Jean Hélion was born on April 21, 1904, in Couterne, France. He entered the Institut Industriel du Nord in Lille to study chemistry in 1920 but left the following year to become an architectural apprentice in Paris. He painted while working as an architectural draftsman in the early 1920s. Hélion attracted the attention of the collector Georges Bine in 1925 and was soon able to devote himself entirely to painting. In 1927 he met Joaquín Torres-García, who collaborated on L’Acte, a short-lived magazine founded by Hélion and others.
Hélion first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1928. Shortly thereafter he became acquainted with Jean Arp, Piet Mondrian, and Antoine Pevsner. By 1929 his work was nonfigurative. With Theo van Doesburg and others in 1930 he formed the artists’ association Art Concret and the periodical of the same name. This group was succeeded by Abstraction-Création the next year. In 1931, after traveling through Europe and the Soviet Union, Hélion returned to Paris, where he met Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Tristan Tzara. His first solo show was held at the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1932. That same year Hélion made his first visit to New York, where he was given a solo exhibition at the John Becker Gallery at the end of 1933. After returning to Europe from a second trip to the United States in 1934, he met Jacques Lipchitz, Joan Miró, and Ben Nicholson. In 1936 he settled in the United States, dividing his time between Virginia and New York. That year solo shows of his work took place at the Galerie Cahiers d’Art in Paris and the Valentine Gallery in New York. The artist traveled to Paris in 1938 on the occasion of his solo exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, and he became a friend of Paul Eluard, Matta, and Yves Tanguy.
Shortly after joining the French army in 1940 he was taken prisoner and sent to a camp in Pomerania and then Stettin. Hélion escaped in 1942 and that same year made his way to France and then the United States. In 1943 he began to paint in a figurative style again. His book They Shall Not Have Me was published in 1943, a year in which he was given solo shows at the Arts Club of Chicago and Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, New York. Hélion returned to Paris in 1946. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s his work was shown in Europe and New York. During the 1970s he exhibited primarily in France. Hélion died on October 27, 1987, in Paris.