In the 1940s and early 1950s, Montreal was the pre-eminent centre for advanced art in Canada. The most important group there, Les Automatistes, emerged parallel to the Abstract Expressionists, although they were more inter-disciplinary and more political than their New York contemporaries. Think of their provocative and influential manifesto, Refus global (1948), which is often credited with furthering Quebec’s advance into the more modern era of the “Quiet Revolution.” While their leading figure, Paul-Emile Borduas, exiled himself to New York in 1953 and then Paris in 1955, where he died prematurely in 1960, several titans of Les Automatistes continued to re-invent themselves for a surprisingly long time, most notably Pierre Gauvreau (1922-2011), Marcel Barbeau (1925-2016) and Francoise Sullivan (1925- ). The vitality of Sullivan’s current work is a striking reminder of the importance of this still underappreciated movement.
If Françoise Sullivan were Japanese rather than Canadian, she would almost certainly have been designated by now as a living national treasure. She contributed a seminal essay (“Dance and Hope”) to that most important cultural document in the history of Canada, Refus global, and is widely credited with making a vital contribution to the development of modern dance in Canada. Moreover, she created some early modernist sculpture in Canada, was a leader in performance art here, and for the last few decades has been one of this country’s most prominent abstract painters. I think of her as the doyenne of Canadian art.