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Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Jack Bush at FreedmanArt

Jack Bush, Sing Sing Sing, 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 68 x 114-3/4 inches. Courtesy of FreedmanArt

Jack Bush, Sing Sing Sing, 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 68 x 114-3/4 inches. Courtesy of FreedmanArt

The paintings of Jack Bush were once described by Hilton Kramer as “a garden for the eye,” an apt analogy for images that balance chromatic vibrancy and earthiness.  Canada’s participant in Color Field Painting held an obstinate remove from either the geometric hard edges or the ethereal sprays and stains of his confreres south of the border.  His paintings impact the retina with a dull thud. Color is intense but somehow un-ingratiating, as if mixed with soot and chalk.  The oafishness of his shapes and strokes and the uneasy back and forth between painterliness and pictoriality – foreground gesture and background expanse – make him provincial for the period in which he worked and uncannily relevant for the present.  Sing Sing Sing (1974) arrays a fluttering string of rough-torn ribbons – an anti-spectrum of anonymous color samples – against an agitated, nauseatingly meat-like, marbled ground. Beauty and the Beast.

Jack Bush: New York Visit at FreedmanArt, 25 East 73rd Street between Fifth and Madison avenues, (212) 249-2040, February 18 to April 28, 2012.

  • Karen Wilkin

    I’m rather puzzled as to why you put the painting on the cover, since you seem repulsed by the work. “Oafishness” and “provincialism” are hardly words of enthusiasm, and saying that color lands with a “dull thud” is hardly praise. I can only feel sorry that you are unable to see Bush.

  • David Cohen

    I see and praise him in my own way. If he can only be seen and praised in the terms of his peers and mentors his reputation won’t renew itself.

  • Karen Wilkin

    Of course you see him in your own way. I’m just baffled by your conception of praise.

  • David Cohen

    Well, I was aiming to get across a sense of the jolie laide in Bush, thus my conclusion: Beauty and the Beast.

  • Piri Halasz

    Karen, I think David is trying to save Bush from what he calls Bush’s “peers and mentors,” by which I think he means graduates of the Greenbergian school of criticism like thee and me. He feels that the way to put Bush across to “contemporary” audiences is to use a sort of criticism that will encourage the sort of people to go see him who won’t go to see anything that can’t be described in “contemporary” terms. And in the world of “contemporary” criticism, ugly is beautiful and beautiful is ugly, so words like “oafish” and “nauseating” are considered compliments. I wish David had worked a little harder at getting across the notion of the “jolie laide.” That would have made his whole argument more palatable. As it is, however, the impression you got, Karen, is I am afraid the impression that most readers will get (for better or worse).

    My own feeling is that what truly contemporary criticism needs is a more open mind toward the values that make modernism great — not only the modernism of the 60s & 70s, but also that of the present. This means not only reviewing contemporary modernist artists as well as those who made their reputations in the 60s (a policy to which David has been quite sympathetic) but also trying to discuss other good contemporary art in terms that don’t falsify its appeal. As far as I’m concerned, at present there is far too much attention paid to novelty for its own sake, and not enough discussion of the qualities that make all good art timeless–qualities that can only be discussed in relation to specific works of art, and are different for every such work.. To call something “relevant” to today is the ultimate compliment, and work that doesn’t “amaze” by its novelty either gets neglected altogether or is described in terms that give it a false appearance of novelty. I’m sure that David is trying very sincerely to awaken his readers to the joys of Bush (and doubtless he knows those readers better than I do), but I’m afraid they will be disappointed if they go expecting the sort of ugliness he is promising them.

  • Karen Wilkin

    Obviously, I understand what David thought he was doing, but even in what you call “contemporary terms” his approach seems wrong headed. The issue is not beauty or ugliness – and for anyone who has been paying attention, there’s a strong undercurrent that beauty is OK these days – but the difference between “concept based” and “process based” art. What really separates Bush from what David calls his peers and mentors (and that word “mentors” is rather insulting) is the relationship of his imagery to perception.

  • John Morris

    When an art review is so inaccurate, to say the least, and personally vicious, one has ask, what is the motivation?
    Furthermore, Mr. Cohen’s attempt to retreat from his position by calling a hatchet job “praise” is pure hypocrisy.

  • Eleanor Johnston

    Although not forgivable, David Cohen may have reason for his dim view of the Jack Bush exhibition. Museums and galleries struggle with lighting while engineers endeavour to produce improved cool lighting products to replace good old fashioned incandescent flood lighting. I found the lighting in the exhibition unflattering, particularly where mixed with natural light.

    As for Cohen’s inability to recognize Bush’s brilliant colour, I suggest his problem may be cataracts which turn the world a jaundiced sepia and produce a grey halo around lights .

  • http://ann-walsh.com Ann Walsh

    Many people have commented on the oddball flatfooted drawing in Bush. Here, for instance, is John Elderfield:

    “From the very beginning, Bush was an imagist painter. By around 1960, however, when he was making his first original paintings, advanced American art had reached a level of abstractness unknown to earlier modernism, and in so doing repudiated separable imagery as a threat to its holistic identity.

    Imagery as such – in the work of artists like Noland and Stella – was submitted to and controlled by the physical properties of the painting support (especially its shape and the porosity of its surface) to such an extent that the address to the observer made by imagery was not easily distinguished from that made by the painting as a whole. Bush, however, remained an imagist painter. Indeed, we can reasonably talk of his wanting to preserve imagery for painting despite what American art had achieved in its absence. But he did inherit from American art a holistic conception of painting that required, at very least, the firmest possible bonding of imagery to the picture surface, and we see its effect on him in the way he would, around 1960, attempt to fix imagery and ground, despite their contrasts of value, onto one plane: usually by painting imagery directly onto the bare canvas rather than on top of a ground and by carrying the then painted ground up to the edges of the imagery to hold it firmly in place. Imagery is so ‘inserted’ into the ground that its tendency to jump visually is opposed by the sensation that imagery constitutes an absence of ground. It therefore possesses a curiously ambiguous spatial hold on the surface, one that is highly reminiscent of the more thinly painted Matisses of around 1910, and of certain Miro’s (like The Song of the Vowels of 1966), which fix imagery and ground coextensively to the surface in a similar way.

    The reason, of course, that one thinks here of Matisse or Miro rather than, say, Noland or Olitski, both of whom used similar procedures, is the atavistic character of Bush’s drawing. His drawing returns him to the early modernists . . . ”

    Quoted from Jack Bush, Hudson Hills Press, 1984, edited by Karen Wilkin

  • Sarah Stanners

    David, it’s a shame that a few more words could not be given for this exhibition, since I do find what you’ve said intriguing. Your succinct response is so tight that I wonder if you felt unsure how to respond (a good thing)? Granted, this exhibition could only hold a handful of paintings, so I encourage you to attend the retrospective exhibition of Jack Bush’s works to open at the National Gallery of Canada in October 2014 (this is also a shameless plug, since I am co-curating the show and compiling the catalogue raisonné – but you really must see the full picture, rather than a sample of what’s available at the moment). The stab at Bush with the use of the word ‘provincial’ is so predictable coming out of the mouth of a New Yorker that it makes you, in my mind, the provincial one (which I suppose is trendy at the moment). I also sense that you may have turned to the thesaurus after reading Greenberg’s observations on the “awkwardness” of Bush’s paintings, and made the poor choice of “oafishness.” “Oafishness” implies a lack of intelligence and my opinion is that Bush was quite purposeful in being just slightly out of step – it’s a calculated approach seen in many of his paintings. I suspect that after 41 years of being a successful commercial artist in the ad business, Bush was not interested in making his paintings pretty or readily palatable like his ads were. Someone once said to me: “The first time you see a Jack Bush painting is the worst time you see a Jack Bush painting.” They take time and a few visits to really appreciate. This quick review does not do the work justice, but rather aims to display your wit. Please try again.

    • David Cohen

      The P word has really hit a raw spot with our friends north of the border, but it really was not meant to slight Canadians; precisely my point is that for a painter working in the formalist sixties and in contrast to New York’s Color Field mainstream Bush’s intentionally uningratiating style (rough textures, dusty palette) was a throwback to something more first generation AbEx in feel, and thereby likely to be perceived at the time as out of step with the latest developments. The O word is indeed a synonym of sorts for awkwardness (cackhanded is a word often used these days almost as praise but I’m squeamish about scatological terms) but with due respect I really didn’t need either a fear of Greenberg, who doesn’t own the word, or a thesaurus to want to come up with a more expressive term than awkwardness . While writing this reply, Sarah, I showed the original article to a colleague who shook her head in disbelief considering how “totally not negative” she thought the piece to be. But this woman is neither Canadian nor a member of the cult of Greenberg so is not automatically on the defensive about Bush. The essence of my point is Bush’s contemporary relevance: he could be hung happily with Stanley Whitney or Ron Gorchov, to name two artists currently on view in New York City that I admire. Or with Thomas Nozkowski. I was introduced to the term jolie laide by Montreal-born painter Allison Katz when looking at a Nozkowski show at Max Protetch Gallery many years ago. And I was lucky enough to see Nozkowski’s retrospective at your institution in 2009, Sarah. You suggest I return to Ottawa in 2014 to see your Bush retrospective, assuming that anyone who doesn’t appreciate Bush on your own terms must be ignorant of the work. Actually I organized a Jack Bush exhibition in New York City in 2009, guest curated by Karen Wilkin and reviewed here by Piri Halasz, and in preparation for that show spent enjoyable hours in the Toronto warehouse of one of the show’s lenders, a pretty good place to gauge the scope and quality of Bush’s work. But definitely, I have to see the retrospective. So please be so kind as to send me a plane ticket.

      • David Cohen

        By the way, I pulled together a roundtable on Bush during the Studio School show I mention above, which featured Craig Fisher, Joe Fyfe, Jennifer Riley and Joan Waltemath with comments from the floor by Leah Durner and Stephen Westfall. It seems the tape recording of that event has fallen off the Studio School site but I shall fish around for it and see if it can’t be reinstated, there or here. It was a lively exchange of contemporary abstract painters who dig Bush.

      • Karen Wilkin


        It’s difficult to think of the Jack Bush I knew as provincial. He was sophisticated — albeit unpretentious — well travelled, well read, just about as familiar with the New York art scene as his American peers and colleagues, and widely collected by major American and British collectors, and international museums. The assumption that anyone who responds to Bush’s work positively belongs to “the cult of Greenberg” is dated, inaccurate, and just plain silly. Of course, Greenberg-bashing still seems to be seen as a way of proving independence of thinking — cf Rob Storr’s catalogue piece on Al Held for Loretta Howard’s current exhibition.

        The term “jolie laide” is a perfectly standard, rather old fashioned description of a female who wasn’t an acknowledged beauty. You’ll find it in Nancy Mitford. I’m not sure it carries over to painting in the way you seem to think it does. (Nor do I think it applies to Tom Nozkowski’s ravishing color and ravishing surfaces, but that’s another matter.)

        As to your “organizing” the Bush works on paper show for the the New York Studio School, with respect, I take strenuous exception to your taking credit for the exhibition. You were running the school’s gallery then, but the show was my idea, my initiative, and my selection. I wrote the catalogue and installed the show. I recall you were immensely helpful when we were proofing the catalogue and trying to get the color to accurate, and you had some good ideas about the installation. But that’s not organizing.



        • David Cohen

          My memory regarding the ontology of the Studio School Bush exhibition is different, and somewhat borne out by Sarah Stanners reminiscences below.

  • http://piriihalasz.com Piri Halasz

    I don’t normally try to promote my own column in the pages of artcritical, but given the response to its review of the Bush exhibition, some of its commentators mighr be interested in reading what I wrote about the show. Here’s the link: http://www.pirihalasz.com/blog.htm?post=844422

  • Sarah Stanners

    I didn’t say “ouch” at the mention of provincial, I groaned. It’s a shame that I have to be slapped on the wrist for mentioning Greenberg. Sorry, slapped on my Canadian wrist. I guess we have to make this distinction, too. I wanted to cite a more apt articulation of the same idea (awkwardness vs. oafishness), and admittedly did it in a way that would imply a lack of intelligence on your part, as you seemed happy to do in describing Bush’s painterly articulations as oafish. It’s not very Canadian of me. Sorry, sorry. I don’t insist that you appreciate Bush on my own terms. I asked that you take some more time. Pay more attention. I actually met you a few years ago with David Mirvish in Toronto when your 2009 works on paper show was being planned. We spoke about another mutual interest – Henry Moore (another great subject for debates on provincialism and contemporary effect). I should point out that although I will be co-curating the Bush retrospective with Marc Mayer, I am not an employee of the National Gallery of Canada. I am an independent curator with a Status Only Appointment at the University of Toronto’s Department of Art. I wanted your review to be longer (my first sentence in my initial comment on your review) and hoped that you might write again on Jack Bush (my last sentence). I think what you’ve said about the anachronisms of Bush’s contemporary feel and relevance is thoughtful and pregnant. It’s a very promising tract for new thoughts on Jack Bush. Your review has sparked conversation, which is heartening. I will work on getting you a ticket to see the exhibition. Please consider acquiring a copy of the catalogue raisonné when it is published.

  • Sarah Stanners

    Respect is due to Karen for the 2009 works on paper show. I was, perhaps, too subtle in my comment when I said that I had met you in Toronto when “your show was being planned.” Note that I did NOT say “when you were planning the show.” And by “your” show, I meant simply to align it with your institution, The Studio School. You, David, are far better at dropping names. A master, it seems. I should have dropped Karen’s name but, really, everyone knows how much she shaped “your” show.

    • David Cohen

      A new word is causing Karen Wilkin offense: “organize.” While sticking with “oafish” over “awkward” and “provincial” over “marginal,” let me nonetheless, if I may, replace “organize” with “facilitate”. I’m grateful to Karen in a way she might not actually have anticipated in thanking me for proofing the catalogue and offering installation hints during the Jack Bush exhibition in question. A receiving curator strives to be the servant of servants when working with an esteemed guest curator—and we all agreed, there’s no one one would rather turn to for a Jack Bush show than Karen Wilkin. If after months of visiting Toronto to explore various exhibition ideas with a particular collector, settling on Jack Bush, and inviting Karen to organize the show, I instilled in her the idea that the show was her own idea all along, then that really is the ideal way to make a guest curator feel. And if the works were procured from multiple sources, shipped across an international border, insured, photographed, printed, hung, discussed by a panel of young artists and reviewed in the press with the seeming inevitability with which a good meal is served in a restaurant – not to mention funded – then I did my job nicely. Only to spoil it all, years later, by using the word “organize” (in the same sentence in which the curator is acknowledged) instead of a humbler phrase like “helped set up”. Karen will know, however, that I’m a bull in a china shop. In 2000 she was a guest for dinner at my home and had to gently reprimand me for pouring wine from her wrong side. Clearly in her mind I’m a bit of, how shall we word this, an awkward marginal?

  • Ryan McCourt

    Didn’t anyone notice this was originally posted on April Fools’ Day?

    Good one, David. A real howler…

  • Carol L Sutton

    It is my thought that one thing that distinguishes Canadian painting from American painting with regards to color is that Canadian artists use more muddied, dirty or bemired color in their painting.

    Jack Bush and William Perehudoff are two good examples of artists who use this to their advantage. Odd dirty color can be a great foil against more brilliant color.