A self-taught artist, Jean McEwen quickly abandoned the paintbrush and palette knife in favour of his own technique, using only his fingers. His images were heavily stratified—up to a dozen layers per painting— eventually realized in a dense, multi-coloured base in close dialogue with the pigments below. His formal, rigorous approach rejected measurement and the calculated precision of hard-edge geometry, instead embracing the organic compositions that emerged from grafting colours in successive layers. Identified for this reason with the Néo-plasticiens, McEwen drew inspiration from the aesthetic currents in American art at the time—Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting—freely appropriating them as he continued to explore the duality of colour and structure. The introduction of colour fields, which he subjected to a rigorous, sequential spatial ordering, allowed him to explore the full potential of colour and surface-depth dynamics.
In the early 1960s, McEwen created Meurtrières, Grand fil à plomb, a series of paintings that gave precedence to verticality and binary structure. Odeur de jaune (1961) is thus divided into two halves, left and right, slightly asymmetrical and furrowed by a fine median line that seems to give under the pressure of infiltrating colour and substance. The rich and creamy coppery shadows and rhizomatic light seem to swallow everything in their path. Every tone expresses a variation of yellow, from bright mustard to ripe peach, from saffron to cinnamon, from sienna to burnt umber. Here, McEwen has established a new chromatic language capable of any lyrical inflection, creating a sensation of vibrato between masses.
In a rare play of synesthesia borrowed from poetry, the painting’s title suggests both an olfactory and a visual reading. Odeur de jaune offers irrefutable proof of McEwen’s status as a master colourist, a painter at the peak of his artistic maturity.
Jean McEwen is considered one of the most influential Canadian artists of his generation. His works have been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, and New York. In 1973, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art) presented a retrospective of his work, followed by the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), in 1987. McEwen received several awards and distinctions during his career, most notably the Victor Martyn Lynch- Staunton Award from the Canada Council for the Arts, in 1977, and the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas, in 1998.