PRINT March 1963

Noland, Louis, Olitski in Canada

AN EXHIBITION ENTITLED “Three New American Painters” has recently been opened at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan. The importance of this exhibition lies not only in the fact that these painters have turned the tide of contemporary art in New York, Europe and London, but that it is the first exhibition of American painting of this type to penetrate the boundaries of Canada. It has established a precedent in Canada and already its importance is being recognized in art circles across the country. This exhibition was arranged only with the considerable assistance of Clement Greenberg and it represents the work of painters who have reacted against the current stream of abstract expressionism. Certain qualities which show this rejection of the accepted ideas can be isolated in the works of the artists shown in the exhibition. In all of these canvases there is a clear, simple organization of the format. The painted configuration of each canvas is set off by unprimed cotton duck canvas which is employed in a manner not unlike the gold backgrounds of Byzantine representations in that it is employed in a negative way, denying completely spatial illusion and floating the image within the frame. The clear distinction between the ground (the unsized canvas) and the configuration is never lost sight of; there is never the attempt to utilize the ground in creating shallow, illusionistic space based on the old cubist principles found in abstract expressionism. These artists also desire to eliminate the “painterliness” that is so much a part of abstract expressionism. They have done this in two distinct ways: in the first place, they have eliminated, to a large degree, the brush stroke which excites the surface of the painting and distracts from the quality of the color, which, in all of the paintings in this exhibition, is a very important element. Secondly, the “painterly" surface is also eliminated by doing away with the textural quality of the paint. This is achieved through sinking the painted configuration into the surface of the raw canvas by means of staining.

In this exhibition Morris Louis is represented by canvases from the period 1961 to 1962 and they represent the final phase of his art before his death last year. The canvas Gamma (1961) is a later example of a period which began in 1954. Here, the surface of the canvas has been washed with color. In this work, the artist has created a velvety column mostly of purples and blues which seems almost suspended in the canvas. The surface of the work is luxuriously soft, due, no doubt, to the effect of the acrylic resin (the medium with which most of these canvases are painted) combining with the heavy cotton duck to produce a rich matt surface. The final stage of his work can be noted in No. 33, the effect of which is in marked contrast to the earlier work yet, at the same time, the logic of the development is at once very apparent. No. 33 is more vertical than Gamma and its effect is much more immediately striking. This is due to the hardening of the edges of the now narrow vertical stripes which seem to merge one with the other in the earlier canvas. Moreover, “No. 33” has much purer and more intense color than Gamma.

It is fortunate that the exhibition includes a canvas of the late fifties by Kenneth Noland. This painting Rest, was executed in 1958 and it is an effective foil for his other later canvases which are included in this show. Rest is an arrangement of concentric rings of color and the confident vitality of the work is reflected in the free-hand painting of some of the rings. This creates a freshness and freedom within the concentricity. The somewhat ebullient manner of Rest is counteracted by the later New Problem (1962) which is a much more severe painting. The color of the earlier canvas is considerably curtailed but in the restricted color (off-white, white and green), the artist has created a much more powerful play between the white and off-white pigment and the warm, raw canvas color. The variety of edges presented in Rest are replaced by very carefully controlled hard and soft edges of the roundel and ovals of the New Problem.

The third painter represented in the exhibition, Jules Olitski, has canvases which complement those by Noland and Lewis. His works also are startling for their configuration and choice of color, color which once more is applied as a stain. One of the most effective of Olitski’s paintings is the Purple Passion Company (1962) in which concentric bands of purple and green enclose an almost circular blue area of color which seems to be held vice like within the band of green. But the chromatic intensity of the blue, green and purple vary to such a degree that there is an optical “tugging” of the elements on the painted surface. Moreever, the external purple band is employed in such a manner that it appears to negate the very frame by spreading beyond it. This device also occurs in another contemporary canvas Ino Delight.

The paintings hanging in this exhibition, “Three New American Painters,” have already raised considerable controversy in Regina. There is no doubt that it will eventually have repercussions throughout the Canadian art world.

Mr. Finley is the director of the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery.