin word sagitta, which means arrow, and also refers to a genre of Catholic Spanish song taken from traditional Flamenco, that was usually performed in a capella spontaneously during religious processions to express the feeling of ardent devotion and emotional intensity. In this same way, Zobel’s saeta series displays a precision alongside improvisation that produces a deeply moving and dramatic effect, which he himself described as “brief, acidic, and highly emotional”. Indeed, the present lot demonstrates the artist’s masterful ability to employ the most elemental of forms to create an invigorating and dynamic quality that pervades his body of work.

Looking at the influences behind Zobel’s Saeta series, it is often mentioned how in 1954, Zobel first encountered the abstract works of Mark Rothko at the Providence Museum during his study at the Rhode Island School of Design. There is no doubt that Rothko’s colour field paintings provided a catalyst for Zobel to approach abstraction with the artist himself stating “In theoretical sense I knew it was possible to paint abstractly, but Rothko’s demonstration convinced me completely…I felt obliged to paint but I had abandoned the need to ‘represent’.” However, at the same time, it would be remiss to not highlight the impact that the Oriental Arts and, specifically, Chinese Calligraphy had on the artist. Juan Manuel Bonet recounts how Zobel at the start of his Saeta series, had attended classes in Chinese painting techniques with a Shanghai master and how Zobel himself admitted that the “lines painstakingly traced with the rake” in the Japanese Zen gardens of Kyoto were a fountainhead for his iconic style.

Upon further observation of the gestural way in which the lines intersect with a rhythmic flow as indexes to the highly choreographed theatrical movements of the artist’s hand, which taken alongside the restrictively placed conservative washes of pinks and greens across the canvas, Saeta 23, Generalife demonstrates a complete assimilation of the philosophy of purity that underlines Chinese Calligraphy and Japanese sumi-e painting into Zobel’s own visual vernacular. Indeed the haze of subdued colours, juxtaposed against the well-defined ochre lattice of impasto brings to mind Hasegawa Tohaku’s Pine Trees screen in which the vertiginous trunks of Japanese pine trees drift in and out of obscurity using varying opacities of ink washes. However, it is far too simplistic to merely suggest that he adopted artistic techniques from the Far East into his work, rather, that he understood the underlying principles of weight, balance and harmony, reimagining them in a way that was entirely his own. The non-figurative yellow lines that streak across the canvas; curving, carving and segmenting the canvas in a flurry of motion, connoting movement and expression reminiscent of the manner in which Chinese literati painters managed to capture the gesture and meter of their movements through their brushstrokes, but in a way that completely affirms his Western lineage.

The Palacio de Generalife, from which the inscription at the back of this work references, is one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens near Granada, Spain. A summer palace for the former sultans of Granada, the retreat is a fantastical wonder of architecture, comprising of a complex of topiaries, mazes, pools and fountains that delight at every turn. Saeta 23, Generalife is an affirmation of Zobel’s own Spanish roots and homage to its atmospheric beauty: the wide arch that dominates the foreground of the painting points emphatically to the gallery of arches that feature throughout the site, as well as the long pool in the main building with sprays of water vaulting across it. The intricate web of lines across the painting, that Zobel consciously applies using his unique identifying technique of a hypodermic syringe filled with oil paint, convey the same ephemeral luminosity of sunlight flitting off the famous fountains at the Palacio de Generalife and filtering through the vermiculated open lacework of the architecture. There is nothing conservative about Saeta 23, Generalife, a rich tapestry of electrifying lines that although display some formal resemblance to the visceral drip paintings of American Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, display a far more spiritual inclination.

Beneath, and in contrast to the tension of lines in the painting, the softly modulated background reveals Zobel’s own sense of time within his artistic process; thin layers of oil paint are painstakingly glazed upon one another, with each application allowed a significant period to completely dry before the next giving the works a visual depth and clarity. The shards of viridians and magentas visible through the paint layers are formal indications of the passing of time, with history itself being preserved within the countless coats of diaphanous paint. For Zobel, distances in time and space have always had an elastic quality: his own artistic inclinations reference a heady combination of Rothko’s sublime coloured canvases,Pollock’s expressive drippings, the controlled chaos of Franz Kline and the balance of Chinese Calligraphy, distilled into his own aesthetic that gives a work its identifier as being innately Zobel.

Saeta 23, Generalife, is a resplendent masterpiece that was a wedding gift to the late artist, Napoleon Abueva, Philippine National Artist for Sculpture, and marks an important transition into his severe and dramatic investigations of motion and space, known subsequently as the Serie Negra series.

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