Marcel Barbeau

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Marcel Barbeau

1925 - 2016

One of the original members of the Automatists, Barbeau was a student of Paul- Émile Borduas and a classmate of Jean-Paul Riopelle, and was a signatory of the manifesto Refus Global in 1948. In 1956, after Riopelle and Borduas had left Canada, some of the members of the Automatists formed the group the Plasticiens and dedicated themselves to hard-edged geometric abstractions. Barbeau worked along these lines, although he was not a formal member of the group. An explorer who pushed the limits of each new idea in his art, Barbeau taught for two decades and is considered one of the great innovators in contemporary art in Canada. He received the Order of Canada in 1995.

Having exhibited first with the Automatists in 1946, Barbeau’s promise as an Abstract Expressionist was threatening, it seemed, to overtake his master Borduas. Borduas was no doubt aware of this, and his overly critical response to Barbeau’s mid-1940s works resulted in Barbeau destroying several dozen paintings. However, Barbeau continued to work, still pushing the ideas of abstraction, and by 1952 was having solo shows with Wittenborn and Shute Gallery in New York, as well as in galleries in Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City. Barbeau worked in collage and calligraphic ink drawing and produced non-objective paintings. He visited San Francisco in 1957 and met the Abstract Expressionist painters of the Pacific School. He had a solo show at the Musée des beaux-arts as early as 1962, and was shown regularly at Galerie Denise Delrue in Montreal. In the mid-1960s he explored Op Art and film.

Barbeau lived in Paris from 1962 - 1964, reconnecting with fellow Automatist Fernand Leduc and showing at Galerie Iris Clert. He also exhibited in New York from 1964 - 1968 at the East Hampton Gallery, while still participating in shows in his Canadian galleries. His contact with New York was critical at this stage, and he is one of the key figures in the development of Abstract Expressionism in Canada.

Barbeau has been the subject of numerous retrospectives, beginning with the 1969 collaboration between the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain. Always an innovator, Barbeau has worked in many media - from drawing and printmaking to photograph and performance - but he is best known for his painting and sculpture. He has created many large scale public works, and has been the subject of some 70 one-man shows and 200 group exhibitions. His awards are numerous and include the 1963 Zack Purchase Prize of the Royal Canadian Academy, and the Canada Council’s Lynch-Staunton Grant in 1973.

His work is widely collected and represented in many important public collections including the British Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, the National Gallery in Washington, DC and the Chrysler Art Gallery, as well as in Canada at the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Musée des beaux-arts and the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal. Barbeau lives and continues to work in France.

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