Your Collection: Pink with Border by Jack Bush

Jack Bush, Pink with Border (October 2121,1967), acrylic on canvas, 205.7 x 275.6 cm. Bequest of Rosita Tovell, Victoria, 2015. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © National Gallery of Canada. © Estate of Jack Bush / SODRAC (2015)

Painted in 1967, Pink with Border by Jack Bush shows the work of an artist at the height of his powers. An acknowledged master of Color Field Painting, Bush appears to have produced Pink with Border partly in response to a telephone conversation with his friend, prominent American art critic Clement Greenberg, who implied that Bush was playing things a little too safe. “I think he is right,” wrote Bush in his diary, “but I’ll still go my own way.”

Jack Bush (1909–1977) is one of the most celebrated members of Painters Eleven (1954–1960), and perhaps the most successful of the group in the years following their disbanding. Trained in Montreal, he worked as an illustrator and art director throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s: work he continued to pursue on a full-time basis until 1968 — perhaps surprisingly, given his success as a painter.

Bush first took up abstract painting around 1950, having seen reproductions of American work in Time and Life magazines. He showed some of his paintings in the signal exhibition Abstracts at Home (1953), held at Simpson’s department store in Toronto. It was an exhibition that prefigured the founding of Painters Eleven the following year, and included work by seven of the subsequent eleven members. When the group showed with Bush’s dealer, Roberts Gallery, for the inaugural Painters Eleven exhibition in February 1954, their work drew the largest crowd in the gallery’s history.

Although he painted primarily in an abstract expressionist style during the 1950s, by the end of the decade Bush had reoriented his painting towards more thinly painted, simpler compositions. These were closely related to work that in 1964 Clement Greenberg would coin as “post-painterly abstraction.”

Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, Bush’s work was premised on large areas of bold colour, and his paintings of this period are among the most sought-after expressions of postwar art in English Canada. While characteristic of his painting during the period, Pink with Border (1967) departs significantly from the morphologies Bush favoured at the time. Unlike the so-called ladders, of which Tall Spread (1966) is an example and Big A (1968) a variation, Pink with Border seems to be unique in Bush’s oeuvre.

Slide of Jack Bush in front of Pink with Border. Photo: Michael Cullen, Toronto. © Estate of Jack Bush / SODRAC (2015)

Against a pink ground, four overlapping strips weave a frame within a frame. The fact that they overlap rather than abut gives the impression of one colour continuing under or over another. This illusion of depth is achieved with an absolute economy of means, and there is an obvious allusion to figure-ground relations. The relationships between the five colours in the work are harmonious and carefully chosen. Ever the colourist, Bush manages to border yellow and pink, for instance, without losing the intensity of either.

Although unique, Pink with Border is not entirely without precedent. In Awning (1966), purchased by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1972 from the Canada Council for the Arts, a subdued pink ground is framed by four bands of colour. In this case, however, the vertical bands at the left and right edges lie above the horizontal bands at top and bottom, rather than forming a basket-weave pattern as in Pink with Border. The palette, too, appears far more low-key: a muted, earthy cast imbues all five colours.

As Bush noted in his record book, Pink with Border was painted in October 1967 and sent to David Mirvish Gallery in 1968. That same year, Bush added that the work was “Sold to Mr. and Mrs. Freeman Tovell, Ottawa.” When Sarah Stanners — Co-Curator for the NGC’s recent exhibition Jack Bush and Director of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné for the artist — showed Rosita Tovell a copy of Bush’s record book with the annotation, “Sold to Mr. and Mrs. Freeman Tovell,” Tovell clarified that it was her purchase. In fact, she instantly fell in love with the painting, and soon it became a cherished treasure for the family. The painting had pride of place in their homes in Ottawa and later, in Victoria.

Rosita Tovell served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Museums of Canada and was a founder of the National Gallery Association (now Friends of the National Gallery). Following Freeman Tovell’s retirement in 1978, they moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where Rosita Tovell served as an advisor on the Acquisitions Committee of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. She died in Victoria on June 22, 2014.

Pink with Border is an important example of Bush’s work from the late 1960s — arguably the artist’s most accomplished period. It marks Bush’s renewed interest in figure-ground relationships, which would occupy him until his death in 1977. Remarkable in its simplicity and exuberance, Pink with Border attests to Bush’s mastery in using large blocks of colour to elicit a visceral response from viewers.

Pink with Border is currently on display in the NGC’s Canadian Collection galleries.

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