In 1967, Jacques Hurtubise, along with Jack Bush, represented Canada at the 9th São Paulo Biennale in Brazil. An exceptional work was exhibited: Ephramille, dated 1966, one of the 16 paintings by Hurtubise that were reproduced in the catalogue beside the 16 works by Bush. Jean-René Ostiguy, then curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada, who curated the Biennale show, could not speak highly enough of Hurtubise in his catalogue essay:
Hurtubise’s creative genius now asserts itself through a perfectly controlled technique. The designs of his stencils are organic, mineral, plant life or simply geometric. They are arranged on the field of the painting, which is sectioned but cleverly conceived networks harmonizing with the forms, but at the same time related to the syncopated or serial rhythms which he means to create. When optical vibration comes together with perfect balance between the background and the design, all these images—spots, spark discharges, mirage algae, crosses and rosettes, flowers, leaves and diamonds—fade away before the omnipresence of a respiration, a coloured movement, which is perhaps simply the lyrical texture of the colour. Is there not some secret affinity between Hurtubise and Van Gogh?
This affinity is felt in the rich, vibrant colours that Hurtubise uses so skilfully—colours “at the limit of the visible,” observes art historian and critic François- Marc Gagnon—ranging from yellow to flesh pink, from chartreuse to cyan. In Ephramille, a binary composition is foregrounded, accentuating the optical power of the patterns. Soft orange—orange pulp—complements lime green, creating delicate, bitter-sweet dynamics. Unlike Diana (1966, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), painted the same year with the same pattern, in Ephramille any separating line or band has been eliminated in favour of an uninterrupted structure, which brings it closer to another painting, Doris (1966, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec). Hurtubise reinterprets Abstract Expressionist gesture and Tachist practice in a hard-edge style that conditions and breaks down the line and the plane, like a series of stills. In Ephramille, the motifs are repeated in a pattern that is at once regular and asymmetrical, creating a dynamic, illusionistic space, a complete presence. “Each of the cells’ ridges—the sides and the diagonal—is the axis of symmetry of a vibratory form,” says Gagnon (Graham and Gagnon, Jacques Hurtubise: Quatre décennies, image par image, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1998). After 1965, many of Hurtubise’s paintings were titled with female names, adding a sibylline touch to his personal mythology. Is “Ephramille” the feminine derivative of the name Ephraim? Playfulness and invention are unquestionably a part of this major work by an important artist.
Hurtubise was born in Montreal in 1939. Between 1956 and 1960, he studied drawing, sculpture, and etching at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal; there, he met artists Albert Dumouchel and Alfred Pellan, whose teachings are palpable in his work. After receiving the Max Beckmann Scholarship in 1960, Hurtubise left for New York, where he discovered new sources of inspiration, notably in the works of Malevich, Pollock, and de Kooning, whose mix of formalism and gesture would become ubiquitous in his paintings and engravings. In addition to American Abstract Expressionism, Hurtubise was interested in the aesthetics of Montreal’s Plasticiens in the mid-1960s. In 1967, he represented Canada alongside Jack Bush at the 9th São Paulo Biennale in Brazil. In the early 1970s, he had his first touring exhibition with catalogue, shown at the Musée du Québec (1972) and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (1973). He was the recipient of the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award in 1992 and the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas in 2000.