1923 - 1999
oil on canvas
signed and on verso signed, dated November 1961 and inscribed "MA Greige"
39 1/8 x 50 1/8 in 99.4 x 127.3 cm
Estimate: $70,000 - $90,000
Preview at: Heffel Vancouver
Galerie Godard Lefort, Montreal
Private Collection, Ontario
Constance Naubert-Riser, Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1987, a similar work entitled Fil à plomb traversant le rouge reproduced page 74
The year 1961 was a critical one for Jean McEwen, in which he received the Hadassah prize and first prize at the Concours artistiques de la province de Québec, as well as a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. In the same year, he also had his first solo show at Gallery Moos, in Toronto, and Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, acquired one of his paintings for MoMA, effectively cementing his reputation among the vanguard of Canadian artists.
This quintessential McEwen canvas from his important Grand fil à plomb (plumb line) series was created in November of 1961, at the height of his powers, and contains every classic element of his style. An undertone of golden ochre frames and divides the composition in half, with two flickering planes of oranges and reds hovering above it. The scale of this work heightens the sensory effect, achieving the colour-field objective of an immersive bodily experience. It has been held in the same family since it was acquired from Montreal’s Galerie Godard Lefort nearly 50 years ago.
The potent symbolism at the heart of McEwen’s work is a mystery around which the artist kept circling. Unwaveringly loyal to postmodern painting theory, he insisted that his paintings were self-evident, alluding to nothing beyond their material reality as colour. Speculations abound, however - how could they not? As with all great artists who dedicate their time to a singular task, there is an enigma of purpose that begs the question of why and what for, and what it means for a sensation to be aroused by pigment.
Embedded in the artist’s serial paintings and process-based work are eternal themes about the discovery and creation of the self through his art practice. McEwen’s painterly dialectic is expressed in fields of colour divided by horizontal and vertical bifurcations, creating what he called “cells” of paint. Such abstractions offer a space to burrow into or extrapolate beyond, into metaphorical analogies linking the biological self and the act of artistic creation. Here permutations of cellular mitosis and bodily hemispheres become possible, poetic and thematic associations to consider when attempting to understand the creative process and the effect of colour theory in McEwen’s practice.
McEwen always insisted that the significance of his paintings was situated solely in the formal structuring of paint contained by a rectangular surface. His paintings were not produced with concepts in mind; they are vehicles of emotion, self-contained poems whose meanings are revealed gradually with time. Through a continued insistence on layered colour, the paintings become all-encompassing in their stubborn refusal of explanation. This painting, left untitled, is emblematic of McEwen’s oeuvre in that it takes on a universal quality, an invitational space to imbue with cycles of life and death, and the examination and creation of the self.
Estimate: $70,000 - $90,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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