Jack Bush: Works on Paper at the New York Studio School
March 19 – April 25, 2009
8 West 8th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, (212) 673-6466
This modest but sparkling exhibition of one largish watercolor and 21 medium-sized gouaches is by Jack Bush (1909-1977), regarded by some (including myself) as Canada’s most outstanding painter. True, those who know his large paintings on canvas, exhibited in New York from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, may find this exhibition only a hint of what he could achieve. Still, we haven’t had a Bush exhibition of any kind in the Big Apple since 1997 (and even that was only of early work), so for the present generation of gallery-goers, this show should serve as a welcome introduction.
Bush (like Morris Louis) was a near-contemporary of Pollock’s, but didn’t begin to create the paintings upon which his reputation really rests until after Pollock’s death. A lifelong resident of Toronto, Bush attended traditional art schools there in the ‘20s and ‘30s, supporting himself and his family as a commercial artist while exhibiting representational paintings until the late ‘40s. In the ‘50s, he evolved into abstraction, initially taking his cues from the heavily-brushed, gestural style favored by de Kooning and so popular in New York during that decade. Then, in 1957, Clement Greenberg visited Toronto, at the invitation of the Painters Eleven, a local artists’ group to which Bush belonged. Even in those days, Greenberg was controversial: two of the eleven refused to let him in their studios, but Bush was among the nine who did. Greenberg was unimpressed with Bush’s gestural work, but very impressed with some watercolors that the artist had made and laid aside—so impressed, in fact, that he suggested Bush apply this thinner watercolor technique to his larger work on canvas. Bush took this advice as a point of departure, and revolutionized his style. In a sense, then, the present exhibition thus becomes a primer on the foundation of Bush’s later accomplishments, and shows what Greenberg admired about this artist first.
The exhibition, curated by Karen Wilkin, and hung in a blessedly chronological sequence, displays work from the ‘60s in the first, entry gallery, and from the early ‘70s in the second, back gallery. This is the right way to show them, for viewers meeting Bush for the first time will probably find the ‘60s work most accessible, composed as it is of bright, cheerful colors and simple, almost bouncy figures mostly on grounds of white—in other words, not unlike much other color-field painting of the ‘60s, or all that different from what Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Friedel Dzubas were doing at the time. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of dynamic, satisfying images here, especially the brilliant trio of “sash” paintings directly across from the entrance, Nice Pink, (1965), Bitter Pink, (1965) andUntitled (1966). According to Wilkin’s catalogue esssay, this image of a stack of colored blocks was inspired, during a visit to New York, by a Madison Avenue shop window display of a woman’s shirt and voluminous skirt, cinched with a wide belt. As this is a true abstraction, however, and results count for more than intentions, the image also suggests a necktie, tree, skyscraper, and numerous other associations—as well as packing a punch not to be explained by any associations at all.
The second gallery is the one that may challenge the viewer’s taste, for by the ‘70s, Bush had found his mature style, moving into a realm in which he had no artistic kin. In other words, these images are a lot less familiar, and familiarity is — in art as in human relations — sometimes necessary to breed content (accent on the second syllable). Instead of a white field, all but one of the gouaches in this gallery present their figures on a colored ground, mostly a matte but sometimes a mottled gray (in one case, a softer brown). The figures themselves aren’t simple geometric ones, but with subtle touches that I can’t recall having seen elsewhere — smooth, opaque streaks or bars of color with one end blunt and the other ragged, as though a giant brush had swept them with a single stroke. And giant loops or squiggles, also creating the illusion that a giant brush has been at work. Again, the wall of the gallery directly across from the entry offers the most dramatic display of this idiom, with three beautifully simple yet elegant images on gray grounds: Forsythia (1971) on the left, Falling Blossoms (1971) on the right, and in the center, the pure gray-and-white Apple Blossom Burst (1971), for my money the most perfect picture in the show. Still, because of those tough gray fields, and because one must first view the pictures from a greater distance, even these three wonderful images may inevitably perhaps appear a little smaller and more distant than the work in the first gallery—more remote in a physical sense and therefore perhaps a figurative one as well.
What most truly characterizes Bush’s mature work is a seriousness, even a gravitas that amounts to a truly Olympian detachment, and, in a culture that often tends to resent high seriousness, this may appear a drawback. It is to be hoped that viewers of this inviting exhibition will be able to scale the heights of Bush’s Olympus without suffering overmuch from the absence of too many companions.