In the mid-1940s, when Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and the rest of the abstract expressionist gang were honing the skills that would propel them to international acclaim, something quieter was going on north of the border.
In Montreal, some 400 miles north of the global artistic epicenter of New York City, a small group of artists that came to be known as the "Automatistes" was banding together to forge their own unique artistic style. The daring, original work of these painters, playwrights, choreographers and progressive thinkers is the subject of "The Automatiste Revolution," a survey of the period that opens today in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
The show, which began its two-venue run at the Varley Art Gallery of Markham, Ont., marks the first major exhibition about this overlooked group of artists to travel to the United States. Organizers hope that it will give wider exposure to a movement that made waves in the Quebequois society of the mid-20th century but got comparatively little attention from the rest of the art world.
"They were true pioneers in abstraction," said Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos, a native Canadian and a champion of the Automatiste movement. The work itself has a clear connection to abstract expressionism, the movement that was gaining traction in New York around the same time, but Grachos stressed that the two movements developed separately.
"You do have to see them as two independent movements," Grachos said. "These are artists who really were struggling for an independent identity."
Like the surrealists before them and their abstract expressionist contemporaries in the United States, the Automatiste painters sought to liberate themselves from the constraints of narrative or thematic content, or even notions of morality. As critic Leon Degand wrote of a seminal exhibition of the Canadian artists' work in Paris in 1947, the painters' work was "automatic" in the sense that it was "a happy surrender to the demands of spontaneity, to a lack of pictorial discipline, to accidents of technique, the romanticism of the brush, outbursts of lyricism."
The godfather of the movement was Paul-Emile Borduas, an abstract painter and political activist who trained in Paris and advocated a new approach to art unfettered by politics or religion and fueled by the unpremeditated gesture. He wrote what came to be the Automatistes' manifesto, "Refus Global," a highly controversial document in which the members of Borduas' movement declared God dead and advocated for artistic liberation from the repressive society in which they lived and worked.
There were eight original members of the group, all of whom were painters and some of whom also worked in dance, drama and other creative pursuits. They included Marcel Barbeau, Marcelle Ferron, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Francois Sullivan. Barbeau and Sullivan, along with curator Roald Nasgaard, will be at the Albright-Knox for today's opening. Dancer Ginette Boutin is slated to perform work choreographed by Sullivan at 6 p.m. in the gallery.
The Albright-Knox, with its unparalleled collection of abstract expressionist works, makes an ideal venue to compare the similarities and differences of the two movements, Grachos said. To that end, Nasgaard has organized a companion exhibition drawn from the Albright-Knox collection with works by Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adoph Gottlieb, Joan Miro and Robert Motherwell.
WHAT: "The Automatiste Revolution"
WHEN: Today through May 30
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
TICKETS: $8 to $12
INFO: 882-8700 or www.albrightknox.org