Jack Bush: The Representational Years
John Hamilton Bush (1909-1977) was raised in London and Montréal, where he worked initially as a commercial artist in his father’s Montréal firm, Rapid Electro Type Company. In 1928 he moved to the Toronto office of the Rapid Grip Company, where his interest in fine art as well as commercial art was stimulated by contact with the work of the Group of Seven. In Toronto he pursued his interest in fine art throughout the 1930s, painting and taking night classes at the Ontario College of Art with Frederick Challener, John Alfsen, and Charles Comfort. He continued to work as a commercial artist in Toronto until his retirement in 1968, from 1942 on in partnership with Leslie Wookey and William Winter.
For two decades Bush was an ardent landscape and figure painter after the manner of the Ontario Society of Artists and the Canadian Group of Painters. During this period he developed a personal manner rooted in Canadian art and his own unique “handwriting” that stuck with him to the end. Bush’s handwriting is easier to see than to describe. In his early art it sometimes appears as dynamic cloud formations and figure groupings which intrude into or float within many of his pictures. (In fact, “thrust” was a series name for some of Bush’s early abstractions.) Movement into the picture surface from one or more of its edges (in the “thrusts” and also in the “fringe” series of paintings) and dynamic placement became favoured Bush motifs.
Like many of his younger contemporaries, by the 1950s Bush had become dissatisfied with Canada’s detachment from international contemporary art. Looking back in 1967 he observed that “the desire for a National Art, to show the world how great Canadians were, never got off the ground. And I think it will take another half century to learn that that is not the way to get off the ground.” In 1953 his dissatisfaction led him, in company with several younger Toronto artists, to become a founding member of the Painters Eleven.
Like the other members of the Eleven, Bush pursued abstraction as best he could, “abstracting” from nature in a manner derived from the illustrations becoming available in international magazines as well as from his practice as a commercial artist. As had been the case with Tom THOMSON and the Group of Seven, he “applied” contemporary design to serious painting, only in Bush’s case the application was closer to Cubism than to Art Nouveau.
But for the fact that he became connected with the emerging New York art scene in the late 1950s, Bush might have remained a provincial modernist. This connection came at first through a young Canadian painter in New York, William Ronald, and subsequently through a close and lasting friendship with the American critic Clement Greenberg.
Greenberg met Bush in 1957 during a Toronto visit to the studios of several members of Painters Eleven. At the time, Greenberg was not impressed by Bush’s oil painting, but admired the directness and simplicity of his watercolours and encouraged him to follow them up on canvas. Bush responded with large, thinly brushed paintings exploiting enlarged versions of his characteristic “handwriting.” He never looked back.
“I don’t look for anything. It comes to me. I may be walking along a road and I see a mark on the road; it looks interesting, so I try it out as a painting. Or looking at some flowers in the garden – how can I get the feel of those colours, of the flower colours, the nice smell and everything? … I’m not painting flowers. I’m painting the essence, the feeling to me only, not how somebody else feels about those flowers, only me. Then I forget the flowers and make a good painting of it if I can.”
— Jack Bush, 1977
Jack Bush is best known for his abstract paintings done between the 1950s and 1970s. He represented Canada at the 1967 São Paulo Bienal and the Art Gallery of Ontario toured a large retrospective exhibition of his work in 1976. Bush created advertisements and illustrations for 42 years before devoting himself full-time to painting in 1968.
As a young man in Toronto in the 1930s, Bush ran a commercial art business and took night classes at the Ontario College of Art. During this period he had very little exposure to modern European art, and, like most other Toronto painters at the time, was primarily influenced by the Group of Seven. The decorative designs and areas of flat colour of Toronto-based artist and designer Charles Comfort also influenced Bush’s early painting. After seeing abstract art in Toronto and New York Bush began to experiment with abstraction himself in the early 1950s
Bush was a member of the Toronto artist group Painters Eleven who banded together in 1954 to promote abstract painting. Through this involvement he met the influential New York City art critic Clement Greenberg. Bush was encouraged by Greenberg to abandon his Abstract Expressionist style characterized by hovering amorphous shapes on the picture plane. He would simplify his composition by using an all-over coverage of thinly applied bright colours inspired by his watercolour sketches. His work is based on an abstract record of his perceptions. He did not expect the viewer to see the flower or hear the music that inspired his work, but only to share in the feeling through his painting.
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada