Terry Fenton


Sea Deep, 1965. Oil on canvas, 89 x 58 in. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

ABSTRACT PAINTINGS, at least ones painted since the 60s seem to have fallen out of favor. Why? My guess is that for some reason the sense of universality that had characterized modernism has been replaced by a new regionalism and cultural pluralism. Abstraction was part of an "international style" that transcended boundaries during the 20th century, culminating in the '60s. That seems to have faded since the early 70s. What has also faded is something of the excitement that characterized art during the '60s and '70s.

Canada, it now seems, shared modernism for little more than a moment. Until the '50s, visual art wasn't much in evidence in Canada -- apart, that is, from the Group of Seven and their cohorts. One saw their art in serigraphs, posters, in cereal boxes (the first Tom Thomson reproduction I remember seeing came in a box of Shredded Wheat): one saw it everywhere, but seldom in the form of originals on accessible walls (if one didn't live in Toronto, Montreal, or Ottawa). Canada was a backward country ­ a nation of hewers of wood and drawers of water, of miners, fishers, and farmers. That changed in the '60s. Expo 67 was a symptom of it, and like most symptoms, stimulated in its turn.

JACK BUSH was part of this backward culture for many years. He worked as a commercial artist and in his spare time painted in the manner of the Canadian Group of Painters ­ until the 50s, when barriers began to fall and a new light dawned. He seemed to come out of nowhere in the late 50s. That was one of the delights that surrounded his art -- the delight of discovering that something international was as Canadian as maple syrup. When I met him in 1967 he was hardly well known, even in Canada. He wasn't a big name, wasn't a big name type. I was struck by the fact that he seemed so ordinary, so matter of fact -- artfully matter of fact, perhaps, but that didn't detract from his homespun charm. He was decent and encouraging and self-deprecating. Some of that character is captured on film -- in a wonderful cable TV interview with Wendy Brunelle produced in Edmonton a week or two before he died, a bit of which can be found on the wonderful NFB documentary. He seemed from another era -- like a character out of a Morley Callaghan novel, it has always seemed to me: a little awkward, a little ingenuous, but for all that the genuine article.

His art was in keeping with his character. It didn't present itself with the ease and assurance so common with other art of the time. It was nourished on Matisse and after that seized on things around itself -- common things, but always attractive things. Bush didn't go in for angst, so that must put him in league with those other artists who shied away from pronouncements -- artists like Sisley, and Corot, and Vuillard, ones that seemed to exist in the shadows of the big names, but whose modesty protected a singular purity. Bush had something of that.

Yellow Thrust, 1968. acrylic on canvas, 16 x 33 in.

Above all he was a master of color, of making pictures with slabs and streaks of color, one of the greatest since Matisse. How did this Canadian WASP become so adept at the poetry of color, putting colors side by side? One points to his friends, the critic, Clement Greenberg, and the painter, Kenneth Noland, but that, of course, explains nothing. Both looked to Matisse, as did Bush. Noland discovered geometric motifs, but where Noland gravitated to symmetry and purely abstract geometry, Bush found something similar in pretty things: Christmas wrappings and neckties, women's dresses and flowers, even spilled paint. He was something of a finder of images, a holdover, perhaps, from an earlier era, the era of Roger Fry and Clive Bell and of "abstracting" from nature. Younger artists didn't work that way -- their work may have suggested equivalents to nature, or perhaps reflected nature instinctively, but didn't look for motifs there.

-- Terry Fenton, Oct. 2001