For all of its energy, innovative vigor and formal sophistication, abstract painting as it came on the scene in Canada in the mid-twentieth century has not been given its proper due. Individual artists like Jean-Paul Riopelle and Jack Bush have found enthusiastic supporters in Europe and in
the United States, but the larger stories from which they emerged have yet to be accounted for in North American and, indeed, international views of art history.
This exhibition focuses on how artists in two of Canada’s major cities confronted the challenges posed by abstraction, and the movements they fostered: the Automatistes and the Plasticiens in Montreal, and Painters Eleven in Toronto. However, their stories are independent of one another. While Montreal discovered fresh potential in French Surrealism, Toronto was primarily concerned with severing its historical ties to British traditions. Artists in both cities had their eyes trained internationally and quickly understood the challenges posed by the commanding and influential New York art scene. In their independent ways they produced abstract painting whose character is thoroughly North American.
MONTREAL: THE AUTOMATISTES
Although Riopelle remains the best known of the Montreal Automatiste painters, Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-1960) was the movement’s true founder and its creative center. Originally trained to be a church painter, it was only in 1941 – when he was already in his mid-thirties – that he executed his first abstract painting, Green Abstraction (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, # g.4). It was a groundbreaking work; a product of pure spontaneous invention, independent of any studio set-up or preconceived mental picture. Borduas’ method was inspired by the automatic writing techniques of the Surrealists, which he had read about in journals from Paris – unlike in New York, there was little modernist art to see in Montreal. Uniquely, he had come to understand these techniques through his practice as an art teacher, observing the unimpeded creativity of young children before being blocked by the curricular strictures of the public school system.
The Surrealist methods offered Borduasa space of personal and creative liberation and an alternative to the ideological prohibitions of a Quebec under the oppressive grip of the Catholic Church.
Attracted by his charismatic personality, a younger generation of artists quickly gathered around him, mostly students chafing under the constraints of official academic teaching. They were painters, including Marcel Barbeau (b. 1925), Pierre Gauvreau (1912-2011), Fernand Leduc (1916-2014), Jean-Paul Mousseau (1927-1991), Riopelle (1923-2002) and Marcelle Ferron (1924-2001); poets including Claude Gauvreau (1925-1971); and dancers such as Françoise Sullivan (b. 1925), who danced and choreographed with the same spontaneous abandon as her peers within this multidisciplinary ensemble of artists. Their fortune was to be too young to be burdened by traditional learning, leaving them free to undertake a period of remarkable uninhibited experimentation, seeking out their own integrity and individuality.
When Claude Gauvreau reviewed a group exhibition at Montreal’s Dominion Gallery in 1946, he singled out the work of his Automatiste colleagues, unabashedly proclaiming that: “At last Canadian painting exists” (Claude Gauvreau, Écrits sur l’art, Montreal, 1996, pp. 109, 111). Gauvreau did not mean that he had discovered some new form of indigenous expression. On the contrary, his point was that an authentic Canadian art had finally come into its own, not only because the Automatistes had joined the mainstream of international Modernist art, but because they had put themselves in its front ranks. Their revolutionary painting, as he maintained, was able to stand up to both New York and Paris. Gauvreau’s youthful bravura was not so very wrong. When the French critic Michel Ragon re! ected on the formation of Lyrical Abstraction in Paris, writing in 1971, he proposed that its true origin was the Automatistes’ first Paris exhibition, held at the Galerie du Luxembourg in the early summer of 1947. He wrote: “were we to take international activity into account we would realize…that the first lyrical abstract group was neither Parisian, nor from New York, but was Québécois.” (Michel Ragon, Chronique de l’art vivant, October 1971, as quoted in Duquette, Fernand Leduc, Montreal, 1980, p. 47, author’s translation). It was at the same Galerie du Luxembourg that Riopelle and Leduc participated in Georges Mathieu and Michel Tapié’s L’Imaginaire, the exhibition that officially launched Lyrical Abstraction. It is not surprising that several of the younger Automatistes soon sought careers in Paris. Riopelle first arrived in 1946, Leduc in 1947, and Ferron in 1953.
Riopelle was particularly adept at laying the foundations for a brilliant career in Paris, consorting with the Surrealists, cultivating the support of André Breton, the critic Georges Duthuit and the writer Samuel Beckett. In paintings like Composition, 1950, his abstraction had abandoned any vestiges of Cubist structure, astonishing Parisian critics by its vigor, the pigment brushed, tube-squeezed, tailed, dripped and knifed so aggressively that it could barely contain itself within the rectangle. Riopelle’s career soon spanned the Atlantic. He held his first solo show in New York at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1954, quite overshadowing the presence of his former teacher, Borduas, whose own first exhibition in New York was running simultaneously at the less eminent Passedoit Gallery on East 57th Street.
André Breton in his office at 42 Rue Fontaine, 1965, Photograph by Sabine Weiss
Among the key second generation Automatistes were Rita Letendre (b. 1928) and Jean McEwen (1923-1999). McEwen arrived in Paris in 1951 just as Riopelle, along with Sam Francis and other North American artists, were busy reappraising the work of Claude Monet. In works like his mural-sized Nymphéas, they discovered painting that resolved itself into powerful and overall seamless compositions, alive with color, depth and texture without turning to a conventionally graphic composition. The amorphous spirit of these paintings coincided perfectly with the expansive direction that Riopelle’s own work would take in the palette-knife mosaics of paintings like the monumental Forestine, 1954. Instead of looking down onto the lily ponds, McEwen stared straight ahead at Monet’s willow tree paintings and was intrigued by the upright fattened trunks that bisected the canvas into wide vertical columns of foliage rendered though a dense profusion of paint (# g. 6). It was here that McEwen found a signature compositional structure that would sustain a lifetime of work. He has yet to be honored with his proper place alongside the other much-celebrated post-war heirs of the late Monet.
Borduas stayed longer in Montreal, despite the public furor caused by the publication of the Automatistes’ politically vehement manifesto, Refus global (Total Refusal) in 1948, of which he bore the brunt. In 1953 he moved to New York, wanting to test himself on the international stage and meet the challenges of Abstract Expressionism. In the process he transformed himself from an Automatiste into what we might later call a material based painter. We see this in the magni# cent Tendresse des Gris, 1955, where he has reduced gesture to units of paint, laid down in helter-skelter disorder. Rising, almost sculpted in tactile relief, his high ridges catch light and throw shadows, prompting the work’s materiality to define our perceptual experience. When Borduas died prematurely in Paris in 1960 (where he had moved in 1955), his attention to material had reached a stage where, if his sensibility was not already proto-Minimalist, it had true affinities with the work of burgeoning pre-Arte povera artists like Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri, which he knew well.
MONTREAL: THE PLASTICIENS
Montreal’s second avant-garde movement, the Plasticiens, first gained attention in the mid-1950s when they used hard-edged geometry to challenge the painterly freedom of their Automatiste predecessors.
In the larger continental scheme of things, the Plasticiens’ rejection of Automatisme paralleled the reaction of American Post-painterly Abstract artists to their Abstract Expressionist forebears.
When Guido Molinari (1933-2004) and Claude Tousignant (b. 1932) staged their first solo exhibitions in 1956, they showed large, fat, compositionally stark paintings that were as revolutionary as anything being made internationally at that time. They both understood that they had taken leaps into the dark, and for the rest of the decade – with reference to Piet Mondrian and Barnett Newman among others - they systematically discovered their own vocabularies of painting. Molinari’s trademark evolved into a dynamic march of vertical stripes and Tousignant’s a rippling to and fro of concentric circles.
Eighteen members of the Non-Figurative Artists’ Association of Montreal (NFAAM) (from left to right, starting lower left): L. Belzile, G. Webber, L. Bellefleur, F. Toupin, F. Leduc, A.Jasmi, C. Tousignant, J.-P. Mousseau, G. Molinari, J.P. Beaudin, M. Barbeau, R. Millet, P. Ewen, R. Giguère, P. Landsley, P. Gauvreau, P. Bourassa and J. McEwen, 1957. Photo: Louis T. Jaques
They found their independent voices at a time when hard-edge painting had become the subject of international (if largely New York–based) debates that were framed in relation to the critical issues proposed by such major exhibitions as Clement Greenberg’s Post-painterly Abstraction in 1964 and William Seitz’s The Responsive Eye in 1965 - in which both artists participated.
While their paintings initially appeared American because of their scale and use of pure unmodulated color, Molinari and Tousignant’s artistic strategies differentiated them from their American contemporaries in a number of ways. For instance, they pulled their color planes taut and abutted them tightly so that it was not their individual character as much as their interrelatedness that registered. Edges remained hard in a European way, razor-sharp in comparison with the softer American lines that let color fields breathe with Matissian ease. While artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland continued to harbor vestiges of illusionistic space, the Montrealers advanced and extended the phenomenological experience generated by their paintings as if to occupy the very space shared by the viewer. Contrary to the orthodoxies of American Post-painterly Abstraction, Tousignant and Molinari also built duration into the artistic experience, staging their colors so that they mutate under the roving eye and, consequently, transformed their paintings from mere static pictures into experiential events. These aesthetic choices aligned their sensibilities with the emerging tenets of Minimalism in the 1960s, and anticipated the evolution of abstraction into the twenty-first century.
Two other outstanding members of the generation of Montreal artists born during the early 1930s were Charles Gagnon (1934-2003) and Yves Gaucher (1934-2000). Also a hard-edge color painter, Gaucher’s Grey on Grey series of some sixty paintings, executed between 1967 and 1969, remain one of the grand achievements of postwar abstract painting. Charles Gagnon was a much more elusive artist who worked indiscriminately across a variety of media: film, photography, collage and Duchampian box constructions, as well as painting. Like Borduas, Gagnon chose to live in New York and immersed himself in its avant-garde world of experimental art from 1955-60. As a consequence, his painting developed quite differently from that of his Montreal contemporaries and paintings like Le huitième jour, 1963, display his affinities with second-generation Abstract Expressionism. Once his work turned hard edge, as in Champ marron, 1965-66, he thrived on staging perceptual problems: flat fields divided by sharp thresholds, crisscross patterns of grisaille brushstrokes that flicker and shift with a turn of the head. The effects are both mechanically regular and entirely sensuous as Gagnon simultaneously teases and seduces.
Molinari, Tousignant, and Gaucher found the 1960s heady years, not only for solo shows in New York but for participation in thematic exhibitions across the United States. Molinari had a total of four solo shows at the uptown East Hampton Gallery (22 West 56th Street) between 1962 and 1967; Tousignant had two, in 1965 and 1966; and Gaucher exhibited his new paintings at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1966. The first major international exhibition to include paintings by Molinari and Tousignant was William Seitz’s large, eclectic and inclusive optical art show The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. The Canadians may not always have been comfortable being called Op artists, but it was this classification that largely drove their participation in so many of the optical art exhibitions that followed in the wake of the MoMA show. In 1965 alone, they all exhibited at the Fort Worth Art Center, the University of Texas in Austin and Houston, the Ohio State University, and the University of Vermont in Burlington. Among other honors during the decade, Tousignant represented Canada at the 8th São Paulo Biennial in 1965, Molinari at the Venice Biennale in 1968; and Gaucher’s exhibition of the Grey on Grey paintings was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1969.
TORONTO: PAINTERS ELEVEN
Painters Eleven emerged a decade later than the Automatistes, holding their first official joint exhibition in 1954. If some members had lingering British roots, by the mid-1950s their source of inspiration had become New York. It was here that their Riverside Museum exhibition in 1956 provided Painters Eleven with their first, and probably best, critical reception outside of Canada. It was also in New York where William Ronald would pursue a brief if brilliant international career, starting with his first one-man show at the Kootz Gallery in 1957. Also in 1957, New York critic Clement Greenberg was invited to Toronto by Painters Eleven to critique their work, a visit that would prove especially germane to Jack Bush.
Unlike the Automatistes, Painters Eleven were a disparate group, in background and age, and had no interest in articulating a common aesthetic program. The group was essentially formed as a marketing strategy to promote and sell their work as Toronto remained hostile to abstract painting, so it was entirely apt that one of the group’s founding events was staged by William Ronald at Simpson’s department store in Toronto, the 1953 exhibition Abstracts at Home. Unlike the work of the Montreal artists, that of Painters Eleven is rarely purely abstract. There is much action-painting gusto and Abstract Expressionist size to their paintings, but there is otherwise more diversity than commonality.
Of the several members of the group represented in this exhibition, Hortense Gordon (1889-1961) and Alexandra Luke (1901-1967) were among the oldest. Luke had experimented with automatist techniques under the tutelage of another senior member, James Wilson Galloway (Jock) MacDonald (1897-1960), at the Banff School of Fine Arts during the summer of 1945. All three spent time in Hans Hofmann’s Summer School in Provincetown during the late 1940s and early 1950s. While he left marks on their work, because of their relative maturity they worked with Hoffman as colleagues – even friends – rather than as students. Ray Mead (1921-1998), a Royal Air Force pilot with firsthand British roots who settled in Hamilton, Ontario in 1946, subsequently came under the tutelage of Hortense Gordon, who introduced him to American influences by passing on to him what she had learned from Hofmann.
Among the youngest of Painters Eleven were Harold Town (1924-1990) and William Ronald (1926-1998), recent grads of the Ontario College of Art, who were still largely in formative stages when the group came together. Ronald soon decamped for New York, but Town stayed in Toronto and cultivated a reputation during the 1950s as, in the words of the critic Gary Michael Dault, “maybe the hottest, most inventive, most daring painter in the country” (“Gallery Going,”Globe and Mail, September 27, 2003). He worked closely alongside the three-decade older Oscar Cahén (1916-1956), a recent Danish-German immigrant displaced by World War II. Cahén was, by consensus, the most sophisticated and experienced of the artists, with an exhibition career in Europe that dated back to at least 1934.
What Town shared with Cahén was a penchant for surfeit that in both artists seems British in the mode of a painter like Alan Davie. Town especially liked to display the whole arsenal of his painterly techniques in each of his works, the paint squeezed, scumbled, splashed, scraped and even snapped as if the expressionist gestures and accidental effects must all be densely packed into tiny microcosms (# g. 18). At the other end of the scale was Kazuo Nakamura (1926-2002), the outlier within the group, whose paintings were always precisely ordered, and executed with poetic restraint.
If Riopelle was internationally the most famous Canadian artist during the 1950s, it was Bush (1909-1977) who dominated the late 1960s and 1970s. It is an odd reversal - Riopelle was Bush’s junior by some fourteen years - but Bush was a late starter who, the dapper advertising executive that he was, only began to find his voice by the end of the 1950s.
Bush never moved from Toronto, but his artistic career developed with close relations to New York. His reputation outside of Canada owed a great deal to the advice and support of Clement Greenberg, who, in his 1964 exhibition, Post-painterly Abstraction, set Bush alongside the likes of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella. The turning point in his career was Greenberg’s visit to his studio in 1957, when the New York critic turned his back on Bush’s abstract expressionist influenced paintings to praise his much simpler and thinner watercolors.
Bush’s mature work developed after Greenberg’s first visit, as he turned his painterly gestures into color shapes. The parallels are with Louis and Noland, but Bush did not adopt the symmetrical holistic look of these artists. In contrast he preserved an idiosyncratic vocabulary of shape, line, color and form, characteristics that became hallmarks of his independent spirit.
Bush’s particular stylistic eccentricities can also be understood as a reaction of his continued dialogue with the breadth and depth of the modernist tradition, especially with such formidable masters as Mirò and Matisse. When Bush resumed the figure-ground problem in 1969, it was Mirò who prompted something fresh and vital to emerge. The new mottled grounds that would become a constant for Bush’s painting henceforth were at first rolled on and later sponged. They are broken and roughly textured planar fields, foils for the emblematic, calligraphic and cartoon shapes that play on top of them.
The exhibition is rich and varied in content. But it is merely a sampler of the artistic discoveries to be made north of the Canadian border.