Art

Music and silence on canvas

John Bentley Mays April 16 1979
Art

Music and silence on canvas

John Bentley Mays April 16 1979

Music and silence on canvas

Art

Yves Gaucher doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in the exuberant, tropical landscape of Canadian art in the ’70s. He is a native Québécois who thinks art “owes nothing to its geographical or political contexts”; an artist content to keep rolling paint out on stretched canvas while others busily experiment in video, performance and mixed plastic media; a solitary, philosophical worker who has more in common with the New York abstractionists of the ’50s than with his Canadian contemporaries. Nevertheless, as the survey of his past 15 years’ work now on

view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (and soon to travel to Calgary) clearly shows, Gaucher has earned a place on the map—even if the map has to be redrawn.

Now 45, with the trim good looks of an executive addicted to jogging, Gaucher began his training in 1954 at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. But his formal schooling was brief: he was tossed out of l’Ecole 1V2 years later on a charge of insubordination —and he has never looked back. By the end of 1963 (the year of the earliest work in the exhibition), Gaucher had established

himself with one-man shows in Montreal, Toronto and New York, and with a bundle of awards for his heavily embossed prints. The romantically titled suite of prints En hommage à Webern— inspired by a Webern concert he attended in Paris the year before—appear at first glance to be merely empty white fields, interrupted here and there by random dashes and squares, either colored or left as uninked embosses. Given a little time, however, these marks begin to guide the eye through a series of manoeuvres across the print’s surface, gradually disclosing their precise plotting, and the blank plane becomes charged with high visual voltage. Like Webern’s musical scores, the prints are both structurally delicate and very concentrated. Unlike Webern, they are also mechanical and faintly gimmicky.

Inspired by the New York abstractpainter Mark Rothko and by the color theories of Josef Albers, Gaucher turned to painting in 1964, and over the next few years produced a number of canvasses characterized by the same delicacy and complexity as the graphic

works, with much more vital simplicity. First came the diamond-shaped Danses Carrées (1965), fields of color marked by linear cues that move the eye through dance-like steps around the canvas. Next, the horizontal, contemplative Signals/Silences (1966); and, finally, the Ragas (1967).

The period of experimentation with colors and materials came to an end in December, 1967, when Gaucher began the first of his Grey on Grey paintings. As first planned, there were to be only 12. By the time the last canvas was completed in late 1969, he had made more than 40. Gaucher had finally accomplished a body of virtuoso work as commanding and compelling as anything in modern Canadian art. Not that the Greys are any easier to grasp than the Weberns or the earlier paintings. If anything, the job of understanding is made harder by his abandonment of the visual handles that give access to the earlier work—the vivacious color combinations and active, intense compositions. Now, the viewer faces one flat, uniformly sombre oblong after another, on which have been drawn a few narrow lines. Even after being observed for several minutes, these paintings are still pretty quiet about themselves.

Here, as before, time is the key that’s needed to unlock the paintings’ secret— but time of a different kind. Earlier, one had to wait until the pattern emerged, then perform the optical gymnastics it prescribed. In the Greys one is asked merely to wait—and keep waiting. Very

little is going to happen. But to reject these shy paintings as dull or vapid is to miss their real gift: neither sensuous delight nor even intellectual stimulation, but the serenity, the relief from striving, that comes in the course of certain kinds of meditation. These still, grey works express the impact of Gaucher’s personal interests during the ’60s, especially the music of Webern and Karlheinz Stockhausen, modern masters of time, silence and strict formal organization; and the philosophies of Buddhism and existentialism. They can’t be considered merely as illustrations of these interests, but neither can they be fully understood outside Gaucher’s intellectual contexts.

Not so his next large project, the Color Bands (1971-1977). Suddenly, there is a new self-consciousness and art-consciousness; a beginning, as Gaucher says, “from zero.” The strong colors and bold parallel ordering of these canvasses remind one, not of Zen, but of sophisticated abstract painters such as Kenneth Noland and Guido Molinari. Superseding the fragile spiritual intentions of the Greys is a new muscular secularism, an awareness of the traditional problems of New York art, that brings Gaucher as close as he has ever come to the mainstream of Canadian and American painting.

In 1974 and again in 1977, Gaucher visited the Mayan ruins in Yucatán, and in 1975 the Egyptian pyramids and temples, documenting the sites in thousands of slides. Though he will neither confirm nor deny that these trips have influenced his painting since the Color Bands, it is hard not to see allusions to the sacred architectures of Egypt and Mexico in the unfinished visionary sequence that concludes the AGO exhibition: the Jerichos (1978). The five huge works on view are almost architectural in scale, and possess monumental weight. Their rectangular forms are barely able to contain the powerful trapezoidal figures within them—figures reminiscent, perhaps, of both ancient Mexican and Egyptian temple doorways. Regarded only as formal constructions, however, the Jerichos are remarkable for their solemnity (which never turns into joylessness) and their humane statements, which Gaucher never allows to become just another set of platitudes on a gallery wall. With the Jerichos, he has moved back into his own special territory of imagination.

One thing Gaucher does deny—emphatically—is the suggestion that the AGO exhibition is a retrospective. “This is a test of my work, not the announcement of a finale.” And what is going to be Gaucher’s next move? “I don’t know,” he replies. “That’s the whole point of the thing, and of my working.” John Bentley Mays