Having worked through Post-Impressionist and Fauve phases while in his early twenties (see lot 279), Herbin painted his first Cubist pictures in 1909, following closely on the heels of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Even at this time he displayed a strong predilection for geometry in his compositions, and he was drawn to the Puteaux group around the Duchamp brothers, who mingled their cubism with extra-pictorial elements drawn from philosophy and mathematics. They called themselves the Section d'Or, a name derived from the theoretical works of Pythagoras and Leonardo da Vinci concerning the ideal proportions of the human body. Herbin participated in their second and final group show at the Galerie La Boëtie in October 1912, which marked the climax of cubism as a collective endeavor.
Herbin's synthetic cubist phase emphasized flattened geometric forms married to pure, unmodeled color, and his work after the end of the war in 1918 represented a further distillation of purely formal elements, in which he eventually discarded conventional subject matter. After working in a neo-classical figurative style from 1922 to 1926, he again turned completely abstract, creating baroque curvilinear compositions that, while flat, imply a multi-layered spatial dimension. Together with Georges Vantongerloo, Jean Arp, Albert Gleizes, Jean Hélion and Franz Kupka, Herbin helped found the Abstraction-Création group in 1931.
By 1940, influenced by the esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the color theories of Wolfgang von Goethe and the medieval art of alchemy, Herbin had formulated his own synthesis of philosophy, music, language, color and form, which he codified in his Alphabet plastique. His intent was to "escape from the object and to find again the word and creative action" (quoted in D. René, Herbin the Plastic Alphabet, exh. cat., Galerie Denise René, New York, 1973, n.p.). He used this system to create entirely flat geometrical compositions that, when compared to the abstractions of the 1930s, are classically balanced, in many instances almost serene, and evoke a transcendent spiritual state.
In his plastic alphabet Herbin proposed a concordance between each letter of the alphabet, a color, a single form or combination of forms, and a sonority indicated by one or more tones of the musical scale. The composition of the present painting, titled BIEN, is devised as follows:
B Crimson Red; combination of spherical and quadrangular forms; sonority of do, si
I Orange; combination of spherical and triangular forms; sonority of do
E Red; spherical form; sonority of do
N White; accompanied by all forms; sonority of do, ré, mi, fa, sol, la, si
"This restraint, this discipline, these complex roles not only eliminate the remembrance of the object, but oblige the creator to compose a new world to make completely imagined realities play against one another more surely than prose breaks the everyday discourse to give room to poetry. Destruction--creative, negative--positive; the alphabet has the attributes of any great discovery. Through it, Herbin was able to achieve the purest abstraction, to become the master and founder of abstraction in France, a creator of an exceptional originality and richness" (ibid.).