A slow and meticulous craftsman, Tanguy loved objects that were beautifully made, and he imparted to the elements in his paintings the same care and convincing presence that a realist painter gives to a still life or landscape. These "inscapes" of the mind seem balanced on the brink between order and chaos. "The element of surprise in the creation of a work of art is, to me, the most important factor–surprise to the artist himself as well as to others," Tanguy stated. "I work very irregularly and by crises. Should I seek the reasons for my painting, I would feel that it would be a self-imprisonment" (quoted in "The Creative Process," Art Digest, 15 January 1954, vol. 28, no. 8, p. 14).
Plantes de glace (Nombres négatifs) is a powerful example of the change that had taken place in the artist's work since moving to the United States in November 1939. Although Tanguy altered neither his painterly style nor his working method upon his arrival, continuing to painstakingly build the forms of his mysterious landscapes intuitively piece by piece, in the United States his visions grew in scope, stature and complexity. Most dramatic, however, as Tanguy himself observed, was the change in his palette. In an interview he gave to James Johnson Sweeney of New York's The Museum of Modern Art in 1946, Tanguy remarked on this recent change in his work: "What the cause of this intensification of colour is I can't say. But I do recognise a considerable change. Perhaps it is due to the light. I also have a feeling of greater space here–more 'room'. But that was why I came" (quoted in Eleven European Artists, The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, vol. 13, nos. 4-5, p. 22f).
Painted just after the war in 1946, the present work has vestiges of mechanistic symbolism and bridges the gap between the abstract and the figurative. Tanguy convincingly modeled Plantes de glace (Nombres négatifs) so it appears translucent and incorporeal, but at the same time present and stable as it fills the entire sheet. The work was exhibited the same year it was painted in the seminal 1946 exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery under the name Plantes de glace. As Tanguy had already included an oil painting in the exhibition under the same title, the gouache was soon integrated into the important Nombre series all executed on black paper, and it became known as Nombres négatifs.
(fig. 1) The present lot, at upper left, as installed in the Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1946.