LOT 010

1909 - 1977

Plume Totem
acrylic on canvas
on verso signed, titled and titled on the gallery label, dated Oct. 1973 and inscribed "Top" (with arrow) and "Acrylic Polymer W.B."
88 3/4 x 50 in, 225.4 x 127 cm

Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000 CAD

Sold for: $511,250

Preview at:

David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto, April 1974
Private Collection, France

Marc Mayer and Sarah Stanners, Jack Bush, National Gallery of Canada, 2014, reproduced page 35

David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto, Jack Bush: Recent Paintings, 1974

In April 1974, you could walk along Markham Street in Toronto and enter the David Mirvish Gallery—and another world. There, 21 Jack Bush paintings filled the vast double-lot contemporary art gallery. These days, it takes a retrospective to bring together so many paintings by one artist in one place. The exhibition was Jack Bush: Recent Paintings and, being a celebration of his most current work, the show served as a debut of his powerful Totem series. Time magazine headlined its review of the show “Opulence in Toronto.”[1]

The Globe and Mail art critic Kay Kritzwiser described the effect of seeing the exhibition as a feeling akin to witnessing nature’s grandeur, stating that each painting had “the majestic strength and simplicity of a forest.”[2] She was referring to the deeply textured effect of the backgrounds of these paintings. Regarding the paintings Grey Arc and Totem Spread, she described the backgrounds as “contradictorily textured as tree bark—velvety surfaced with countering black grooves. Then across these surfaces, horizontally or vertically, Bush sails his totems of color.” In describing the surface of Plume Totem, Kritzwiser used the words “rich” and “plushy.”[3]

However forest-like Plume Totem’s background surface may be, the powerful zap of colours like pink, purple, coral red and electric blue snaps us out of any associations with the deep dark woods. These colours are intended to grab our attention and celebrate the wonders of pure creativity. Bush’s Totem paintings are highly original and among the best of his mature body of work as a painter.

In 1980, curator Duncan Macmillan argued that the Totems could be related to the human figure, based on a loose sketch Bush had made depicting a figure lying on a floor.[4] The suggestion is plausible, especially since this series is so traditional in its distinct figure / ground relationship. Other sources for paintings like Plume Totem are more unexpected, but not unbelievable.

Blue Tee and On Line are two paintings Bush executed around the same time that he painted Plume Totem, in the fall of 1973. What they share are separate sections of colour that have a straight edge on at least one side, and often a frayed edge on the other side. These close cousins of Plume Totem have titles that hint at their real-life source material for inspiring colour and shape, and the arrangement of these factors. Seeing brightly coloured clothing, such as a blue T-shirt (Blue Tee), hanging to dry on a clothesline (On Line) was a unique source of visual stimulation for the artist, and especially so if we consider how brightly coloured clothing was in the 1970s!

Clothing on a drying line is not the only referent in these paintings, but this example does demonstrate that he did not simply paint his abstracts on a whim. The artist carefully planned both the composition and the colours in advance of painting Plume Totem. A small sketch made in the planning of this painting is now in the collection of the University of Guelph. Although Plume Totem, and other paintings like it, are undoubtedly abstract, the artist still used methods that even the Group of Seven painters used when planning their work—that is, penciling in careful notes on the specific colours for each area of the painting in a preliminary sketch. A sharp red check mark in the bottom right-hand corner of this sketch tells us that Plume Totem was approved, and therefore realized by the artist.

We thank Dr. Sarah Stanners, director of the Jack Bush Catalogue Raisonné, contributor to the Bush retrospective originating at the National Gallery of Canada in 2014, and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, Department of Art History, for contributing the above essay.

This work will be included in Stanners’s forthcoming Jack Bush Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné.

1. “Opulence in Toronto,” Time, Canadian edition, May 6, 1974, 10–12.

2. Kay Kritzwiser, “Sculpture Shows of Museum Quality,” Globe and Mail, April 27, 1974, 28.

3. Ibid.

4. Introduction to Jack Bush: Paintings and Drawings, 1955–1976 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1980), exhibition catalogue, 11.

This work, along with Jack Bush's Pink Blossoms and Kenneth Noland's Misty Mount (lots 11 and 12 in this sale), is making its auction debut and returning to Canada from a Canadian collector living abroad in the South of France.

Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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