Retrospective exhibition to celebrate postwar artist’s journey

Over ninety artworks spanning seven decades will be showcased to highlight the artistic journey of postwar abstract artist Nel Erasmus.

Strauss & Co and The Nel Erasmus Art Legacy Trust are pleased to present Conflux – A Confluence of Daring and Discovery by Nel Erasmus.

Beginning on her 95th birthday, November 27, Conflux carefully traces the evolution of Erasmus’s visual language from her early Paris works in the 1950s to her most recent pieces, where she skilfully captures movement and pace. The exhibition also marks the official launch of The Nel Erasmus Art Legacy Trust, a newly established South African Public Benefit Organisation devoted to preserving and promoting Erasmus’s artistic legacy, as well as fostering research and development in African abstract art.


The exhibited works showcase the initial influence of Cubism on Erasmus and trace the development of her visual language into a distinctive, singular style.

Image supplied by Strauss and Co

“I aim for universality, striving towards awareness, perpetual growth, and germination while navigating the realms of duality, tension, and balance. Vessels such as containers, urns, entrances, and exits emerge spontaneously in paintings as symbols and metaphors from everyday life, encapsulating and directing this confluence. Hence, the title Conflux,” she explains.

Conflux charts Nel’s artistic journey, from her postwar Paris works influenced by De Stijl’s economical use of line, Cubism’s fragmented perspectives, and Italian Futurism’s dynamic compositions, to her later pieces inspired by the Colour Field Abstractionists’ emphasis on the interplay between colour and form,” Wilhelm van Rensburg, the head curator and senior art specialist at Strauss & Co, notes.

Her most recent work from the late 2010s captures movement, intertwining decades of exploration with her rigorous training under the tutelage of postwar Paris’ most prominent artists and art theoreticians. “The power of Nel’s work lies in her extraordinary ability to blend artistic expression, scientific inquiry, and philosophical reflection. Her oeuvre exemplifies an elegant, clear, and cohesive thought process, reflecting profound introspection and understanding of all facets of human existence,” observes Frank Kilbourn, a trustee of the Nel Erasmus Art Legacy Trust and chairman of Strauss & Co. A limited-edition hardbound catalogue accompanies the exhibition, featuring all the works on show at the retrospective.

“The Nel Erasmus Art Legacy Trust and Strauss & Co are honoured to celebrate Nel Erasmus’s remarkable artistic achievements on her 95th birthday. The opening of Conflux and the launch of The Nel Erasmus Art Legacy Trust mark a collective celebration of her life and her lasting impact on South African art,” Kilbourn concludes.


Nel Erasmus: Brief biography and career highlights

Nel Erasmus. Image supplied by Strauss and Co

Erasmus completed a Fine Arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1949, where she was part of the esteemed Wits Group alongside South African art historian Esme Berman and artists Cecil Skotnes, Gordon Vorster, and Christo Coetzee. After obtaining her degree, she embarked on a transformative journey to Europe. Her artistic identity was shaped by her studies at the Académie Ranson, Sorbonne University, and École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where abstract painter Pierre Soulages, a pioneer of postwar abstraction, was among her lecturers.

In the French capital, Erasmus became acquainted with a group of dissident South African writers and artists. This circle included the painter Majorie Wallace and her husband, writer Jan Rabie, as well as the playwright Bartho Smit, whom she considers one of her mentors. Also among them were the fellow abstract painter Renée le Roux and her husband Etienne, the author of the Silberstein trilogy and Magersfontein O Magersfontein. Many of these individuals would later become key figures in the Afrikaans literary movement known as ‘Die Sestigers.’

Image supplied by Strauss and Co

She also received recognition from the influential Belgian painter and art critic Michel Seuphor, who acknowledged her as a leading abstract artist and included her in his publications, “Dictionary of Abstract Art” (1958) and “Abstract Painting: 50 Years of Accomplishment” (1964). During the 1970s, her work garnered acclaim from American art critic Clement Greenberg, who hailed it as “truly original” and an “explosion.”

Upon returning to South Africa, Erasmus worked at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) from 1956 to 1975, first as an assistant to Dr. Anton Hendriks, the director of the gallery, and later taking over as director herself in 1964. During her tenure, she made significant contributions to JAG’s collection, acquiring works from renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jules Olitski. Her most notable acquisition, Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin II in 1973, sparked a public sensation and furore under the local Johannesburg city council, but also drew record crowds to the museum. In 1975, she resigned as the JAG’s museum director to pursue painting full-time.

Image supplied by Strauss and Co

About the Nel Erasmus Art Legacy Trust:

The Nel Erasmus Art Legacy Trust, a newly established South African Public Benefit Organisation, is dedicated to preserving and promoting Nel Erasmus’ legacy and other South African abstract artists. The Trust strives to foster appreciation and understanding of abstract art, promote research and engagement in the field, and provide bursaries and possible residencies to postgraduate students pursuing studies aligned with these objectives.

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