Jack Bush’s Stripes and Solids

These paintings are more than color-field eye candy and hold their own as engaging abstracts.

Jack Bush, “Striped Column” (1964), oil (blue areas) and protein and oil (stripes) on canvas, anonymous gift (© Estate of Jack Bush, photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

BOSTON — There are only three paintings in Jack Bush: Radiant Abstraction at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, but together these large-scale paintings form a color field in the Edward H. Linde Gallery, a broad stairwell space designated for contemporary art.

Bush (1909–1977) often worked in series, trying out various shapes and formats. When he liked something he came up with he would paint several variations on it. His surroundings often provided the initial stimulus for a design. “Striped Column” (1964), which was featured on a Canadian postage stamp (Bush was Canadian), is from his Column series (1962–65); according to the wall text it was created, “after a Manhattan bus ride where glimpses of store windows full of vibrant clothes caught his eye.”

The same painting relates to Bush’s Sash series, also from around 1963–1964. These columnar compositions were inspired by seeing a mannequin in a store window wearing a 1960s shift dress with a sash around the waist. The connection is clear: the vertical striped pillar, nearly eight feet tall, has a cinched midriff look to it, rungs of color tapering from the top and bottom of the canvas against a ground of blue.

Bush executed “Striped Column” in oil paint applied in diluted washes to canvas that had been coated with rabbit skin glue (the “protein,” according to the wall text). The resulting surface recalls acrylic paint, but with a deeper glow. Like other color field painters at the time, including Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Bush was drawn to this staining technique, but a few years later he switched to acrylic.

Jack Bush, “Blue Studio” (1968), acrylic on canvas, gift of Lewis P. Cabot in honor of Charles W. Millard III, (photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“Blue Studio,” an acrylic painting from 1968, is one of a handful of “fringe” pieces painted that year that feature bands of color stacked more or less evenly along the right edge of the canvas, with the remaining three-quarters or so of the canvas painted a single hue, here a mild blue. In this iteration, the painting resembles a reverse flag. Bush left part of the canvas, in the lower right-hand corner, unpainted, and the fringe stripes to the right are not evenly rectangular and vary in size. These irregularities imbue the image with energy, and a sense of engaging imperfection.

Jack Bush, “Down and Across” (1974), acrylic on canvas, gift of Susan K. and Lewis P. Cabot (photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“Down and Across” (1974) is the most visually compelling of three pieces on display at the MFA. Two elongated color patch strips intersect at one end to form an open straight-razor- or scissors-like shape set against a mottled blue ground. The title describes the two main elements in the painting, one vertical, the other horizontal, but the piece is more lyric and enlivened, reminiscent of color field painting. The shapes have motion, like pieces of driftwood floating in water.

“Radiant” doesn’t seem quite right to describe the trio of paintings, two of which are recent acquisitions. They contain plenty of light, and the colors are vibrant, even somewhat exuberant, but they are slightly removed from, say, the radiance of Kenneth Noland or the luminosity of Rothko. More than color-field eye candy, they hold their own as engaging abstracts.

How John “Jack” Hamilton Bush came to create these paintings makes for a somewhat curious art-historical tale. Born in Toronto, he grew up in Montreal where he studied at the Royal Canadian Academy. He started out as a rather provincial landscape painter, working en plein air in watercolor and gouache; farm and village scenes were among his favorite subjects. He also painted figures and still lifes in oil. His work from the 1940s recalls at times the atmospheric landscapes of Charles Burchfield; at other times, it has a quasi-cubist look.

At the same time Bush was a successful graphic artist, working first at his father’s firm, Rapid Electro Type Company, in Montreal, and then moving to Toronto. He was a fine draftsman, turning out illustrations for magazines and advertisements for various products, including Molson’s beer. He remained in this line of work until 1968. Yet his exposure to the work of Abstract Expressionists in New York City in the 1950s set him on another course, one that would define him as a painter. He became a member of the Painters Eleven, an artist collective committed to abstraction, active in the Toronto area from 1953 to 1960; he organized their first show in 1954.

Bush also became friends with the renowned art critic Clement Greenberg, who traveled to Toronto in 1957 to visit artist’s studios. Greenberg encouraged Bush to pursue his abstract inclinations and helped move his career forward, including him in the groundbreaking Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964.

At his height, Bush achieved a stature similar to his friend and fellow color field painter Kenneth Noland. The curators of the MFA show cite an exchange between the two painters to underscore Bush’s love of color. “What I’d really like to do is hit Matisse’s ball out of the park,” he once confessed, to which Noland is said to have replied, “Go ahead, Matisse won’t mind at all.”

Bush’s work has been celebrated in his home country in recent years, most notably in a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 2014-2015 and a show of 20 pieces at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, near Toronto, in 2016-2017. It’s nice to have a dash of Jack Bush in Boston.

Jack Bush: Radiant Abstraction continues at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Avenue) through April 21.

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