Strauss & Co’s winter sale shines a spotlight on abstraction

Brave collectors with an eye for opportunity and future growth should consider the strong offering of abstract works gathered by Strauss & Co for inclusion in its forthcoming live sale in Johannesburg. Artists representative of all the major styles and schools associated with the post-war uptake of abstraction in South Africa are represented in this sale, due to be held at the Wanderers Club on 4 June.

     While not an exhibition, Strauss & Co‘s catalogue of works for sale effectively inventories many of the key proponents of mid-twentieth century abstraction in South Africa. The sale includes works by Wits Group members Nel Erasmus, Cecil Skotnes and Gordon Vorster, influential international artists who worked in South Africa Armando Baldinelli, Maurice van Essche and Edoardo Villa, and returnee South Africans trained abroad like Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Sidney Goldblatt and Douglas Portway.
    A pair of matching lithographs from 1989 by pioneering abstract painter Ernest Mancoba (estimate R30 000 – 40 000 each) followed by an abstract maritime scene titled Harbour by Dirk Meerkotter (estimate R20 000 – 30 000), preface a special focus on abstraction in the first session of the sale.
     The history of abstraction in South Africa dates back to the earliest rock art and cave paintings, although the focus of Strauss & Co’s selection favours work in a modernist, Western-influenced style.
     Walter Battiss, whose carved and painted wood sculpture Fook Tree (estimate R80 000 – 120 000) appears in the first session of the sale, is considered pioneer of the form. Battiss in 1937 exhibited two abstract works at the Pretoria Music Festival under the pseudonym Gregi Nola.

     But abstraction only gained official acceptance in South Africa following a 1948 exhibition of South African art at the Tate Gallery in London. The bulk of the work on offer by Strauss & Co dates from the post war, a time of great mobility for South African artists and remarkable visibility for their work.
     Eugene Labuschagne‘s Formal Synthesis (estimate R20 000 – 30 000), a confidant Klee-like work composed of idiosyncratic forms and geometric lines, was exhibited on the 1959 São Paulo Biennial. Anton Uys‘s Metaphysical Boxes III from 1975 (estimate R50 000 – 70 000) was shown in London and featured on the cover of his exhibition invitation.
     Highlights also include Hannatjie van der Wat‘s Gateway from 1967 (estimate R80 000 – 120 000), a masterful synthesis of colour and expression, and Trevor Coleman‘s geometric abstraction Systematic Composition from 1969 (estimate R60 000 – 80 000).
     Fittingly, Cecily Sash is well represented in this sale. A founder member of the Amadlozi Group and an inspired teacher at the University of the Witwatersrand, Sash’s three later-career abstract works – Diagonal Drama from 1984 (estimate R70 000 – 100 000), Chalice from 1985 (estimate R60 000 – 80 000) and Abstract from 1984 (estimate R50 000 – 70 000) – are all executed in remarkable pastel tones.

     Armando Baldinelli’s untitled assemblage painting featuring a stretched sheet slathered in thick, creamy white paint (estimate R50 000 – 70 000) is an important precursor work to the mixed-media works of David Koloane and Kagiso Patrick Mautloa.
     The focus includes Koloane’s Dwelling (estimate R60 000 – 90 000), a masterstroke of bold colour and form, and Mautloa’s exuberant diptych Tribute to Abstraction (estimate R60 000 – 90 000).
     Koloane is an influential figure in the later diffusion of abstraction. In 1985, Koloane, together with painter Bill Ainslie, founded the Thupelo workshops series in Johannesburg. One of the workshop’s star participants was Sam Nhlengethwa, whose Abstract Composition from 1999 (estimate R30 000 – 50 000) features.
     The offering of abstract works extends beyond the afternoon session. Important pieces offered later in the day include Nhlengethwa’s Thupelo workshop period abstract composition Image IV (estimate R200 000 – 300 000). In 2016, Strauss & Co sold Nhlengethwa’s Abstract in Orange & Blue from 1991 for R227 360, a world record for the artist.
     Highlights from the premier evening session include Douglas Portway‘s London 62 (estimate R120 000 – 160 000), a post-emigration oil work dominated by remnants of his African colour scheme, and Alexis Preller‘s Contrapuntal Figures II (estimate R2 – 3 million), a dazzling 1964 canvas in which Preller skilfully integrates figures into an abstract composition dominated by delicate lilacs, warm yellows and cobalt blues overlap.

     Like Preller, the sculptors on offer used abstracting techniques in service of describing human and animal subjects. Edoardo Villa‘s Red Bird from 2005 (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) is a vivid cubistic work from his final years. Villa’s Single Figure from 1974 (estimate R120 000 – 160 000) is a marvelous bronze form with a skin-like patina of brown and cream. Jackson Hlungwani‘s carved wood branch Fish (estimate R18 000 – 24 000) is both abstract and literal. It carries a very keen estimate.
     Abstraction was the dominant artistic thrust in South Africa’s post-war years, up until the late 1970s when younger artists argued for direct visual engagement with South Africa’s fraught politics. Abstraction has nonetheless remained an integral part of this country’s artistic expression, as recent works by Koloane, Mautloa, Nhlengethwa, Ricky Burnett and Durant Sihlali reveal.
     Notwithstanding the endurance of abstraction, and indeed its rediscovery by a new generation of contemporary painters, fine historical examples remain grossly undervalued. Collectors with insight and the nose for a bargain will be richly rewarded for their anticipation at Strauss & Co’s winter sale in Johannesburg.