LOT 016

1923 - 2002

Sans titre
oil on canvas, 1960
initialed twice and on verso dated 1954 [sic] on the gallery labels
8 5/8 x 10 1/2 in, 21.9 x 26.7 cm

Estimate: $75,000 - $100,000 CAD

Sold for: $157,250

Preview at:

Marlborough-Godard, Toronto
Canadian Art, Joyner Fine Art, November 24, 1992, lot 79
Acquired from the above by Kenneth R. Thomson, Toronto
A.K. Prakash and Associates Inc., Toronto, 2006
Masters Gallery Ltd., Calgary, 2007
Private Collection, Winnipeg
Private Collection

Riopelle: An Exhibition of Works from Private Calgary Collections, Masters Gallery, 2009, dated 1954, reproduced
Yseult Riopelle, Jean Paul Riopelle Catalogue Raisonné, online addendum to Volume 3, 1960 - 1965, 2012, http://www.riopelle.ca

Ladies Committee Sale of Contemporary Art, Toronto, #63
Masters Gallery, Calgary, Riopelle: An Exhibition of Works from Private Calgary Collections, March 24 – 28, 2009
Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Riopelle: The Glory of Abstraction, May 15 – August 2, 2010

Even a sidelong glance at this painting tells you that you have seen something exceptional. Looser in handling than many of Jean Paul Riopelle’s paintings of the 1950s, Sans titre easily equals the power of the well-known “mosaics” to draw one into a powerful web of form and colour. A small painting with a large impact, Sans titre suggests that scale for Riopelle is not literal but instead turns on what he can do with his surface and what his complex gestures in turn imply for a viewer’s experience.

Sans titre is notably free and expansive. When he moved to France in the late 1940s, Riopelle was associated with André Breton, the “Pope” of Surrealism. In 1966, however, a French critic was still looking back to this time when he wrote that “Riopelle works in a state of crisis, a sort of hypnotic fury and abandon.” When this judgment was put to the artist in an interview decades later, he disagreed. “That wasn’t my way,” he claimed. “Georges Mathieu worked hard and fast. Not Riopelle.”[1] Sans titre has a surrealist pedigree, but it is a carefully wrought painting.

The variety of paint application and hue employed by Riopelle in this painting is astonishing. Pigments are dragged through one another in the bottom and top right, suggesting, perhaps, a page or layer peeled back to reveal yet another layer of paint and gesture. The same technique used in the middle left—now with black, blue and white—yields a different visual effect by defining a long, fan-shaped form. This element of Riopelle’s vocabulary is repeated across the painting in a range of hues. In the bottom centre, by contrast, loosely rectangular white forms are relatively untouched, stable and flat. Most striking, however, is the bold choreography that Riopelle creates with extrusions of thick yellow and red oils. Notable too is the unusual palette he has chosen. White tends to dominate his work at this time, yet here he mixes in quantities of brown with the reds, blacks and yellows. Can brown be a dynamic colour? In Riopelle’s hands, yes. It is an unexpected and memorable combination.

Riopelle’s work of the 1960s, including Sans titre, sought new directions against the backdrop of his worldwide recognition at this time, which included appearances at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1951 and 1955, in the Younger European Painters exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1953, and at the Venice Biennale in 1954 and 1962. By the 1960s, he had also successfully navigated endless, if not always fruitful, comparisons between European and American abstraction in the 1950s.

In fact, few if any Canadian artists have received such sustained and high praise as Riopelle did during his prolific career and since his death in 2002—building critical and commercial success upon success in European and American exhibitions, and with art dealers in Paris and then New York. As a result, Riopelle’s name eclipsed that of all other artists from Canada during the period just after World War II until the 1960s. From the 1960s, he spent more time in Quebec and eventually resettled in the province. As we mark the centenary of his birth in 2023 – 2024, Riopelle remains an exemplar of the post-war École de Paris and is seen as a leading artist of French Lyrical Abstraction, tachisme and informel. Sans titre is a quintessentially international painting.

We thank Mark A. Cheetham for contributing the above essay. Cheetham is the author of two books on abstract art: The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting and Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure since the ’60s. He is a professor of art history at the University of Toronto and a freelance curator and artwriter.

1. Quoted in Gilbert Érouart, Riopelle in Conversation, trans. Donald Winkler (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1995), 46–47.

Estimate: $75,000 - $100,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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