This 290-page, splendidly illustrated catalogue accompanies the major Jack Bush retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, on view through February 22. With 124 paintings, numerous drawings and preparatory sketches, some of his commercial work, and even a few of his notebooks, this exhibition marks a major commitment to the abstract painter. There are essays by the Gallery’s director, Marc Mayer; guest curator Sarah Stanners; National Gallery curator Adam Welch and Karen Wilkin. Much new information is presented, drawn from Bush’s diaries now held by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Bush re-invented himself so often as an artist that his stylistic diversity can challenge even the most sophisticated viewer, a fact reflected in the extraordinary diversity of the National Gallery exhibition. Bush began around 1930 as a landscape painter in the tradition of Canada’s Group of Seven and by the 1950s shared the interest of the Toronto-based abstract expressionist-leaning group, Painters Eleven. Even in the period of his artistic maturity, however, which I would argue began in 1961 – surprisingly late for an artist born in 1909 and three years older than Jackson Pollock – Bush was remarkably eclectic in terms of style.
Both Mayer and Welch put to rest the canard that Bush was “an aesthetic marionette” unduly under the influence of Clement Greenberg. They recount in detail Bush’s “aesthetic resistance” to the powerful New York critic. Bush may have changed his paint handling, centered the image less, and eventually focused on his strength as a great colourist by abandoning black, all at the suggestion of Greenberg, but the intelligence and inventiveness of the art was Bush’s alone. This view of Bush’s independent mindedness, despite his openness to criticism, is in accord with my own experience. In 1975 Bush recounted to me an encouraging visit to his studio by Greenberg and American critic/curator Kenworth Moffett: “they said I was on a roll and the success ratio was very high, but many of the pictures were upside down” from their best possible orientation. Was he going to turn them the suggested 180 degrees? “No.” And why not? “Because they’re wrong.”
Wilkin makes a persuasive argument that Bush occupies a unique position within color field painting. His work is distinguished by a deceptive awkwardness, an “irrepressible personality,” and a vocabulary of both colour and forms “rooted in observed actuality.” Indeed, Bush could be classified as what I call an “image-bank” painter. His work stands in striking contrast to the resolutely non-referential and seemingly more precise and refined art of his American counterparts. An American who lived in Canada for many years, Wilkin chooses not to locate Bush’s fecund artistic compromises within a national psyche shaped by continual tensions between the different language communities. Just as Tchaikovsky confronted Russian nationalist composers of ”The Five” (Mussorgsky, Borodin et al.) with his assertion that “I am Russian and so my music is Russian,” so Bush is a distinctly Canadian painter, the objections of ardent Canadian nationalists like Barry Lord notwithstanding. His ambition to be true to himself and his own experience living with his family in Toronto, while taking advantage of all that international high modernism offered, is one of many reasons why he accomplished so much.
Marc Mayer gives some helpful clues about the features that define Bush’s artistic personality, which he sees as “playful, searching and mischievous” – a notable accomplishment given the “anguish” of both the man and the art ca. 1945-47. Moreover, Stanners notes numerous occasions when Bush expresses “fear” and “anxiety” in his efforts to assimilate the accomplishments of New York and insert himself as a respected figure in that milieu, and Wilkin identifies a number of paintings that draw upon Bush’s disquieting problems with his health: angina and cirrhosis in particular. Undoubtedly the candour of Bush’s art was fostered by his long relationship with psychiatrist Dr. J. Allan Walters, who, as is known from Bush’s diaries, suggested in 1947 that Bush “paint freely the inner feeling + moods.”
How, then, can we reconcile Mayer’s assessment with such compelling biographical information? One wonders, can a profound artistic personality ever be so exclusively positive in emotional valence? Perhaps the best art is always a palimpsest, with layers of feeling, from the most manifest to the deepest. Wilkin suggests that Bush “comforted himself at a frightening moment, by transforming his experience… into an abstract language of luminous hues and evocative shapes that transcended their origins.” But she does not choose to identify this intra-psychic process as aesthetic distance, the phenomenon that was of such interest to Hegel, Pater and Croce, and which Edward Bullough argued in 1912 was central to all art. Aesthetic distance is arguably the litmus test for quality in many of Bush’s paintings. A distinctly image-bound work like Test (1969), which so clearly replicates the main features of Bush’s electrocardiogram and adds aggressive crescent shapes to stand for his pain from angina attacks, is surely too close to Bush’s distress to be among his best works. Cirr (1974), which replicates much of a doctor’ drawing of Bush’s diseased liver, is an even clearer instance of insufficient aesthetic distance. I much prefer works like the magnificent Rising (1970), in which the crescent shape has lost any manifest aura of menace, despite its origins. Such a work has its aesthetic distance and yet stands back from over-distancing.
As I see it, Bush’s paintings enable anyone with sufficient empathy to share the most profound struggles and emotions of a great artist. I am moved by the humanity of his art more than I am by greater aesthetic distance – the apollonian calm and reserve – of Kenneth Noland or Ellsworth Kelly, and I find him no less rewarding than such great colorists as Morris Louis and Jules Olitski. The range and depth of feeling conveyed by the best of his work convinces me that he is one of the paramount artists of his time.
Jack Bush, by Marc Mayer, Sarah Stanners, Adam Welch and Karen Wilkin. National Gallery of Canada. Exhibition catalogue. 300 pages. ISBN: 978-0888849250. Also available in French edition. $45 (Canadian).