Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)


Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)
signed 'Wifredo Lam' (lower right)
oil on canvas
82 ½ x 66 in. (209.6 x 167.6 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
B. and I. Salomon, Paris.
Galerie Gobbi, Paris.
Anon sale, Christie's, New York, 17 May 1989, lot 34.
Anon sale, Sotheby's, New York, 17 November 2004, lot 48.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
L. Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I 1923-1960, Acatos, Lausanne, 1996, p. 470, no. 58.08.
Post lot text
1 Wifredo Lam, quoted in Lorenzo Vicenti, “Mi credevano lo stregone che beve sangue,” Oggi Illustrato 25 (17 July 1972): 86-88, in Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 165.
2 Eskil Lam, “Wifredo Lam: The Albissola Years,” Tate Etc. 38 (Autumn 2016), http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/wifredo-lam-albissola-years
3 Lam, quoted in Sims, Wifredo Lam, 139.
4 Lam, quoted in Rafael Suárez Solis, “Wifredo Lam: pintor que viene de sí, está en sí y va hacia sí,” Diario de la Marina, 30 January 1955, in Sims, Wifredo Lam, 114.
5 Geri Trotta, “Wifredo Lam Paints a Picture,” ARTnews 49, no. 5 (September 1950): 44.
6 Lam, quoted in Trotta, “Wifredo Lam Paints a Picture,” 42, 51.

Lot Essay

“I have made the journey of Christopher Columbus in reverse,” Lam observed of his return to Europe, “from the Antilles to Liguria.”[1] His transatlantic crossings had begun decades earlier, when he first left Havana for Madrid in 1923, and shaped his practice in the intervening years as he traveled from Paris to Martinique, Caracas to New York. Lam divided his time between Cuba, to which he first returned in 1941, and France until April 1958, when he left the island on the eve of revolution; he landed briefly in the United States and then continued on to Europe, where he eventually established his family between Paris and Albissola, along the northern Italian coast. The most internationally acclaimed member of Cuba’s historical vanguardia, Lam cultivated wide-ranging, intercultural sources in the postwar period, encompassing the Afro-Cuban rituals of the island, American Abstract Expressionism, and the Paris-based CoBrA group. Imaging the strange and surreal confluences of Western and “primitive” cultures, his seminal paintings from the 1950s introduced new iconography—notably, his inimitable femme-cheval—and even ventured into abstraction as he searched for new, and suggestively existential meaning.
“His art from this time is a little overlooked in comparison with his painting from the 1940s,” Lam’s son Eskil observed. “Maybe the later works are more difficult to analyse and pigeonhole in any particular style. While Cubism and Surrealism were essential to the development of his style, his painting was always something on its own, and even more so in the later years—the work is more abstract.”[2] Lam’s apprehension of postwar abstraction evolved between Paris and New York. “I saw Gorky for the first time at the airport in New York when I arrived from Havana in 1946,” Lam recalled fondly of his first visit to the city. “We were all invited to Nicholas Calas’s house, where we talked all night long. The next day we went with Frederick Kiesler to Gorky’s studio in Union Square, where he showed us his paintings, and we spent a very pleasant evening there.”[3] Lam made short visits to the city over the following years, typically stopping over on his way to and from Paris; extended stays were difficult, on account of quotas limiting Chinese immigration. He nevertheless became acquainted with artists of the emerging New York School, among them David Hare (in whose studio he worked) and Robert Motherwell; he paid a visit to Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in East Hampton in the summer of 1948, where he doubtless saw Pollock’s earliest “drip” paintings.
Lam encountered a diverse range of postwar existential and informel painting during longer sojourns to Europe during these same years. He traveled to Albissola for the first time in the summer of 1954 at the invitation of the Danish artist Asger Jorn, whom he had met in Paris the previous decade and who became not only a close friend but an important champion of his work. Jorn was a founding member of the international CoBrA group (1948-51), which channeled anti-establishment angst through raw, expressionist brushwork and spontaneous, uninhibited imagery. At Jorn’s behest, Lam participated in CoBrA’s last group exhibition in 1951; subsequent collaborations through the 1950s and 1960s with the Group Phases, the Situationists, the Swedish Imaginists, and the Italian “arte nucleare” movement brought him further into the orbit of Europe’s postwar avant-garde. In 1955, he singled out the work of the Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies, known for his mixed-media “matière” paintings, characterized by heavily textured, abstracted surfaces. “The French critics call it—without malice and with all respect—a stew,” Lam remarked of these works by Tapiès, which “demonstrate the intelligence in ‘art brut,’ and its affinities with art in North America called ‘staining,’ and in Europe ‘tubism’ in which linear elements are made directly from the tube of paint without being mixed on a palette.”[4]
The present Untitled belongs to a small body of works that Lam made in the late 1950s that verge on informalist abstraction. This direction is anticipated in two mid-decade mural commissions, for the Jardín Botánico in Caracas and the Centro Médico de Vedado in Havana, in which he privileged plastic values—florid stylizations and black-and-white geometry, respectively—over more familiar Afro-Cuban symbology. But his oil paintings broach pure abstraction to a rare and unprecedented degree. In Untitled, accumulations of finely stippled paint—black, white, red, green, and yellow—define a dazzling cloud of color that pulverizes across the canvas in a dense, decentralized pattern. The miasma of dots is explosive and suggestively atomic, its matter dispersed around a latent, spectral presence barely indicated by a few black lines. The painting’s thick and thinned textures, as well as its seemingly chaotic structure and monumental scale, recall Pollock’s dripped canvases and, equally, the process of their creation. “He snatches the canvas from the easel and lays it on the floor,” reported Geri Trotta, following a visit to Lam’s Havana studio in 1950. “Lam’s palette is informal. He mixes tube or ordinary house paint—French, American or English, or any combination of these—with turpentine and almost no oil. From the floor, littered with uncovered tin cans (Nescafé, Carnation milk or Libby vegetable) that hold leftover bits of colors, he chooses one, pours some turpentine into the nearly-dry paint to give it the thinness he prefers, selects a large, stiff brush and starts.”[5] Both in their making and in their resolution, Lam’s abstractions evoked the existential drama of the decade, which saw the rise of the Cold War and culminated with the Cuban Revolution. “All art is tragedy,” he declared, paraphrasing the Abstract Expressionists. “For me, painting is a torment. . . . There’s a moment in painting when everything must be staked; either the work will be killed, or it will be born.”[6]
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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