“I feel sorry for Jack Bush,” said an artist acquaintance of mine when I told him about the National Gallery of Canada’s recent, excellent retrospective of the late Toronto abstractionist. This was an understandable response to my description of the show’s finessed biographical curating, which made the work feel conspicuously secondary, despite there being five decades of it, spread grandly over thirteen rooms at the NGC. But a retrospective like this, right now, at a major institution, has its exigencies. Bush, though canonical in Canada and elsewhere, and successful commercially, isn’t a household name. A story was needed.
The one curators Marc Mayer and Sarah Stanners told prompted key, new-historicist questions: How did the artist’s career as a commercial illustrator inform and drive his painting practice? How was the American avant-garde like an industry? What was the psychological toll of this industry on individual artists, only some of whom, by the early 1960s, could make a living from it? Specifically, how did this industry encourage neuroses around gender and work? How did those not in New York consume that city’s dominant culture of abstraction? What were the oppressive, alienating, and alternately exhilarating, aspects of this?
Such questions led to other, more intimate ones. The exhibition was structured around three people on whom Bush was dependent, even beholden: Clement Greenberg, the well-known art critic with whom he corresponded for decades and who influenced his painting yet didn’t write publicly about it until after Bush’s death; Bush’s therapist J. Allan Walters, whom he saw for 30 years and who encouraged Bush to take on abstraction as a means of working through his anxiety about his professional life; and his wife Mabel, whom Mayer described at a recent NGC talk as so influential that “Jack would break out in a cold sweat if he was apart from her for more than 24 hours.”
In this way Jack Bush often seemed like “A Portrait of the Artist as a Nervous Wreck.” At the same talk, Mayer spoke of Bush’s late 1950s and early ’60s “thrust” paintings – in which rectangular forms slide across or up the canvas and end, sometimes, in a blot –, finding them reminiscent of “men’s-room graffiti” (i.e. drawings of ejaculating penises), and proposing there were sexual issues Bush was dealing with at the time (though these were not the focus of his therapy with Walters). Stanners, there in conversation with Mayer, cautioned him against conflating one’s own reception of a work with the artist’s intention. This can of course be applied more broadly. All curating, however well-researched, is a subjective act of editing. Mayer then quoted Claude Lévi-Strauss to underline his belief that “every version belongs to the myth.”
The versions in Jack Bush were, appropriately, both very private and very public. The exhibition began with Bush’s most emblematic paintings – sprawling, confident ones, many of which are now owned by banks or power collectors. The room was a metonym for Bush’s art-historical legacy, more integrated and anonymous than distinct, his works woven into broader notions of mid-twentieth-century abstraction, exhibition-making, and art consumption.
Next, Painters Eleven – a group for whom Bush was advocate and ringleader, convincing his Toronto dealer, Roberts Gallery, to host a show of its work, which led to a breakout exhibition stateside at the Riverside Museum in New York. In this section, Bush’s distinctly, at times painfully, Canadian persona emerged: an ambitious middle-class painter wanting chances but doubting himself, passively and anxiously, when chances arose. Commercial illustration paid Bush’s bills until 1968; abstraction was a weekend activity, but of significant vocational and philosophical importance. It connected him to a bigger world.
New York and Europe remain powerful influences on Canadian artists, but Jack Bush recalled a time well before the internet and immediately before the proliferation of artist’s magazines when art was so hard to see that expensive trips across the border or the Atlantic became veritable pilgrimages. Mayer and Stanners divided Bush’s formative career moments into such trips: to Europe, facilitated by a Canada Council grant in spring of 1962 (there he met Anthony Caro, to whom he later wrote, “there is a sterner intensification in color and simplicity [in my work] and in no small measure I have to thank you for it”); to New York’s Chelsea Hotel in 1962, where he spent time with Kenneth Noland and listened to jazz in Greenwich Village; and another to New York in 1960, when, among other things, Jack and Mabel saw a Helen Frankenthaler show at Emmerich’s. This last experience was so powerful that Bush made a suite of flower paintings, never shown publicly before this survey. They are laughably derivative, but attest to the religious fervor that abstraction once stirred, its practitioners devotees and missionaries easily swayed by the fervor of their peers. (“So be patient Anthony,” Bush also wrote to Caro. “Our day is coming.”)
The ersatz Frankenthalers contributed to Mayer and Stanners’s exploration of the pat art-historical reading of abstraction as masculine. If Bush’s “thrust” paintings resembled “men’s-room graffiti” they also, as the curators pointed out during that same talk, had strong illustrative and decorative elements, ones that derive from, say, Matisse as much as from more traditionally “feminine” work. (One might also point out that several well-known AbEx painters were significantly anxious about their work’s reputation as merely decorative.) Often Bush’s blots and strokes were not gestural “hot licks” at all, but plotted out in pencil, their largeness based on small drawings. Many of Bush’s works are, furthermore, figuratively “feminine”: his “sash” paintings, among his most successful, were inspired by seeing a display at a women’s clothing boutique; one of his “thrust” paintings, Bonnet (1961), might be a fashion illustration.
Mayer and Stanners similarly hybridized various spheres of Bush’s professional life. His painting studio was attached to his and Mabel’s house. The curatorial text for 3 Columns – 3 Slants (1967) related the story of Bush burning bacon while finishing a painting, and getting chided by Mabel for doing so. (“Either you paint – or you cook! You can’t do both!”) Another text explained that the title of Bush’s series Mabel’s Release simply referred to his switch from Magna paint, which caused her eyes to burn, to water-based acrylic. While such domestic tales may stereotype Mabel as scolding, they draw rightful attention to the difficulty most artists have in separating domestic and creative lives. Jack Bush had no sanctuary of abstraction. Mayer and Stanners’s exhibition was in many respects about creative labor.
Two small but essential sections placed relatively close to one another pertained, respectively, to Bush’s diaries and commercial work. Their entwined significance might be hung on a quote from Bush’s therapist, given earlier in wall text: “You have the soul of a rebel with the heart of a conformist.” Mayer and Stanners’s bourgeois Bush thought about his mortgage and kids a lot; this made him seem humane and contemporary, for we live in a time in which artists expect, however vainly, middle-class comfort. (Another therapy-session wall-text quote made Bush seem like a millennial: “I don’t want to be a leader – yet I am. I know it – but I’m scared.”) For the exhibition of his journals, Mayer and Stanners presented two large blown-up prints of pages featuring Maslovian diagrams that prioritized family, freelancing, and painting. The prints’ scale, and their geometric shapes connected by dynamic lines, seemed intended to recall Bush’s abstract work. Conversely, an illustration Bush did for Molson’s Export shows a graying man, whom Stanners believes to be a self-portrait, and his “thoughts at quitting time,” as the tagline goes. Bush didn’t write the copy, but it resonates poignantly, existentially.
Stanners and Mayer’s treatment of Greenberg could not be authoritative. Bush’s letters to the critic have been preserved, but only one from Greenberg to Bush survives. Greenberg undoubtedly directed specific works by Bush, though it is difficult to detect an overall influence. In any epistolary correspondence, we perform what we want ourselves to be in the other’s mind. We do an analogous version of this when writing diaries.
The surviving letter from Greenberg to Bush is dated 26 September 1968 and was, unsurprisingly, found in the pages of Bush’s diary. Greenberg, known for his blunt pronouncements, writes that he finds Bush neurotic – “afraid to be a leader,” and “not snotty enough, defiant enough, playful enough.” He is toughly encouraging, telling Bush that he’d “pow N.Y.” anyway, and that he “[hasn’t] yet realized that there’s nobody on earth, including me, who knows more about painting than you do.” Did Greenberg feel sorry for this anxious, middle-aged, middle-class, Canadian pen pal? Pity can’t drive a twenty-year correspondence, nor can it galvanize a five-decade survey. “Clem” signs the letter with love.