Jack Bush’s Dazzling Abstractions


Jack Bush, Light Grey (July 1968), acrylic on canvas, 226 x 172.7 cm. Private Collection. © Estate of Jack Bush / SODRAC (2014). Photo: Michael Cullen, TPG Digital Art Services

Tall Spread (1966) is like a banner announcing, “Prepare to be dazzled.” Hanging at the entrance to the Jack Bush exhibition, just off the National Gallery’s Great Hall, the three-metre-high painting features a stack of rainbow colours anchored by a vertical green band, with colour and form in seemingly perfect harmony. Past the glass door, Light Grey (1968) contains more of those satisfying ribbons of prismatic colours. Bonnet (1961) evokes vague hat shapes against a sunny yellow background. And twelve more rooms of Bush’s large, brilliant, abstract paintings continue to brighten the spirits. If ever there were an antidote to November, this would surely be it.

Jack Bush was one Canada’s most important abstract painters. A master of colour, light, composition and form, he made a name for himself on the international art scene in the heady, hedonistic 1960s and 1970s, with bold, spontaneous “pictures of nothing,” as the Gallery’s Director Marc Mayer writes in the exhibition catalogue.

Mayer is co-curator of this retrospective exhibition, along with Sarah Stanners, an independent art historian and Bush expert. With over one hundred and thirty paintings, drawings and commercial illustrations highlighting Bush’s fifty-year career, this show is a full-body experience. “Jack’s works aim to provoke a visceral effect,” said Stanners in an interview with NGC Magazine, “a sense of emotion, of delight in the eye. You really need to stand in front of these works, and you feel sometimes as if you’re swimming in them.”

Also included in the exhibition are excerpts from Bush’s unpublished diaries, which, along with the highly figurative illustrations he did over his forty-year commercial career, provide important insight into his creative process.

The exhibition is laid out in such a way as to immerse viewers immediately in Bush’s most dynamic abstract work — as Mayer told NGC Magazine, “to unleash the full power of Jack Bush right from the beginning, no holding back.” Thus, in the first room we encounter key works from different points in his career, then follow the evolution from his black- and grey-toned abstract expressionist paintings of the 1950s, through his various series. The sequence is more or less chronological, which happens to be thematic as well, since Bush tended to explore certain forms for a year or two before moving on to the next. 


Jack Bush, Pinched Orange (December 1964), oil on canvas, 220.9 x 177.8 cm. Collection of Audrey and David Mirvish, Toronto. © Estate of Jack Bush / SODRAC (2014). Photo: Craig Boyko

There are the abstracted flowers of 1960, shown here for the first time ever; the Thrusts, with their horizontal bars and explosive shapes; the Flag series, inspired by his 1962 trip to Europe; Sashes, which recall cinched waists; Fringes, such as Tall Spread and Light Grey; the works with mottled grounds, in which flat shapes appear on textured, granite-like surfaces; the Totems, with their multi-coloured sticks; and his last series, the rhythmic Handkerchiefs, which float on sponge-painted fields.

Wall text beside many of the works includes excerpts from the diaries that Bush began keeping in 1952 on the advice of his psychiatrist. His twenty-five years of writing remain an extraordinary source of insight into his thoughts, motivation and artistic process. Beside Irish Rock #1 and Irish Rock #2, for instance, is this entry from October 6, 1969: “Went to the studio and mixed the paint for the 2 ‘rock’ areas which I put on with a roller. On purpose, I mixed the paints roughly, hoping for a rock-like texture from the accidents. I got it beautifully on the big one — then rolled the smaller one, a little different color — just right.”

About two-thirds of the way into the exhibition, two side rooms provide additional context for these highly abstracted works. One is devoted to Bush’s working methods, with several of his commercial illustrations, which are proof-positive that the man could draw; and pages from his handwritten inventories and diaries. Another room presents Bush’s early work, from the 1930s and 1940s: landscapes and townscapes that fit firmly within the Canadian tradition of the Group of Seven and other regionalist painters, and which reveal the roots of the artist’s colour sense and expressiveness. This room also contains surreal works and angular compositions that reveal his growing anxiety, as well as the beginnings of his more intuitive approach in 1947 and 1948.

Jack Bush was by all accounts a man of upright integrity, methodical determination, and a kind, courteous and genial family man. Born in 1909 in Toronto, he grew up mostly in Montreal, where he apprenticed as a commercial illustrator and took night classes at the École des beaux-arts. In 1928, at age nineteen, he was transferred to Toronto and remained there for the rest of his life, continuing to work full-time as a commercial artist while taking night courses at the Ontario College of Art, and gradually building up his fine art practice. By 1946 he had his first solo exhibition in Toronto.

Jack Bush, Chopsticks (1977), acrylic on canvas, 140.3 x 415.9 cm. Private collection. © Estate of Jack Bush / SODRAC (2014). Photo: Michael Cullen, TPG Digital Art Services

A pivotal encounter occurred in 1947, when Bush was referred to psychiatrist Dr. J. Allan Walters to be treated for anxiety. Walters turned out to be a gifted therapist with an instinctive understanding of the artistic spirit. He encouraged Bush to work more intuitively, “to paint freely the inner feelings and moods,” as the artist wrote, and to start “from scratch on a blank canvas with no pre-conceived idea, and just let the thing develop in color, form and content.” 

In 1953, Bush joined the Toronto-based group of abstract artists, Painters Eleven, and in 1962, began exhibiting his work in New York, soon positioning himself firmly within the international art world. He met the British artists Anthony Caro — known for his abstract, painted steel sculptures — and William Scott — whose abstract paintings appealed to Bush for their simple lines and rough, offhand quality. He befriended American Color Field painter Kenneth Noland and a number of other young American artists.

It was not until 1968 that Bush finally retired from his commercial work to devote himself to his art full-time. In 1972, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts opened its new contemporary art wing with a Jack Bush survey, and in 1976, the Art Gallery of Ontario held a retrospective of his work that toured Canada.

When Jack Bush died of a heart attack in 1977, at only sixty-eight, he was working on Chopsticks, one of the final works in the exhibition. Over four metres in length, and featuring a musical succession of bold yet feathery strokes on a rich gold background, it conveys the same optimism and joy that permeates this show. As Marc Mayer says, “These really are some of the most ravishing things human beings have ever produced.”

Jack Bush is on view at the National Gallery from November 13, 2014 to February 22, 2015. A catalogue in English and French editions accompanies the exhibition.

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