A Celebration of Two Canadian Abstractionists: Jack Bush and Jock Macdonald.
“Jack Bush” was at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa up to 22nd February 2015, and will be at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, 30th May to 23rd August 2015.
“Jock Macdonald: Evolving Form” was at the Vancouver Art Gallery, October 2014 to January 2015; is at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario, 3rd February until 24th May 2015; and will be at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 12th June to 7th September 2015.
Two senior members of Painters Eleven are currently the subject of enormous, traveling retrospective exhibitions in Canada. Painters Eleven, who were active as a group from 1953 to 1960, marked a key turning point in the history of art in English-speaking Canada – a pronounced shift away from Europe towards New York and from figuration towards abstraction. Bush is the one most familiar to a British audience. His work is in the Tate Modern and he regularly exhibited with the Waddington Galleries in London. In 1980, three years after his death at the age of 68, the Arts Council of Great Britain circulated an exhibition of 87 works to venues in London, Edinburgh and Birmingham. Macdonald was born in Thurso, Scotland, in 1897 and studied design at the Edinburgh College of Art, but after his emigration to Canada in 1926 to teach design at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, he regrettably had scant presence in the United Kingdom.
Both Bush and Macdonald began their careers oriented towards the landscape painting of Canada’s iconic Group of Seven (the subject of an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from October, 2011 into January, 2012). Macdonald’s In the White Forest (1932), with its obvious debt to Lawren Harris, is a case in point. For each of them an important step forward from that rather parochial, highly nationalistic group to an international outlook and the challenges of modernism was involvement with a version of automatism. The two retrospective catalogues bring important new information to bear on that change.
Curator Linda Jansma of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario, was alerted by the artist’s nephew Alasdair Macdonald to a previously unknown trove of 86 drawings and watercolour automatics plus 38 of Macdonald’s letters in the archives of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. The letters clarify Macdonald’s close relation to Dr. Grace Pailthorpe, a British psycho-analyst and Surrealist painter, and Reuben Mednikoff, another British surrealist painter, both of whom lived, lectured and exhibited their work in Vancouver from 1942-46. Around mid-1945 Macdonald took up automatism in a quest for what Pailthorpe called “the ‘marvelous’ and the beauty of irrational thought and creation.” Yet in comparison with the automatics of Macdonald’s colleague in Painters Eleven, Alexandra Luke, Macdonald’s “automatics” seem over-worked, as if his training in design and his habit of continually referring back to nature, in which he found “a force which is the one order to which the whole universe conforms,” held him back.
While Macdonald submitted himself to ongoing tutelage with the knowledgeable Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, Bush’s introduction to working from the unconscious had a quite different source, his psychiatrist, Dr. Alan J. Walters. As revealed by the artist’s diaries, now held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Bush’s work began to grow more personal in 1947 when, after he developed stomach problems, Dr. Walters suggested he paint his “inner feelings and moods.” In March, 1948, the doctor “further suggested starting from scratch on a blank canvas with no preconceived idea and just let the thing develop in colour, form, and content.”
Like Macdonald’s automatics, Bush’s work was at the time still limited by his preoccupation with what to paint rather than how to paint. The work was more emotionally freighted than before, but he had not yet found his own, mature voice.
A decisive further step forward for each of the two was sage advice from other professionals. In 1955 Macdonald was living in Vence on a fellowship, where he met Jean Dubuffet. As Joyce Zemans pointed out in the catalogue for Macdonald’s second retrospective (at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1981), Macdonald showed both his oils and his watercolours to Dubuffet, who much preferred the latter and advised him to “speak in oil as you speak in watercolour” and to “experiment to find how you can use your oils as you do your watercolours.”
Dubuffet’s advice only came to full fruition after 1957 when another member of Painters Eleven, Harold Town, introduced Macdonald to Lucite 44, an acrylic resin (n-butyl-methacrylate). Mixed with oil, Lucite 44 allowed the fluidity that Macdonald had long sought and produced the softer, more dilute colours that I take to be typical of his finest work.
For Bush the process was similar. In 1957 nine members of Painters Eleven invited Clement Greenberg to Toronto where he could spend a half day in the studio of each. (Harold Town and Walter Yarwood declined to participate; Town notoriously argued that an art critic can no more “teach the artist” than “a light bulb has a lesson for the sun” – as if teaching was somehow the issue.)
Greenberg found Bush’s watercolours simpler and more personal than his oils, in which Bush’s efforts to assimilate Abstract Expressionism worked to his disadvantage, resulting, Greenberg argued, in mere mannerism, and he castigated Bush for facile brush strokes – so-called “hot licks.” Greenberg advised several of the members, “Don’t admire New York so much.”
The force of Greenberg’s advice to Bush can easily be misunderstood, as if Bush were “an aesthetic marionette.” Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, and curator Adam Welch argue against such an erroneous view in their catalogue essays. To be sure, Greenberg did suggest that Bush abandon the paint handling the critic referred to as “Tenth-Street Touch,” avoid black so as to bring his strength as a colourist to the fore, and refrain from centering the image too much. But in 1975 I had a conversation with Bush that confirms Mayer’s account of his aesthetic autonomy. Bush described a highly positive studio visit by Greenberg and fellow modernist critic, Kenworth Moffett. They had commented that Bush “was on a roll, and the ‘success ratio’ was very high,” but they had also argued that most of the paintings were upside down from their optimal orientation. Was Bush going to rotate them the suggested 180 degrees? “No.” And why not? “Because they’re wrong.” Clearly Bush was open to workshop criticism, just as T.S. Eliot was to that of Ezra Pound, but he maintained an admirable independence of judgment.
Both Macdonald and Bush seemed to have sought extra-aesthetic functions from their art. Macdonald had spiritual ambitions from the beginning. Vancouver had highly knowledgeable men like photographer John Vanderpant and stage designer Harry Täuber who stimulated Macdonald’s extensive spiritual enquiry into the work of Madame Blavatsky, Sir James Jeans, Wassily Kandinsky, Peter Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, and others. Anna Hudson argues in her catalogue essay that the De Stijl movement was evidence for Macdonald “of artists’ ability to materialize spiritual and metaphysical truths.” When Macdonald wrote that “the only reality is the spiritual,” he was confessing just how rooted he was in the values of the inter-war period – perhaps not entirely to his advantage.
Bush had a habit of not just painting from his feelings, but of painting his feelings out: when he was unhappy with his superiors at his job in commercial art, when a valued colleague and friend like Oscar Cahen died, or when his heart – and then his liver – were troubling him in later years. In the most successful instances, the initial distress the artist felt has been so transformed that only the merest residue of it remains. After Bush’s chest pains were diagnosed as angina he chose a crescent shape to stand for them. In paintings such as Test (1969, not in the exhibition) the repetition of that shape and a schematic of his electrocardiogram are quite painful. Lacking detachment, that painting is unsuccessful. But in Spring Breeze (1971, not in the exhibition) the pink ovoids float rather than bombard and have evolved, now vaguely suggesting flowers – tulips perhaps – and their emotional valence is much more positive. We recognize the artist’s penchant for extracting light and pleasure from even the darkest and most disturbing imagery.
The general principle is well known and has been discussed by many writers: G.W.F. Hegel, Walter Pater, Benedetto Croce and Edward Bullough, among others. Croce argued that the artist has feelings that require to be “resolved” and “transcended” so that in successful art, “feeling is converted altogether into images” and hence the artist is “liberated.” In the words of the great German critic, Julius Meier-Graefe, “All art is a trophy of victorious struggle.”
This is in keeping with the observation by the great sculptor David Smith that “There is no such thing as truly abstract – all art has to emerge from a life.” Alfred Hitchcock said that to deal with his fears, he had to make films about them. Picasso thought of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as not just his first cubist painting but also as his first exorcism painting, intended to exorcise his fears of contracting venereal disease in brothels. The thin vertical “lifelines” in Clyfford Still’s paintings can be interpreted as the descendants of the “lifeline” that suspended Still when he was lowered as a child into a well. And so on.
But where is the highest quality in the work of these two artists? Since both of them re-invented themselves numerous times, there is much room for debate.
Macdonald’s first abstract work began in 1935 and continued off and on throughout the decade. I often find it too suggestive of Kandinsky, although Spring Awakening (1936) is a strong exception to that complaint. At the same time he was doing highly successful, less fully abstract work like Rain (1938) and The Wave (1939). As Ian Thom observes in his catalogue essay, “Macdonald both denies and confirms our sense of space.” In The Wave we clearly look down on the scene from above, but is it the sky or the shore we see on the left? Are those water droplets or amoeba falling from the upper left corner? How much space can be suggested when the surface is pocked with sand?
I find that Macdonald’s work of the 1940s and early 1950s is often vitiated by excessive busy-ness: too many colours, too many shapes jostling against one another, too many references to nature that fail to connect with the rest of the picture, too many assertions of forcefulness and control. The paintings cannot breathe, and a sense of claustrophobia, of horror vacui even, dominates works like Ritual Dance (1949) and Bearer of Gifts (1952). The occasional exceptions, such as The White Bird (a watercolor of 1952) and Nature’s Pattern (a gouache of 1954), are convincing, but they do not have the strength of his later works painted with Lucite 44, which Macdonald himself said were “far superior” to “anything I have ever done.” In my view, Macdonald was never stronger than he was in the last two years of his life, with works like Fleeting Breath (1959), Heroic Mould (1959) and Far Off Drums (1960.) In the latter painting he allows himself to speak sotto voce. Line just barely retains a sense of continuity. Forms barely grasp the surface and resist our full apprehension. Does this hint at the transitory nature of our pleasures and our tenuous hold on the objects of our affection? Perhaps it does, to the advantage of his art. Unfortunately Macdonald died at the height of his powers in 1960. A mere three or four years at his peak, with something like a signature style, was not enough for him to re-invent himself several times over and convince us of the fertility of his vision as Bush did.
Macdonald was one of the greatest teachers of art in the history of Canada, with notable students such as William Ronald and Richard Gorman. Had he not had to teach full time, often with extra teaching during the summer, would he have accomplished more, sooner? Surely he would have.
The high points in Bush’s career are much more numerous. I have argued that his maturity dates from his Thrust paintings of 1961. Marc Mayer thinks of their central, recurrent image as priapic, although its source in Gottlieb’s Thrust (1959) is even more apparent. An especially convincing work in this group is Thrust with Blue (1961), where the two main shapes – green and blue – establish a relationship inspired by but quite different from Gottlieb’s dyadic compositions.
Karen Wilkin’s catalogue essay makes a persuasive argument that Bush’s vocabulary of both colour and forms is “rooted in observed actuality.” Bush could be classified as what I call an “image-bank” painter, with his creativity fueled by various objects he had seen. His work stands in striking contrast to the resolutely non-referential and seemingly more precise and refined art of his American counterparts. In 1977, the last year of his life, he said, “I don’t look for anything. It comes to me. I may be walking along a road and I see a mark on the road; it looks interesting, so I try it out as a painting. Or looking at some flowers in the garden – how can I get the feel of those colours…?” An outstanding example is Ascension #1 (1962) in which St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice and the Italian flag have been subsumed into a convincing abstract painting of great power.
His Sash paintings, which I take to be another high point in his art, had numerous sources: a colourful dress on a manikin, the view out of Bush’s tent, and a martini glass. Tight Sash (1963) and Pinched Orange (1964) are strong examples. Their colour areas have a motility that is distinctive to Bush. They are by no means Noland’s neutral containers for colour but instead function as dynamic shapes that can press, warp, or tighten and so vitalize these fine works.
Paintings like English Visit and Grey V (both 1967) were excoriated in Artnews by Al Brunelle as like “herding sheep,” but the best of them have a counterpoise of numerous different directional forces that Brunelle seems not to have noticed. In Grey V the dynamically slanted central bank of colour bands is anchored at the top right corner and at the centre-bottom, and the other two banks of colour bands are aligned with the perimeter, so that a sense of repose is no less than that of motility.
The paintings with mottled, rollered grounds were in part a response to the work of Lawrence Poons, who showed with Bush’s Toronto dealer, David Mirvish. Bush was stimulated by the interpenetrating colours that Poons achieved by throwing buckets of paint at the canvas. Bush created his own distinctly personal version by dropping a few dollops of one colour into a pan of another colour that had been chosen for the ground, and dipping his roller into that unmixed paint. There are many masterpieces, including Rising (19970) and January No. 6 (1972, not in the exhibition). Technically, these may be figure-ground paintings, but Bush had learned from Hans Hofmann, one of whose works on paper he owned, that the figure-ground relation can be subverted if some raw canvas is left at the perimeter. As Walter Darby Bannard has explained, the “ground” will then float, just as the various figures do. The “ground” becomes a field, and the picture gains a spatial richness that it might otherwise not have.
The so-called musical pictures, with background colour applied by sponges and rags, might also be loosely called figure-ground paintings. Again, there are many great ones. Chopsticks (1977) is an ebullient work that reminds of Bush’s interest in jazz. But Basie Blues (1975), with its colour “notes” coming to rest at the bottom of the painting, reminds me of the last works by Titian or Van Gogh, with a suggestion that the artist is subliminally aware of his impending mortality. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Bush is that his work is grounded in human struggle and a depth of human feeling.
So why has Macdonald, even within the brief period of his highest accomplishment, been so much less exportable than Bush, never successful in getting a dealer outside of Canada? And if Bush has powers the equal of Kelly, Noland or Louis, which I believe he has, why has he not had his due? To be sure, Bush was in Greenberg’s Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition of 1964; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opened its new contemporary wing in 1972 with a one-man show of Bush, and the Tate issued a set of playing cards depicting their Sash painting, but he is not in the Museum of Modern Art nor the Centre Pompidou, as I believe he should be. Perhaps a major part of the explanation is the predilection for stylistic compromises that characterizes much of their work.
Those compromises are particularly striking in Macdonald. Even at the height of his career his work could have a high dosage of what Greenberg called “homeless representation,” i.e., a suggestion of landscape space without the landscape. A prime example is Elemental Fury (1960). As good as it is, it does not strike out into new territory the way Bush so often did. Nor does the striking Lament (1958) with its gelid palette giving a hint of Lawren Harris’ icy mountain peaks.
Bush’s seeming compromises are a different matter. Bush was fully immersed in up-to-the-minute high modernism, being good friends with Noland, Olitski, Caro, etc. Nonetheless, he retained an interest in figure-ground painting when most advanced artists had long abandoned it, and his space is seldom so resolutely indeterminate as it is in Olitski, or so radically reduced as it is in Noland. Even more, his hand is readily apparent, as it seldom is in such post-Pollock abstractionists as Kelly, Louis and Noland. Noland’s demand that his studio assistants take a floor polisher to some of his paintings so that any suggestion of activity by the hand would be obliterated is inconceivable in Bush. And, as Karen Wilkin observes in her catalogue essay, even Bush’s mature works are often imagist, sometimes with a suggestion of flowers more apparent than in any of Louis’s Florals.
Perhaps this urge to be both advanced and yet also conserve the values of the past stamp Bush and Macdonald as distinctly Canadian, raised in a country in which tensions between Anglophone, francophone and native communities have produced a nation expert at tolerance and compromise. Moreover, as Gad Horowitz has demonstrated, Canada had enough of “Toryism” with its Family Compact oligarchy that a reaction emerged on the left, so that Canada is more ideologically diverse than the United States, and tolerance for differences in belief is greater.
In Bush’s case, these apparent “compromises” could be best understood as what Michael Fried called “all-together painting,” i.e., a comprehensive absorption of the best art of the previous several generations into a grand synthesis of art history such as he found in Manet and as William Rubin unearthed in Jackson Pollock. Bush assimilated Matisse and Miro, Hofmann and Gottlieb, and even artists of the next, younger generation like Poons. Given the rich diversity of his sources, his “compromises” seem to me more like an inventive set of resolved tensions and a creative fusion of much that was best in modern art.
Johann Sebastian Bach was viewed in his time as “old-fashioned” and out of step with modern practice, and yet is unquestionably acknowledged today as one of the very greatest of all composers. For a while, later Monet could seem like an obsolete cul-de-sac in art history rather than a prime source for Pollock such as as we now believe he was. Bonnard has at times been seen as somewhat behind the times, but we can now see that he managed to create something new out of Impressionism. Advancedness in and of itself is no litmus test for great art. Perhaps Bush and Macdonald were not always advanced to the utmost degree, but their very substantial accomplishments are not at all diminished by that. In my view, Macdonald deserves a much wider audience abroad, and Bush stands as one of the supreme painters of his time.