Blue Slant is amongst the most powerful of Jack Bush’s many grandly-scaled abstract paintings.
Although he never left Toronto, Bush, by the last decade of his life, had become Canada’s most internationally famous artist. He had his first New York solo exhibition in 1962 at the Robert Elkon Gallery, subsequently joining the Andre Emmerich Gallery. In 1965 he accepted exclusive European representation by the Waddington Galleries in London, and in 1967 exclusive Canadian representation by the David Mirvish Gallery in Toronto. In the meantime, in 1964 he participated in Clement Greenberg’s period-defining exhibition Post Painterly Abstraction. Most recently, in 2014, the National Gallery of Canada staged a monumental retrospective of his work.
Bush was a charter member of Toronto’s Painters Eleven, but his mature work is primarily spoken of in the context of his colourfield colleagues such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Jules Olitski, who shared a commitment to the mastery of the flatness of the canvas support unsullied by illusionistic space, to an openness and clarity of presentation, to anonymous execution, to geometric regularity, and to the declaration of high keyed lucid colours, paint so thinly diluted as to soak into unsized and unprimed cotton canvases.
Even so, Bush was also the odd man out, rarely given to either anonymous execution or geometric regularity. He did not defer his imagery to impersonal techniques, like Louis’s pourings or Olitski’s sprayings, but consciously hand-drew his edges and hand-crafted his shapes, often revelling in mischievous awkwardness. At the same time he defied the imperatives of postpainterly abstraction art by inhabiting his pictures with references to images and signs that refer to the world outside the painting, to such things as women’s waistlines, flower gardens, travel souvenirs, flags, and road signs. His paintings therefore flirt with figure-ground constructions and tease us with the space of figuration, always, however, keeping his surfaces taut and flat.
Blue Slant, 1967, is a little different from that, and yet finally not so different. It comes from a group of acrylic canvases from that year, which are among the most geometrically simplified of Bush’s abstract paintings, more “faired and trued,” so to speak, than what had preceded and what would follow. Their formal leanness aligns them with the contemporary chevron and stripe paintings of Noland and the protractor series of Stella. Some observers have, over the years, looked at these paintings a little suspiciously. Their very regularity was somehow too proper when what distinguished Bush was precisely his stylistic idiosyncrasies.
But let all of us look again. Blue Slant vivaciously orchestrates some fifteen ravishing colours in a composition of multi-directional groupings of stripes of varying widths jostling for place. It’s like a celebratory flag-waving day, the painting enervated by the dynamic forces of the three bands of colour stripes that appear to want to run into, under, or over one another. Meanwhile the eye seeks to give order to the colours, hold together adjacent groups of them in twos, threes, or more. But they won’t quite hold still.
Blue Slant then presents itself as rife with playful disruptions. But all this visual complexity may, in the end, be deceptive. The bands may seem to run over or push behind one another, and the colours may want busily to interact. But then we notice how crucially Bush has separated each hue from its neighbours by a thin striation of white canvas – not worrying too much about getting the edges perfect – and therewith defined each stripe as an independent flat plane of colour. The bands may sit side by side, but each one bracingly insists on its own personality so as to sing its independent luminous song within the larger chromatic chorus of the painting. Blue Slant may, from one perspective, perform with unruly vigour and, from another, relax into polyphonic harmony and calm serenity.
Roald Nasgaard, O.C.
Chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario from 1978 to 1993