BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 20 March 1909
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 24 January 1977
Shortly before his death, Jack Bush spoke about Canadian artists who were content to exhibit only in Canada: ‘“We’re just as good as the Americans,’ they say. ‘Look, we’re showing here, we’re showing all across Canada. Canada is just as good as New York or London or Amsterdam or anywhere.’ But that’s got nothing to do with it.
It’s simply this, the difference between minor league baseball and major league baseball. If you’ve got enough nerve and are good enough, you can play in the majors.” Bush played in the major leagues of art, the first Canadian to do so.The pure flame of unalloyed Canadian nation¬ alism has been brightest among the practitioners and devotees of culture.
Jack Bush, the most impor¬ tant internationally recognized Canadian artist of the second half of this century, had no patience with his nationalist critics. He could hit the Canadian fastball and the American curve; he could play in the majors, and he did; and if Bush’s attackers drew the conclusion that he was saying they could not, that was their problem.
Bush had a familiar apprenticeship. His father worked as a manager at the commercial printing and design firm Rapid Grip Co., and he took a job in the Montreal office in his youth. There he learned the rudiments of art, and when he transferred to the firm’s Toronto headquarters in 1929, his art education took a leap forward.
“The Group of Seven,” Bush said, were the top boys and anybody that was adventurous at all, just ooh’d and ah’d at them and what they did.” Bush did too, and his early works bore strong resemblance to the Canadian landscape school.By the end of the Second World War, married and the father of three, Bush was beginning to experiment with surrealist figurative pieces, much as Paul-Emile Borduas in Montreal.
The postwar growth of the New York art scene, covered in the U.S. magazines that crossed the border, also began to have an impact on him, and he found like-minded artist friends in Toronto. Men like William Ronald, Jock Macdonald, and Harold Town began sharing an approach to art in the 1950s and showing their abstract paintings together in exhibitions as Painters Eleven.
Nothing sold, but Ronald soon demonstrated that his own work could do well in New York. Thus, when the influential American critic Clement Greenberg paid a visit to Toronto to see what was going on north of the border, Bush was ready. Town refused to show his work to the Yank, but Bush did.
Greenberg spent a half day with Bush, saw his work, and said, “You’re so good but what you’re doing, Bush, is you’re just taking all the hot licks from the New York painters, which is so easy to do. Try painting simpler, and thinner…If it scares you, good—you’ll know you are onto something that is your true self.” Bush did as Greenberg advised and dropped the facile brush effects.
He scared himself, but persisted. In the now hoary myth, Clement Greenberg smote Jack Bush on the frontal lobe, critic Barrie Hale wrote, and released the mainstream of modernism into Canadian waters.Bush’s new work with its thin, radiant colours, irregular shapes, and large size began to draw notice in New York, but scorn and few sales in Toronto and Canada.
Over the decade of the 1960s, the paintings grew bolder, brighter, but still spare, and gradually the paintings, showing Bush’s remark¬ able colour sense, began to sell. So too did his major runs of prints, their bold designs still startling visitors in many a Canadian living-room.
In 1968 Bush felt financially and artistically secure enough to give up his day job as a commer¬ cial artist, finally becoming a full-time painter.No more Harvey Woods underwear ads!
He was and remained a Greenberg protege, helped enormously by the American critic’s influence. But, as Bush noted, his friend (and later co-trustee of his art works) never “picks up the phone and tells him which colour to put here and all that jazz, which is a lot of phoney nonsense.”
That ought to have been obvious, but the hypernationalism of Canadian culture, the crusades against New York influence and American imperialism launched by painters like Greg Curnoe and his Canadian Artists’ Representation, helped create an atmosphere poisoned by nationalist envy.
A success at last, a man hailed for his art in New York, London, Europe, and, grudgingly, in Canada, Jack Bush no longer had to care what his critics at home said. He was no intellectual, but he understood that great art was art that stood the test of time.
Contemporary critics pronounce some artists’ work “no good,” he observed, but “the reason they’re so great right now is that their painting has held up.” It is too soon to know if, two centuries hence, people will still fight to buy a great Jack Bush oil. They might, however, and if that is any measure of long-lasting influence, there are few Canadian artists of whom that can be said.