New York Studio School, March 19 – April 25, 2009
Of the group of Color Field painters associated with the Washington Color School and Post-Painterly Abstraction—the latter term endowed by the critic Clement Greenberg in 1964—the artist I know least about is Jack Bush. While I have seen paintings of his in many exhibitions over the years, my introduction to his work came through a show of Color Field painters organized by the curator Kenworth Moffett at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1972. When I say “introduction” this was the first occasion that I actually saw the work of Jack Bush outside of reproduction.
I feel impelled to mention this given that many of my students have difficulty understanding why they should go to museums or the New York Studio School to see works by Jack Bush when they can see the same thing on the Internet. I have to mention that seeing an image of a painting and actually seeing a painting are not the same thing. To actually see a Jack Bush, even a work painted on paper, is a different experience than seeing it reproduced as a digital image. The difference, of course, is that the actual seeing is about an experience—an indelibly human act—while the digital image is about information, which is neutral, immaterial, and implies no commitment in the stretch between idea and painting—a point on which Greenberg and the infamous Duchamp would seem to converge.
Bush, a Canadian artist, is associated with Color Field painting in America because he used color in direct relationship to form, and because he felt connected to formalist artists and critics who frequently discussed these ideas on a passionate level of discourse. He was particularly close to the American Color Field painter, Kenneth Noland. There was a sympathetic affinity between the two artists, and an exhibition comparing their works would not at all be incidental. While Noland began with concentric rings of color before turning toward a “hard-edge” style of painting in 1963, Bush held steadfast to the gestural mark. This was the latter’s signature and it is evident throughout the works on paper presented at the New York Studio School, curated by Karen Wilkin, largely from the collection of David Mirvish in Toronto.
The gestural mark of Jack Bush is neither a gesture nor a mark, but a hybrid somewhere in between, capable of empowering the field as a single unit of energy. One of the best and most memorable paintings in the show is “Apple Blossom Burst,” a gouache from 1971. Apparently inspired by seeing this phenomenon in his garden, he made the painting with nine white gestural marks touching one another at the top of a luscious gray field. My first thought was to compare the simplicity and accuracy of this work with the thirteenth-century ink painting “Six Persimmons” by the Taoist painter Mu ch’i. In the latter case, the six pieces of fruit sit close to the bottom of the field—four are painted in black and two are in white. In both cases, the paintings reveal immense passion and restraint: two qualities in art that signify a way of being.
Upon first glance, the works on paper in Jack Bush: Works on Paper—all done between 1960 and 1971—appear similar. After circumambulating the two galleries a second time, the similarities give way to a set of highly imaginative differences. More than variations on a theme, the work reveals the kind of intensity that evolves as a sudden and clear focus. Like great calligraphy, it occurs without hesitation. Once the visual thought is clear, the artist proceeds to realize it in terms of color, proportion, and form. “Nice Pink” (1965) suggests that the four-color stack in red oxide, hot pink, cadmium red, and green function perceptually much like Noland’s bands of color from 1967-1968. Does this imply that Noland took something from Bush? Maybe so, but the taking is less significant than what each painter did to give color a sense of proportion, scale, and form. In each case, the work is significant. What is striking, however, is how fresh the Bush paintings appear, which perhaps indicates that the freedom to explore visual ideas on paper was less daunting than moving an idea immediately to canvas. The scale and touch of the fabric function differently than paper. Another work, “Forsythia” (1971), also a garden work, suggests that such free, simple, and direct forms spaced across a mottled gray field could only exist the way they are. These forms resonant on a smaller scale and thus lend an intimacy to our ways of seeing, a notion that may give painters today an opportunity to re-think the unnecessary distance painting has taken.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.