Abstraction belongs to Hélions’s classic Monuments series, elaborately conceived structures of form and space that he painted in 1934-1935 at the height of his engagement with non-representational painting. His reputation today, in both France and the United States, still rests largely on works of this kind. On the occasion of Hélion’s fourth New York exhibition in 1940, the critic Meyer Schapiro singled him out as “the outstanding abstract painter of the younger generation of American and European artists. Painters here follow his work as the most advanced and masterly of its kind” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 2005, p. 47).
Seeking to challenge the hegemony of Surrealism in modern European art during the late 1920s, an increasing number of painters turned to abstraction. This mounting interest in post-cubist, non-figurative painting, along lines that Kandinsky and Mondrian had pioneered, first coalesced around Seuphor’s Cercle et Carré group. In 1930 Hélion and Van Doesburg organized a new effort called Art Concret, in which they pursued a program derived from neo-plasticism, the rigorous formal ideals that Van Doesberg and Mondrian had practiced as De Stijl. Named editor of the group’s magazine, Hélion emerged as a leading voice for abstraction. He and Van Doesburg cofounded the Abstraction-Création movement in February 1931. By mid-decade this association numbered more than 400 members, each dedicated to “non-figuration...a purely plastic culture which excluded every element of explication, anecdote, literature, naturalism” (Abstraction-Création, Cahiers, no. 1, 1932).
Hélion’s painting flourished in this supportive milieu. His neo-plasticist Art Concret of 1930 “belongs to the realm of constant certainties,” he stated, “controllable by logic” (Art Concret, April 1930, p. 5). In the Courbes et tensions and Équilibre series, dating from 1931-1933, Hélion was “searching for the effect of space and movement on the element...creating equilibrium out of movement” (Journal d’un peintre, vol. 1, 4 May 1933, p. 45). In the ensuing Monuments of 1934-1935, “Painting definitely belongs to the world of the spirit,” he claimed, “...a plane of reality where instincts, ideas and sensations conjoin. I unite into a composition the brute facts of my instinct...more purely intellectual structures, and the colours I amorously uncover on my palette” (Carnets, 30 or 31 March 1937, p. 62).
In the Monuments Hélion moved far from the rigid austerity of Mondrian to the more sensuous abstraction of Arp. “The work considered as an organism in growth,” he wrote. “More, instead of less” (Axis, London, no. 2, 1935, p. 24). The burgeoning shapes in Abstraction are elusive, but suggest an elaborate interior. “Now I am trying...to allow to grow on the initial structures another structure, emotional, unconscious,” Helion explained, “allowing the framework to sprout so that it becomes a framework-tree... Oppositions develop, colours are refined, spaces become more pliable... The space is provisionally, miraculously filled with light, but the volumes will have to become complete–objects, bodies. Inevitably nature will soon shove its nose in, and we shall pass on to a new naturalist era” (Journal d’un peintre, vol. 1, 28 April 1935, p. 45).
The latter statement proved prescient–by 1939 Hélion had resolutely returned to figuration, which he practiced for the remainder of his career. Yet he continued to hold his pre-war work in high esteem. Shortly after painting Abstraction, Hélion sold it to the preeminent collector of modernism Walter Chrysler, Jr.; in 1950, the late owners acquired it at auction, where it was catalogued as “the most important work by Hélion to appear at public sale in America.” In 1962, Hélion asked them to consider selling the canvas to a collector seeking an exceptional painting from this important period; they declined, and Abstraction has remained in their family ever since.
Letter from Jean Hélion to Mr. and Mrs. Oakes, 22 April 1976.