Eight years after the advent of the Refus global manifesto (1948), Paul-Émile Borduas executed the most emblematic and coveted works of his oeuvre: his celebrated black-and-white paintings. Untitled, painted in the spring of 1956, is part of this revolutionary series. Today, many comparable works by Borduas are found in the most prestigious museum collections, including Expansion rayonnante (1956, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), 3 + 3 + 4 (1956, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal), Sea Gull and 3 + 4 + 1 (1956, National Gallery of Canada), Sans titre (1957, Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario), and Figures schématiques (1956), the showpiece of Heffel Fine Art’s spring 2018 auction.
Untitled belongs to a period of “chromatic or monochrome asceticism [. . .] of exceptional conciseness and moving absoluteness,”1 observes Josée Belisle in her essay “A Matter of Abstraction.” Its precursors, the artist’s first Parisian paintings, including La grimpée (1956, National Gallery of Canada) and Le chant de la pierre (1956, TD Bank Collection), mark his transition toward the great metamorphosis of black shapes against white background that soon followed. His “simplifying leap” would forever transfigure his painting, “now comprised of great black forms, possessed of their own luminosity via the medium’s modulation against a white background, itself modulated in its own materiality and through the greys that recede within it,” so Borduas put it in an August 1956 letter to Michel Camus, the Parisian poet and publisher. In this regard, the painting’s broad paletteknife strokes of thick white paint —both here and in other works of the series—remain delicately infused with greys, raw sienna, khaki, and Prussian blue. Once more, the silky impasto is arranged along horizontal and vertical planes that sometimes collide, pushing up rich rolls of paint, which break into sharp ridges and edges. The black forms soften momentarily as they encroach upon the whites, which, conversely, graze the dark patches but once or twice.
Between them unfolds a fugue—the successive integration of a repeated motif, or its imitation—creating a sense of flight and pursuit. Like choreography, the composition’s every form is given shape in these smears, folds, and subductions, seemingly spontaneous and rigorously orchestrated at once. The central magma—its triangular mass and diagonal measures slashed and interlaced—sets forth in three separate directions, creating an irreversible yet fertile shearing about the edges, birthing isolated plates that float into the unknown, a “resplendent anarchy.” Borduas is simply formidable in these smaller, vertical formats, as François-Marc Gagnon observes; the artist excels in their loose yet rigorous composition, his works punctuated by these same black forms, rimmed in white, delineating visual spaces that forever reverberate in their gravity and vastness.
Lately settled in Paris, Borduas was in full form when he painted Untitled. In May 1956, he wrote to his friend, the New York gallerist Martha Jackson, who was planning a solo exhibition of the artist’s new work¹: “The promise of seeing you again gives my work renewed energy: I’m painting with such enthusiasm.” He reiterated this fervour to many of his correspondents, seeking both comfort and encouragement, abundantly conscious of the joy he felt in anticipation of this resurgence. Full of hope, Borduas confided, in two letters to art critic Noël Lajoie, that he was reinventing himself, was living out a sort of artistic apotheosis. “The light in my painting has become a vertiginous space, I think; something akin to the luminescence of pearls.” Later that fall, in a flurry of correspondence with his most faithful collector, Gérard Lortie, who paid him a visit in July 1956, Borduas shared his elation at having sold every painting he had made since arriving in Paris. “Did I tell you that I’ve sold everything I’ve painted since your last visit—including a few that you saw—to Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, in early September? It’s by far my most significant sale.” In addition to these, other substantial sales were made to Laing Galleries, the Dominion Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada,² and to Galerie Agnès Lefort.
Emboldened by the outpouring of attention on his work—which had already changed significantly since he had left New York—Borduas redoubled his inventiveness and resolve. Not only did he enjoy “abundant sales in July,” he was forced, in fact, to turn away invitations and requests from many interested parties on the pretext that his studio was bare. Today we know, thanks to his detailed correspondence over the years that followed, that Borduas held back several paintings, including some from 1956, for his personal collection. In fact, there is every reason to believe that this Untitled work remained in the artist’s studio until 1959, before it was shipped to Laing Galleries, in Canada—or that it was discovered upon his death the following year, and passed directly into Lortie’s hands. Whatever the case, Borduas’s works from this period—unequivocally his most auspicious and sought-after—only continue their ascent to new heights of value and acclaim more than a half-century later. Here is a rare and certain opportunity to acquire a major piece by this great Canadian master.
¹ The exhibition was held the following spring, March 15 to April 13, 1957. It was accompanied by an exhibition catalogue, with a preface by Martha Jackson that was long considered the authoritative essay on Borduas.
² Following the acquisition of Sea Gull by the National Gallery of Canada, Borduas wrote to Mr. Hubbard (chief curator) in August 1956: “I cannot thank you enough for this wonderful gesture of encouragement. Nothing could make me happier!”