Canadian Fine Art Auction

May 26, 2014

LOT 21




watercolour and ink
25.75 ins x 39.75 ins; 65.4 cms x 101 cms

Estimate $25,000-$35,000

Realised: $23,600
Price Includes Buyer's Premium ?

About artist/note:

The art of Oscar Cahén underwent rapid and dramatic evolution and growth in the early 1950s. His period of mature fine art production was a scant number of years spanning 1947 until his accidental death at age 40 in 1956. In 1952 Cahén created Candy Tree, one of the artist's most favoured signature works. The style of this work, like the vast majority of abstract works in English Canada, was predicated upon understandings based upon stylized analytic cubism. Essentially a form abstracted from nature, outline drawn, in fractured, faceted planes then 'coloured in' with paint, an approach popularized through the example of Vieira da Silva. Linear drawing was the basis for much of the prior abstract work of Cahén and his colleague artists of Painters Eleven. 

By 1953 Cahén developed a dramatically different approach. In works such as this lot, the artist has combined linear drawing with bold tonal gestural mark-making wherein the broad painterly stroke simultaneously defines mass while its outer edges of that movement determine the final shape. Rather than looking back towards Paris and Cubism, these Cahén works embrace the inspiration of Abstract Expressionism: Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, William Baziotes and second generation Abstract Expressionists such as Ray Parker. The stark painterly flair of Robert Motherwell's Spanish Elegy series is recalled by Cahén's dramatic use of striking black marks as the scaffold around which the work is structured. So too Cahén may have been inspired by Patrick Heron and the St. Ives group, their work toured to Canada and Toronto's Hart House courtesy of the British Council.

By 1953 Cahén's new development had leapfrogged his colleagues of Painters Eleven, works of the sort of this lot established new directions. It is an approach that becomes ubiquitous in English Canada, however primarily in the later 1950s in the years following Cahén's death. These formal experiments would inspire fellow P11 members. The artist's exhibition fortunes also dramatically increased in 1953 both in number of inclusions as well as the consequence of venue, his work was selected for inclusion in the São Paulo Art Biennial exhibiting alongside Borduas.

Works such as this lot were among the most advanced sophisticated art of its day in the nation. This work was selected for inclusion in the Art Gallery of Ontario Retrospective. It may be that it was Cahén's mastery as an illustrator that prepared him to take these new steps. Working daily with mixed media on paper, the artist has a complete ease with treating the surface of paper to forceful contrasts of dense, intense marks with whispered counterpoints of line and washes. This lot is classically composed, it pursues a recurring formal dare explored by the artist of having a lateral split left/right side of the picture and treating each side as differently as possible, yet attempting to hold it together as a unified whole.

We thank Jeffrey Spalding for providing the essay for this lot.


David Burnett, Oscar Cahén, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1983, page 52, cat. no. 52, reproduced.

Iris Nowell, Painters Eleven, The Wild Ones of Canadian Art, Douglas & Mcintyre, Vancouver, 2010, page 154, reproduced in colour.


Estate of the artist
Private Collection, Toronto
Private Collection, British Columbia


Oscar Cahén, Ringling, Sarasota, 1968.