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LOT 045

Karel Appel
1921 - 2006

Comme les planètes
oil on canvas
signed and dated 1959 and on verso titled on the Sotheby's auction label and inscribed variously
51 x 76 3/4 in 129.5 x 194.9 cm

Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000

Sold for: $271,250

Preview at:

Gimpel Fils Gallery, London
Lord Balniel, London
Sale of Contemporary Art, Christie's London, December 5, 1991, lot 8
Stephen Mazoh, New York
Private Collection, New York
Sale of Contemporary Art, Part II, Sotheby's New York, May 3, 1995, lot 297
Private Collection, Vancouver
By descent to the present Private Estate, Vancouver

Gimpel Fils Gallery, London, Karel Appel, 1959, catalogue #14

Karel Appel’s powerful and joyous painting is especially pertinent in 2019, when many of us are reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing. His painting is, of course, earlier and less specific. Comme les planètes evokes the churning, chaotic creativity of planetary formation in general. In thematizing and redeploying primordial energy, Appel extends what is nothing less than a founding sub-genre of European abstract art: stimulation from and even analogies with the productive forces of the cosmos. In this view, abstract painting is creation; it does not need to represent or mimic anything. This inspiration is strong in abstract art’s earliest paintings, whether Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint’s Primordial Chaos, No. 16, 1906 - 1907, or the Czech pioneer of abstraction František Kupka’s Cosmic Spring 1 of 1913 - 1914.

Appel’s abstraction may allude to the heritage of what was, even in the late 1950s, still the most radical type of painting. But both its appearance and purpose diverge from the spiritual, transcendent goals for art that Kupka, af Klint and many other artists held. Where their paintings ultimately sought a reality beyond any material art form – something ineffable and invisible – Appel’s canvas insists that we stay with what he so dramatically applied to his surface, no matter what its implications.

Appel was the most prominent Dutch member of the post-World War II group of abstract artists who took the name CoBrA, a compression of the first letters of their native cities: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. In ways analogous with American Abstract Expressionism and aspects of Automatism in Quebec, Appel and CoBrA sought a liberatory art, one no longer contained by the extreme censorship and persecution of mid-twentieth-century European fascism. The restrictions imposed by World War II and the conventions of earlier art in the European tradition – including its abstract, spiritual aspirations – were to be broken. Instead, CoBrA artists hunted authenticity and direct expression in the “art” of children, and what were then seen as “primitive” peoples’ art and crafts.

Comme les planètes, however, is neither childish nor primitive in a pejorative sense, but neither is it founded on empirical study or science. It is a direct, ultimately inner vision of cosmic dynamism. Its swirls, punctuations, stops and starts are painted quickly, heavily, even aggressively. Always in motion, it remains balanced in colour, texture and form. Searing oranges and yellows both coagulate and fly apart in this framed cosmic vision. They form balls of fire that are distributed in flecks in the adjacent tumbling black, grey and white forms. Comme les planètes shows Appel at the height of his achievement and international recognition (he was a prizewinner at the Venice Biennale in 1954, for example). Passionately offering an alternative to both the three-dimensional space of Cubism and the transcendent tendencies of much abstract painting, the work pulls our attention into its self-sufficient vortex.

We thank Mark Cheetham, Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto and author of The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting, for contributing the above essay.

Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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