New York

Jack Bush

André Emmerich Gallery

Jack Bush is one of a handful of Canadian abstract artists to have gained prominence in America. Well-known in Canada by the late ’40s, he experienced a severe emotional crisis which eventually led him to reject his earlier work and become a member of Painters Eleven, a Toronto-based group interested in abstraction. By the late ’50s Bush had worked his way through such influences as Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Pierre Soulages, and Nicholas de Staël. He had also begun a lifelong friendship with Clement Greenberg.

That Bush gained attention in America is due, I think, to his friendship with Greenberg, who encouraged some aspects of his work while criticizing others. By the early ’60s Bush’s paintings fit into the formalist mode. For those in accord with these principles, his art conveys a hard-earned simplicity and freedom. However, it can also be argued that his paintings are no more than a reflection of formalist principles, and that his accomplishment must in general be seen as resting on a number of period methods of abstraction.

The bulk of the recent exhibition was made up of this kind of work. Most were done in the last few years of Bush’s life (he died in 1976), at a time when formalism was losing its hold on the art world. They could be roughly divided into two groups. In one, skewed rectangles of color are placed helter-skelter against a rough ground; in the other, elongated shapes suggest a large, improvised brush stroke. I see this pictorial turbulence as a soft-spoken synthesis of Matisse’s paper cutouts and Abstract Expressionist vigor. The trouble is that the works seem anecdotal—sheets of paper or leaves whirling in a gust. They don’t have the subdued intensity of Bush’s column and ladder paintings of 1965 to 1967, in which the color is more structured. Oddly enough, these ’60s paintings are the closest Bush came to achieving a pure formalist statement. The fact that his work began slipping downhill around the time Formalism was losing its grip suggests the limitations of the school. Bush found his “freedom” in a dogma, and in so doing he gave up the search for his identity.

John Yau