flying under the radar: canadian abstract art


Abstraction dominated the art world in the years following the Second World War.  It was a move away from surrealist and post impressionist art and is best exemplified by the works of some of my favorite artists including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in the USA and Lucio Fontana in Italy.  While this trinity of artists is world renowned, I was recently reminded while working with a client, of the fathers of Canadian Abstract Art: Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-1960) and Jean Paul Riopelle (1923-2002).  These internationally lesser known artists add another chapter to the story of Twentieth Century Art that needs to be shared.

The elder of the two artists, Borduas began as a church painter in the parishes of Quebec.  Because Canadian patrons of the time expected landscapes and portraits, Borduas obliged, but in the late 1940s his work changed to include the incredible abstract art shown here.  By 1954 he had moved to New York where he was influenced by works he saw there – including abstract paintings by Pollock, Rothko and Kline.  To me, the Canadian abstract art of Borduas’ work has a vitality and movement sometimes lacking in the pieces by his more famous contemporaries.  The Ampitheatre of Lutetia (main image) painted in 1953 has an incredible feeling of two forces locked in opposition: the vertical and horizontal lines seem to push and pull at one another creating a palpable tension.   It’s almost as if the painting is straining to free itself from the canvas.



Two other works characteristic of Borduas are Pulsation of 1955 (above) and Sea Gull (below) of 1956.   The first is much closer to the work we associate with Pollock with its carefree and loose handling.  There is no real central focus to this piece as each splash of green, red or black paint strives for mastery over the canvas.  Sea Gull by contrast is sharp and defined by use of simply black and white thick swaths of impasto.  This is a painting with texture that you can see and feel.  And it’s this style of abstraction that Borduas transferred and encouraged in one of his students, Jean Paul Riopelle.



Riopelle is perhaps the best known of the Canadian abstract artists and is arguably Canada’s most important artistic export.  His paintings hang in the world’s top contemporary art galleries and are sold by international auction houses in both London and New York.  Once you’re acquainted with his work, it’s impossible to forget.  I know of no other artist (except maybe Gerhard Richter) whose handling of paint is so highly unique and personal.



Having grown up in Quebec and studied under Borduas, Riopelle moved to Paris and started life with American expat artist Joan Mitchell.  Already by the early 1950s, his work is dominated by thick layers of impasto slathered onto the canvas with a palette knife. Jagged peaks and valleys give a sense of movement to his work.  I must admit that I find some of his works to be somewhat lugubrious, but I try to think of them as the result of his brooding artistic temperament!



Borduas’ career was cut short when he died in Paris at the age of only 55.  Riopelle eventually moved back to Quebec from Paris where he continued to experiment with sculpture and other mediums for art.

Today, Canadian abstract art (painting) is definitely flying under the radar.  Works of these two great artists are becoming rare on the market as museums and a dedicated core of collectors are snapping up their best works.  When collecting, it’s always a good idea to look a little outside the bounds of the big name artists – you might just find and fall in love with a new treasure trove of art!

richard rabel
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city

image credits:
image 1 (The Amphitheater of Lutetia ), 2 (Pulsation ) and 3 (SeaGull): Paul-Emile Borduas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Paul-Emile Borduas / SODRAC (2007)
image 4 (Perspectives): Jean Paul Riopelle, Tate Modern, London
image 5 (Haze): Jean Paul Riopelle, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle / SODRAC (2013)