Art

A prophet finally honored in his own land

BARRIE HALE September 20 1976
Art

A prophet finally honored in his own land

BARRIE HALE September 20 1976

A prophet finally honored in his own land

Art

It’s the lot of most Canadian artists to enjoy a measure of national celebrity but to be little known outside this country. For Jack Bush, whose retrospective opens in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario this month, it has been just the opposite: over the past dozen years his international reputation has grown impressively, but this retrospective marks the first time Canadians have had the chance to celebrate his achievements in any major fashion.

In Bush’s case, the cause for celebration is twofold. He is not only a color abstractionist of major distinction, but he holds a position of some symbolic importance—he is The Canadian Who Made It. Without moving his artistic base from Toronto, where he was born in 1909 and has lived since 1928, Bush has shown his paintings regularly in some of the finer galleries on the international art scene. (At the same time he was raising a family and building a career as a commercial art director of note; he retired from commercial art in 1968.) Since 1964, he has had half again as many one-man exhibitions in New York and London as he has in Toronto and Montreal. He is the only home-based Canadian painter, ever, to make a major contribution to the characteristic art of his time, and have it recognized. His paintings now sell regularly, everywhere, in the $3,000 to $10,000 range, making him one of the very best buys on the international art scene. “In 1968 my paintings started to sell,” says

Bush, a genial, grandfatherly man with a nice sense of irony, “first in New York, then in London—and after that in Canada, which is the usual habit of Canadians.”

In his chosen area of color-field abstraction, Bush now has only two peers, both American—Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski—and Bush’s painting is not only uniquely his own but crucially different from theirs.

For some years, formalist abstract painting has appeared to have reached its logical conclusion. It is not a “dead end,” because Noland and Olitski (and Canada’s Guido Molinari) continue to work at the height of their powers. But the question is, “After them, what?” The enterprise seems to have reached the final formal solution in their vast fields of color and geometrically orchestrated canvases. During that same period, the early Seventies, increasing international note has been taken of Bush’s painting, not only as an individual achievement of high order but as an alternative direction, a “way out” for formalist abstraction. Following his own inclinations, Bush has brought back to such painting some of the expressive vocabu-

lary of figurai drawing, releasing formal abstraction from the geometric confines that Cubism began to impose upon it 60 years ago. In the dancing flight of adventurous color-forms across the rhythmic surface ground of such a Bush canvas as the Basin St. Blues of 1975. there is a reaffirmation of Matisse. Such Bush paintings also represent an important leap forward, a breathtakingly “natural” marriage of expressive shape and gesture to formalist strictures. One senses that scholarly floodgates are about to open to sanctify Bush’s achievement; already such critical bellwethers as Art International and Studio International have begun to take the measure of his work—two years ago, the latter gave Bush the nod for “enriching the repertoire of art and pulling off some masterpieces along the way.”

All this is an enormous distance from Bush’s beginnings in the isolated and provincial artistic milieu of the Toronto of the 1930s, Forties and early Fifties, dominated by the Group of Seven and their heirs. “They never once told us where their influence came from,” Bush remembers. “They were indigenous to Canadian soil through self-toil, and all that nonsense.” Terry Fenton, in his essay for the catalogue of the Bush retrospective, points out the Art Nouveau elements in Group of Seven painting that gave it much of its impact, and he gives them their rightful place in Bush’s development. He also draws the proper connective lines between these “Canadian” elements in Bush’s work and their international flowering in the Modernist painting of Matisse, Arp, Klee and Miró. Fenton stops short of calling Bush’s achievement a Canadian one, because of the emphasis he places on New York critic Clement Greenberg’s encouragement of Bush’s mature phase of painting, which dates from the very late 1950s, the point at which this retrospective of 55 Bush paintings begins. But that great, expressive loop of color in a Bush painting such as Hook of 1969 ties him not only to Matisse, Arp, Miró et al, it is prefigured again and again in Bush’s “realistic” Canadian landscapes and seascapes of the 1930s and Forties. A truly full retrospective of all of Bush’s work, pre-Greenberg as well as post-, could only work to expand appreciation of his unique pictorial invention.

This Bush retrospective will travel from its Toronto opening—to Vancouver in November, Edmonton in January 1977, Montreal in March, finally to the National Gallery in Ottawa next spring, and it should bring to Bush some of the acclaim he so richly deserves in his own country. In the past 20 years, there have been some other paintings done, elsewhere, that are as lastingly resonant as Bush’s This Time Yellow of 1968, but not many of them. “You will find artists,” Bush says now, looking back on it all, “who claim they’re going to be the best in the world. That I have never done and never will. But I’m doing it silently, if I can make it.” BARRIL HALE

BARRIE HALE