A painter, sculptor, photographer, and performance artist, Marcel Barbeau enjoyed a prolific interdisciplinary career. During his lifetime, he was often cited for the innovative aspect of the radical art forms that he favoured, for the exemplary nature of his work, and for his independent spirit.
A student of Borduas, Barbeau signed the Refus Global manifesto in 1948 and joined Les Automatistes; he distanced himself from the group several years later, remaining true to his convictions on his constant pictorial quest. He became interested in abstract expressionism, including its hard-edge variant, and then in kinetic art, for which he is recognized as a Canadian pioneer. He received many awards throughout his career, including, most recently, the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas, in 2013.
After participating in several optical art exhibitions in museums and public galleries in the United States, Barbeau set up his studio at 41 Union Square in the heart of Manhattan. The vibrancy of the neighbourhood and the intensity of his life between New York, Montreal, and the American cities he visited are reflected in the dense and complex iconography of his works centred around optical movement—compositions overflowing with striking hallucinatory effects and more vibrant than earlier series executed in this style. Barbeau’s palette also broadened to embrace clashing colours in more subtly contrasting harmonies, as in Rétine Achale moé pas (PE630), in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
As he did often in this series, Barbeau endeavoured to create an implausible image in Rétine Tocson. Here, a rectangular motif is gradually transformed into triangles, forming an uncertain pyramid. It was a new way for him to challenge the cold geometry of constructed abstraction favoured by the Groupe de recherche d’arts visuels and the Plasticiens. As he underlined in an interview with Guy Viau in the summer of 1961, Barbeau advocated a geometry of the heart, open to all adventures. He drew on a rare harmony of tertiary colours: yellow ochre and a light green saturated with brownish yellow. This combination had appeared in Bilbao (PE605), a less complex and powerful work painted that summer during a symposium at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The dominance of yellow in both colours lends the painting a warm and profound harmony that mitigates the turbulence of the angular motif.
The title of the work, like those of several others in the series inspired by colloquial Quebec French, evokes coarseness and determination. Barbeau seems to be alluding to the work’s muted shades and to suggest deep bass tones, as well as the idea of resistance.