LOT 037

1923 - 1999

Midi, temps rouge
oil on canvas
on verso signed, titled on a label, dated 15-3-61 and stamped Gallery Moos
39 x 30 in, 99.1 x 76.2 cm

Estimate: $40,000 - $60,000 CAD

Sold for: $109,250

Preview at:

Gallery Moos Ltd., Toronto
Private Collection, New York

In the spring of 1961, Jean McEwen was in the midst of a transformative period. Over the preceding decade he had grappled with modernist abstraction, developing new methods of painterly self-reference. Breaking away from gestural automatism or the hard edges of his Plasticien contemporaries, McEwen injected rhythm into his painting. While maintaining a dialogue with the constraints of the pictorial space, he reorganized the picture plane by exploring depth of colour through juxtaposition and layering.

His works from 1960 to 1963 emphasize a vertical band in the centre of the image, forming two planes of colour maintained in perpetual tension. This vertical space, which changed in width, colour and density, produced endless variations within which McEwen could explore abstract pictorial construction. By splitting the image in the middle, McEwen created two halves, which he would refer to as “cells.” These congregations of cells, which could be conceived of as separate pigment layers or various zones of the work, determined the continued trajectory of McEwen’s dialectic with painting.

McEwen was a poet before he was a painter, and the titles of his works were informed by the spontaneous wordplay of his poetic practice. He was known to refer to colour in the plural, speaking of “the reds” or “the yellows,” thereby invoking the symphonic expression of colour as a spectrum of possibilities. In 1960, McEwen created his first artist’s book, titled Midi temps j’aime - Poème en couleur, featuring handwritten text and poems alongside visual motifs. This particular canvas, Midi, temps rouge, might be considered within this body of work. One painting from this series, Midi, temps jaune, was awarded first prize at Quebec’s 1961 Concours Artistique and is currently in the collection of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. In our exemplary 1961 canvas, which was shown by Gallery Moos in Toronto, a vertical band of deep black emerges from the background in the centre of the composition, creating two halves of hot flickering colour bracketed by the dimensions of the canvas. Taking a cue from the title of this work, which translates as “noon, red time,” one gets an impression of the sun at its highest point in the sky, with lustrous reds laid over a bed of fiery yellows and ochres.

With colour as his medium, McEwen performed the act of creation within the arena of the canvas, creating and reproducing “cells” of paint. The metaphor is apt for pointing to the relationship between the body and the canvas as sites of creation. From here, the viewer might speculate further on the symmetry of the human body and the painting. McEwen’s aim, however, was allusion not to external reality, but to the internal constructions of the canvas and the pictorial space inherent in the superimposition of stratified colour.

Wrestling with avant-garde modernist painting theory, McEwen always insisted that repeating forms in his work in no way represented any spiritual or literal subject—their significance was situated solely in the formal structuring of paint contained by its rectangular surface. To draw attention to this construction, he would often leave areas of raw canvas at the perimeters of his work, which in turn inform the painting by encroaching on its space. Nevertheless, despite alluding to their containment, McEwen’s colour fields adhere to their own poetic logic, seemingly unconstrained in their depth or scale. By conflating the parameters of the pigments and the support, he suggests the possibility of an endless horizon of rhythmic permutations in the image.

The year 1961 might be considered the creative apogee of McEwen’s career. In that year his status was affirmed by Alfred Barr’s acquisition for the Museum of Modern Art of the 1961 canvas Ochre Cell (sold by Heffel in the spring 2015 auction). Another 1961 work, Plumb Line in Yellow, donated by prominent collectors Mr. and Mrs. Samuel J. Zacks, remains in the MoMA collection. Offered at auction for the first time, Midi, temps rouge is a prime 1961 canvas that was acquired from Gallery Moos by a New York collector, demonstrating McEwen’s international repute among the vanguard of post-war abstract painters.

Estimate: $40,000 - $60,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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