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.
1909 – 1977
“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.
Summer, No. 3 (1956) is an example of Bush’s early abstract work. He claimed that he wanted to paint like the American painters, but by his own admission, was never able to imitate their style. In hindsight, he said , “The difference was ‘Bush,’ and I just couldn’t get rid of it … fortunately.”
Big A (1968), an acrylic on canvas painting consists of a dominant vertical red stripe flanked by two contrasting blocks of colour. These three sections rest on four horizontal stripes. Bush has applied the colours so thinly that the texture of the canvas is visible through the pigment. The borders between the colours follow straight lines but are softened by the imperfections in Bush’s application. Colours overlap each other and sometimes do not meet, exposing minute amounts of canvas. At this point in his career, Bush had reduced his painting to a flat surface of vibrant, what has been called, “joyous” colour. Later, in the 1970s, he would return to paintings that had a background and a foreground, but were still intensely colourful.
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada
BUSH, Jack (John Hamilton Bush)
Born in Toronto, Ontario, he was raised in Montreal. After finishing high school he became an apprentice in the art department of the Montreal office of Rapid Grip Company where his father was manager. While at Grip he also studied with Adam Sheriff Scott (1926-27) and attended night school at the Art Association of Montreal under Edmond Dyonnet (1927-28). After two years in the Montreal office his father sent him to Head Office in Toronto for wider experience. There he was able to earn a higher salary. Evenings he attended the OCA (three or four nights a week) which included life drawing and. various classes under F.S. Challener, John Alfsen, George Pepper, Charles Comfort, J.E.H. MacDonald, and J.W. Beatty (1929-41). In the years that followed he worked for several companies: Bomac Engravers, Tor. (1936-41); was partner in Wookey, Bush & Winter, Tor. (1953-59); TDF Artists Ltd., Tor. (1959-64); and finally Paul, Phelan & Perry Ltd., Tor. (1964-68). By 1950 Bush had experimented with abstraction having seen the latest work reproduced in Time and Life which were available in Canada by 1945. He was exhibiting in group shows of the CSGA, CSPWC, OSA, ARCA, CGP, as a member and he held office in several. In 1952, he visited New York to see first-hand some of the actual works reproduced in issues of Time and Life. This same year he also participated in the show First Canadian All Abstract Exhibition in Oshawa which led indirectly to his involvement with Painters Eleven. By the invitation of William Ronald, Bush exhibited his work at the Robert Simpson Company store in the show Abstracts at Home (1953). The seven exhibitors in this show were all exploring the realm of abstraction: Oscar Cahén, Alexandra Luke, Kazuo Nakamura, Ray Mead, Tom Hodgson, William Ronald and Bush. They realized they would fare better by showing as a group. However they didn’t want to be called a group of seven and decided to invite a few other artists. William Ronald invited his old teacher Jock MacDonald. Oscar Cahén invited both Harold Town and Walter Yarwood. Ray Mead asked Hortense Gordon. There were now eleven of them. They decided to call themselves Painters Eleven. In February they held their first group show at the Roberts Gallery, Jack Bush’s dealer. Bush was the only one in the group with a dealer. The largest crowd in the history of the gallery showed up at the opening. Financial rewards happened later for the individuals of the group. In his shift from representational art – to abstract – to non-objective, Bush had been influenced initially by his OCA teachers especially Charles Comfort, then Picasso, Borduas, Kline, and Rothko. In 1946 he was painting canvases like Village Procession (AGO) a representational work of a village funeral procession on foot which he saw from the window of a train as it passed the village of Gelert near Minden, Ontario. In this painting there is a strong sense of rhythm in the sky, in the village church, the country road, hills, barns, and the cemetery. He had also mastered the body language of villagers in the funeral procession. This painting won him the Rolph-Clark-Stone prize at the OSA 1946 exhibition. By 1955 his Theme Variation (AGO), a water colour, documents his departure from representational work to a more abstract form. By 1956, his oil painting Summer, No. 3 (NGC), is an example of his fascination with abstract expressionism and the considerable influence of Franz Kline. Clement Greenberg, American art critic then visited him in Toronto in 1957 and advised him to simplify his art and to move out from under the influence of American abstract expressionists and blaze a new trail. This Bush did, and by 1965, had produced colour field paintings like his Dazzle Red (AGO) and in 1966 Tall Spread (NGC). He continued his experiments with such large canvases as his 1970 Slow Curve (Dr. & Mrs. H.J. Hoffman), reproduced in Paul Duval’s Four Decades (1972). In this work he sports a brilliant bar of vermillion down the middle of the canvas with a gradual curve to the right at the bottom, over a maroon background bordered at the bottom with a wide band of bright colours. Bush’s main concern in painting had become successful arrangement/juxtaposition of colours in different shapes, sizes and accents, and breaking new ground in the process. Critic Pearl Oxorn of the Ottawa Journal noted that, “Bush was not a theorist and did not regard his painting as technical exercises. No matter how much art critics . . . expounded the theoretical aspects of Bush’s art, he was indifferent to it. But in practice, he did arrive at the solutions of formal problems, but he did it by means of intuitive necessity and not intellectually. He worked spontaneously, but exercised control; guided by his intuition he catered to each painting’s formal needs.” Michael Greenwood in the conclusion to his article on Bush for Artscanada (June/July, ’71) noted, “Color painting is especially vulnerable to the hazards of conscious ‘art-making’ – the Sirens of Preciosity and Cultism often lurk nearby – the continued energy and risk-taking innovations apparent in Bush’s new work suggest that he is on guard against them. Fortunately, he seems to have adopted one of Rose Sélavy’s most trenchant mottoes: ‘I force myself into self contradiction in order to avoid following my taste.’ ” His solo shows include: Sudbury (1945); Trinity College, Tor. (1946); Roberts Gal., Tor. (1949) (1952); Park Gal., Tor. (1958) (1959) (1961); Robt. Elkon Gal., NYC (1962) (1963) (1964); Gal. Moos, Tor. (1962) (1964); U. of Sask., Reg. (1964); Bennington College Vermont (1964); Waddington Gal., Lond., Eng. (1964) (1967); Andre Emmerich Gal., NYC (1966) (1967); David Mirvish Gal., Tor. (1966) (1967) (1968); EAG, Edn./AGO, Tor. (retrospec. travel. 1976/7); Gallery One, Tor. (1986); others. His awards include: Rolph-Clark-Stone Awd., OSA (1946); J.W.L. Forster Awd., OSA (1958); Art Dir’s. Club, Tor., Medal (1951) (1954); First Prize Can. Sports Hall of Fame (1957); CC Senior Fellowship for study in Europe & NYC (1962); Grand Awd. Winner, MMFA Spring Exhibition (1965); Guggenheim Fellowship Awd. for painting in Can. (1968). He participated in many important group shows national and international. Married with three grown sons Jack Bush died in Toronto at the age of sixty-six.
Colin S. MacDonald
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada