PRINT May 1969

In Terms of Color: Jack Bush


THE RECENT EXHIBITION OF PAINTINGS by Jack Bush at the David Mirvish Gallery in Toronto contained some of the best and certainly the most consistent work I have seen by this underestimated major artist. Bush’s underestimation (in both Canada and the United States) is due not simply to the fact that his paintings are challenging, but to the very nature of the challenge they present; they make unusual demands upon the viewer. A misunderstanding appears to surround Bush’s art that is related, I suspect, to a mistaken conclusion drawn from fact that vanguard art usually is challenging: challenge is accepted as a criterion of quality when, in fact, it can be no more than a symptom. As a result, one can come to expect a confrontation when looking at contemporary art that consists of a dramatic departure from convention and, when that confrontation is not immediate (or accessibly conceptual), one can become disappointed or indifferent. Bush’s paintings do not make this kind of demand upon the viewer; their challenge is neither immediate nor dramatic.

In the early sixties Bush’s paintings appeared to be too clumsy to be the work of a major painter and were often dismissed as being homely or dull; recently they have appeared to be too facile to be the work of a major painter and have been dismissed as being superficial and pretty; neither of these impressions has coincided with the quality of the paintings which are characterized by a stubborn lack of immediacy. It has been my experience that, while one can suspect quality upon first encountering a Bush painting, no amount of familiarity with his past work can overcome the necessity of becoming familiar with that particular painting. I realize that this is a common critical problem that exists with the work of artists other than Bush, but I can think of no other artist who so consistently confounds one’s initial expectations. Absurd as it sounds, what a painting looks like initially and what it proves itself to be is a continuing critical problem posed by Bush’s art, and this seems to constitute the nature of the challenge that his paintings provoke. When one sees a Bush exhibition one seems to encounter a series of paintings which are either dull or merely pretty, some of which turn out to be very good indeed. One does not encounter, as is so frequently the case, a group of paintings which appear to be challenging but which prove, in too many cases, to be empty.


Perhaps the simplest explanation for Bush’s lack of immediacy is that his paintings succeed or fail entirely in terms of color. While this accounts for what I feel to be the secondary nature of Bush’s structure, it fails entirely to account for any relationship between color and structure. Unlike Kenneth Noland’s paintings, in which structure and color appear to engender each other, Bush’s formats appear to be arrived at as a result of color. Color engenders structure—not the systematic structure of Noland or Stella, but a rather wayward structure that is difficult to abstract, in reality no more than a cluster of interrelated formats that act as convenient frameworks for color. While these formats have a number of superficial characteristics in common with those of Kenneth Noland—particularly a tendency to deploy color in adjacent, parallel bands—it would be misleading to speak of them as having been influenced by Noland. They relate to Bush’s unique and highly developed vocabulary of color.

Bush is essentially a figure ground painter who has virtually eliminated the illusion of spatial separation between figure and ground. He has accomplished this by attaching his figurative elements (striated color columns) to one or more of the edges of the painting while adjusting the whole within the picture rectangle. As a result the images do not appear to float upon or within the surface of the painting, but seem continuous with it. As such they do not evoke a sense of gravity by containing images that seem to float, as do Gottlieb’s discs. The illusion they project, even in paintings like the superb Hanging Banner, is far less substantial than that projected by Gottlieb’s paintings and seems to ignore, rather than react against, gravity.

I mentioned earlier that Bush’s structure is a convenience because his formats seem to play a secondary and seemingly negative role in his art, as if their first duty were to not interfere with color—either by too obviously containing it, by flattening it, or by making the image so obvious that it interferes with surface unity. The awkward contours of images in his paintings of the early sixties refused to relate explicitly to the picture rectangle, thereby containing color without making any one area predominate. A series of paintings shown at the Andre Emmerich Gallery in 1967 appeared (at least initially) to break with this figure-ground orientation by juxtaposing three or more rectangular and triangular areas containing parallel color bands over the entire surface of the painting. While these paintings appeared (at least to my eye) to represent a major color breakthrough, they did not strike me as being entirely successful solutions to some of the problems proposed by the earlier figure-ground formats. The paintings seemed to be troubled by the tendency of bands which ran parallel to one edge of the painting to pull away from the rest of the painting, destroying the unity of surface which appears to be essential to a good Bush painting. When these paintings succeeded, they did so through sheer power of color or by resorting to divisions and bands which avoided verticals and horizontals (as well, if my memory serves me correctly, as the too obvious use of diagonals).

In the recent exhibition these problems have been resolved, at least for the moment, by simply acknowledging the picture rectangle—most of the divisions within these paintings parallel the edges of the paintings (although some of them are tilted slightly or bowed). As a result drawing seems to be less obvious and less problematic than it has been in the past and has been displaced by the awkward-seeming and highly intuitive proportions of the columns within the total paintings and the color bands within the columns. The paintings project a sensation of proportion and balance rather than a sensation of tension.


Because his formats receive, rather than engender, color, color is of the utmost importance in Bush’s art. Unlike the majority of color painters, Bush is essentially an easel painter who brushes (rather than pours, sponges or sprays) thinned acrylic paint into masked off areas on canvases that are tacked to an upright surface. The canvases are subsequently stretched with what appears to be a minimum of cropping. For the most part, Bush’s color is thin and transparent, allowing the white of the canvas to show through; however in some cases, especially within large areas of potentially opaque color, he makes use of obvious brushwork to enliven the surface. The surface that results is continuous (no single color appears to advance or recede), is infinitely penetrable by the eye and at the same time appears to emanate color.

Bush’s development in the past few years has been characterized by an expanding vocabulary of color. While a similar claim can be made about Noland’s development, the differences between the color vocabularies of the two artists are illuminating. Unlike Noland, Bush tends to work within a limited value range in any single painting (I can’t recall a single instance of black and white appearing in the same Bush painting, something which is quite common in Noland’s paintings. In fact, Bush seldom uses either black or white, preferring to work with a range of greys.) In addition to this, Bush does not repeat individual colors within a single painting whereas Noland frequently does. One of the remarkable things about Bush’s paintings is the number of specific colors they employ and the complexity of relationships they establish. In this respect the paintings from the 1967 exhibition at the Andre Emmerich Gallery appear to have been crucial. In effect the rectangular and triangular areas of these paintings contained scales of color bands, each scale containing colors which related to specific colors in adjacent scales.

The paintings in the Mirvish exhibition appear to have placed these scales within a single color column juxtaposed by a color field. As a result the complexity of relationships has been increased, placing extreme demands upon what might be called the viewers’ conceptualizations of color. It becomes very difficult, for example, to say what colors belong exclusively to a scale of greens in a painting when various colors within that scale can be seen within scales of brown or blue; yet it is precisely this complexity, this frustration of one’s concepts, that throws one back upon the purely visual, producing paintings of such outstanding achievement as This Time Yellow, Color Ladder and Hanging Banner.


It seems to me there is an associative quality to Bush’s paintings which relates, I suspect, to his peculiar feeling for canvas, a feeling which has little to do with the color of canvas and a great deal to do with its texture, with canvas as fabric. Bush seldom leaves raw canvas in his paintings and when he does, as in Column With Border in this exhibition, it does not relate as a color to the painted areas. One feels that it hasn’t been considered as intensely as the paint and somehow wants to be wished away. The slab-like color areas that frame the painting seem to acquire an unwanted solidity, their depth of color becoming limited and specific and thereby sculptural rather than ambiguous and optical.

I think it is not unlikely that Bush’s formats are related to his feeling for canvas and, specifically, to his feeling for canvas as a fabric. If this is the case, it is possibly useful to think of them as being stretched, colored fabrics. This is suggested by the titles of a number of his paintings—Hanging Banner and Color Fringe—and by the banner, sash and column formats that Bush has made use of throughout the sixties. It .is somewhat misleading, however, to think of the paintings as a kind of abstract drapery as they do not relate to our traditional concept of drapery in painting; they are not folded or bent to provide an allusion to the third dimension. The term “column” is relevant in this context as it applies to Bush’s art. While many of his formats contain elements that are columnar in their verticality, they evoke no sense of volume because the color bands they contain are usually horizontal (or relatively so) and do not permit, or evoke, shading. They flatten, rather than model, the column. If these columns allude to drapery, they do so by abstracting from it. Unlike fluted Greek columns which abstract sculpturally from the folding of drapery as it hangs on the figure, Bush’s columns are anti-sculptural and abstract from the coloring and patterning of drapery.

If this is the case (and I am not suggesting that it is entirely the case) I suspect that Bush’s involvement with the coloring and stretching of canvas has to do with a primitive sense of decoration. His paintings seem to be embodiments of an innate and deeply human craving for decoration and in this sense, but only in this sense, are allied with fashion. They do not respond to this urge by the application of an immediate and transitory sensibility, but respond intuitively and, as Bush puts it, “with the eyes alone.” In this respect they are probably closer to Matisse’s ideal of painting as an armchair than the work of any artist alive.

Terry Fenton