This departure for Paris may be the culmination of the adventure.
–Paul-Émile Borduas to Gilles Corbeil, September 3, 1955
It was aboard the Liberté that Paul-Émile Borduas left New York for Paris on September 21, 1955, with his daughter Janine. This ocean crossing from one continent to another—an early embodiment of the “simplifying leap” that would drive his painting until 1956—thus marked the most celebrated and prized cycle of work in Borduas’s exceptional career: the Parisian period.
Modulation aux points noirs (1955) is part of the very first batch that Borduas produced when newly settled in the legendary studio on Rue Rousselet. In total, we have six paintings from this exceedingly rare body of work, paintings that were listed in the packing list for Laing Galleries, Toronto, dated 1956. Borduas refers to these titles as his “latest paintings,” or the “Parisian paintings,” notably in letters addressed to the Lorties and to Jean-René Ostiguy, who had asked him for a painting for an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. In his response to the latter, Borduas situated his recent production within current trends in contemporary painting: “Though these pictures have become increasingly white, increasingly ‘objective,’ they are complex nonetheless, when I see works around me with clear and precise meaning, from the expressionist to the linear ... Mine always seem to strive for an emotional synthesis of a great many elements.” Here, Borduas was reacting to the painting that was drawing his attention at the time in Paris—the work of Jackson Pollock and Georges Mathieu—which, by the same token, tells us about his new production at the time: American in spirit, Parisian in form.
In Modulation aux points noirs, the robust white impastos form cavernous reliefs that amass rolls of pigment at the lateral edges. The squashed white at their centre offers glimpses of colour, streaks of warm greys, more plentiful at the edges of the painting. These creamy swaths are emptied of their pigment one after another and soon coalesce onto the blacks to form Borduas’s emblematic series, which this painting signals in every respect. Here, the strokes of the spatula are solidly anchored in the pictorial area, choreographed as in a moving checkerboard. The perfectly interwoven constructions are punctuated by small splashes of black and carmine, beaded or deposited with the edge of the trowel, suggesting an all-over treatment inherited from the New York period. One notices the increased presence of splotches in this batch, like a leitmotif around the movement; art historian François-Marc Gagnon observes, “All the titles in this first Parisian series suggest movement, whether continuous (modulation, coulée [flow], persistance), alternating (girouette [weather vane], balancement [rocking]), or rhythmical (danse), and thus also, in a sense, temporal attributions.”
This fresh, airy impression, studded here and there within a fortified construction, and then fractured by countless interstices, highlights the essential nature of surface modulation during the Parisian period. This formal momentum “from the expressionist to the linear” also renders Borduas’s apparent state of mind, between the effervescence of novelty and the meditative interiority within the vital energy with which Modulation aux points noirs seems so thoroughly imbued.
No de catalogue / Catalogue No.: 2005-1183
 François-Marc Gagnon. Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-1960): Biographie critique et analyse de l’œuvre (Montreal: Fides, 1978), 395.
 Ibid., 399.
 Ibid., 398-399 (our translation).
 Ibid., p. 399 (our translation).