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Purpur und Orange (Purple and Orange)

Purpur und Orange (Purple and Orange)
signed and dated 'NAY 58' (lower right); signed, titled and dated twice 'NAY 1958 "Púrpúr und Orange" 1958' (on the stretcher); signed and dated 'Nay : 58' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 31 7/8in. (100 x 81cm.)
Painted in 1958
Private Collection, Bremen.
Frankfurter Kunstkabinett Hanna Bekker vom Rath, Frankfurt.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1960.
Thence by descent to the present owner.
A. Scheibler, Ernst Wilhelm Nay: Werkverzeichnis der Ölgemalde, Band II 1952-1968, Cologne 1990, no. 897 (illustrated, p. 164).
Darmstadt, Kunstverein Darmstadt, Rot im Bild, 1960, no. 45.
Frankfurt, Frankfurter Kunstverein Steinernes Haus, Moderne Malerei - Frankfurter Privatbesitz, 1963, no. 99.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Lot Essay

Part of the same family collection for over half a century, Purpur und Orange is an emblem of Ernst Wilhelm Nay’s striking visual vernacular, which blended the figurative expressionism of early twentieth-century modernism with the gestural abstraction of the post-war period. Painted in 1958, the work belongs to a series closely related to his seminal Scheibenbilder (Disk Paintings), each featuring the partial forms of flowers—examples reside in institutions including the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Here Nay composes a symphony of oranges, ochres and deep maroons which battle for dominance in the composition, and are tempered by blushes of grey. A balance of form and colour, the work pulsates with meditative vitality while straddling the thin line between figuration and abstraction.

The latter half of the 1950s saw Nay receive institutional acclaim and commercial success, with his work included at the inaugural Documenta in 1955, as well as in the pivotal shows A Hundred Years of German Painting at the Tate Gallery, London in 1956, and German Art of the Twentieth Century at the Museum of Modern Art, New York the following year. Nay also represented Germany at the 1956 Venice Biennale. This recognition marked a reversal from his previous status under the Nazi regime as a ‘degenerate artist’, a label given to those deemed slanderous to the ‘German spirit’ and attached to modern art as a whole. As such, Nay’s ascendancy during this time can be seen as a reflection of Germany’s reinvention as a country and as a cultural hub for new art following the Second World War. Purpur und Orange is a masterful evocation of this zeitgeist. In the same year of the work’s painting, Nay mused: ‘I see my life as a canvas, static and whole throughout a life and at the same time dynamic in the static state—running its course of development’ (E. W. Nay, quoted in ‘Introduction’, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, exh. cat. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1998, p. 10).

Formally, this period also saw Nay break from the centralising tendencies of his earlier works to embrace a sense of expansive dynamism, underlining his innovative exploration of pictorial space. These iconic works represent his stylistic maturation, and a pivotal juncture in the trajectory of abstract art. Much like Paul Klee, who saw line as the starting point for his pictures, the disks of flowers in Purpur und Orange seem to grow organically. Their rhythmic, intersecting contours animate the painting’s wealth of rich tones. ‘If I set a coloured dot on an empty surface,’ said Nay, ‘an astonishing number of tensions were created. If I spread out the dot, the tensions increased. A second such disc, a third, a fourth—all the same size, already created a highly complicated formal relation’ (E. W. Nay, quoted in Nay Retrospektive, exh. cat. Josef Haubrich Kunsthalle, Cologne 1991, p. 36).

While Nay saw direction in form, colour reigned supreme. Theoretical and measured in his approach to painting, he extolled ‘the systematic organisation of the image starting from colour’ (E. W. Nay, quoted in M. Claeges, E. W. Nay. Lesebuch: Selbstzeugnisse und Schriften 1931 – 1968, Cologne 2002, p. 156). In the present work the painter traces a very subtle difference between two fundamental terms of German thought: Ordnung and Anordnung, ‘order’ and ‘disposition’. Colour brings order to the surface, going beyond simple compositional arrangement. This order then becomes a formal element much deeper, more essential and more ontological than simple disposition. ‘The order of an image is based on a spiritual, formal, organising tendency’, explained Nay. ‘It gives life to the true surface, the constitutive colour, the arithmetic organisation’ (E. W. Nay, ibid., p. 157).

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