Masters of Colour: Abstraction by Iskowitz, Bush and Ronald

By: Nicole Schembre, Ellie Muir

What is Iconic Canadian Art?

When we picture iconic Canadian art, we tend to imagine the literal topography of this great nation, forgetting about the rich tradition of abstraction and near-abstraction. Highlights from our Canadian Art Select auction, offered online from June 13 – 18, include excellent paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff and Arthur Lismer alongside works by abstract Canadian masters Gershon Iskowitz, Jack Bush and William Ronald. 

We’ve decided to dive into the work on offer by these three artists, and invite you to peruse the full catalogue in this carefully curated auction.

oil on canvas
signed, titled, and dated on the reverse
33 ins x 38 ins; 83.8 cms x 96.5 cms

NORTHERN LIGHTS #19, 1984-1985
oil on canvas
signed, titled, and dated on the reverse
44 ins x 38 ins; 111.8 cms x 96.5 cms

Gershon Iskowitz’s art was forever changed after a 1967 Canada Council grant allowed him to charter an aircraft to fly over the sub-Arctic landscape and the coast of Hudson Bay. His most iconic paintings have roots in this episode, and channel both the literal vision and ephemeral sensation of catching fleeting glimpses of the ground through gaps in the cloudscape. In 1975, Iskowitz explained:

“People say, oh, Gershon Iskowitz is an abstract artist…But it’s a whole realistic world…the experience, out in the field, of looking up in the trees or in the sky, of looking down from the height of a helicopter. So what you do is try to make a composition of all those things, make some kind of reality: like the trees should belong to the sky, and the ground should belong to the trees, and the ground should belong to the sky. Everything has to be united.”

Between 1984 and 1985, Iskowitz created a series of 22 paintings titled “Northern Lights.” Some are single canvasses, while others are multi-panelled works, all with similar compositions of ovoid blips. The two paintings pictured here, lots 29 and 31, both exemplify the luminous palette and feeling of weightlessness emblematic of Iskowitz’s work. The artist encourages the viewer to view his work through the lens of our encounters with land and sky, gently coaxing out memories—be they ours or second-hand—of the splendour of the Northern Lights. 

In a moment when we are all so strongly tethered to the terrestrial realm, unable to board flights, the impression of broad skies and uninhibited flight feels especially poignant, and beckons strongly. Imagine Iskowitz, given the gift of zooming up and above his surroundings, of seeing the familiar made new and almost alien. Many of us cannot remember our first trip in an airplane, and take for granted that startling moment when we slip the surly bonds of earth and gain the perspective of birds, of the heavens themselves. Iskowitz’s paintings remind us of the marvel of the skies, and how sublime that experience of the infinite can be.

These two lots are being consigned directly from the Gershon Iskowitz Foundation. The Foundation was established in 1985, and serves both to promote and protect the artist’s work as well as supporting the Gershon Iskowitz Prize at the AGO. This $50,000 award is given out annually to an established professional Canadian artist on the verge of creating a significant body of work. Just as Iskowitz’s life and career were forever changed by the Canada Council grant that enabled him to soar above the landscape, the prize is intended to breathe new life into another artist’s trajectory. The sale of these two lots will enable this legacy to continue. 

acrylic on canvas
quadriptych; signed, titled and dated on the reverse
overall 108 ins x 144 ins; 274.3 cms x 365.8 cms

This painting was done in the same style as Ronald’s monumental “Homage to Robert F. Kennedy” (1967-1969), a four-story mural for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, commissioned by its architect, Fred Lebensold. The art critic for The Globe and Mail, Kay Kritzwiser, remarked that “Ronald’s big beautiful mural lilts across three walls of a hexagon like bars of music…like music, like landscape horizons, the undulating channels of colour are strongly expressionist.” Ronald liked the piece too, remarking “If I never do another painting, I’ll be happy for the rest of my life about this one.”

“Sally’s Fright,” completed while Ronald was working on the NAC mural, is a similarly uplifting and fantastical landscape rendered in vibrant colours. Solid bands of colours ripple and wave across the four canvases of this quadriptych. Vertical bands reach upwards and frame the central scene of what could be interpreted as rolling hills. 

This painting is an unusual find in Ronald’s oeuvre. His interpretation of Hard-Edge painting appears to be a flattened version of his typical style, with riotous colours and pleasing chaos on a massive scale.

This is the first time this work has been available to the public since it was purchased directly from Ronald by architect Paul Martel as a birthday gift for his wife, Joan Willsher-Martel, a very accomplished artist in her own right (see lot 60). Willsher-Martel and Ronald were good friends who painted together in New York in the 1950’s. The Martel’s granddaughter tells an oft-repeated family story that Paul Martel woke up one morning having dreamt vividly about a painting; shortly after, he went to Ronald’s studio only to see the very same painting from his dream. 

collage on paper
signed and dated ’57
14 ins x 16 ins; 35.6 cms x 40.6 cms

Works on paper were a constant medium throughout Bush’s career. This intimate collage was done in 1957, the same year that art critic Clement Greenberg visited some of the studios of the Painters Eleven. This visit would impact Bush’s work moving forward as he developed a life-long friendship with Greenberg who he often used as a sounding board for his practice.

The blocks of bright hues and abstract floating shapes that are characteristic of Bush’s large-scale works are present in this collage, and the manner in which the paper is torn emulates his signature bold brushstrokes. Neutral linear tones lead the viewer’s eye around this harmonious composition. Using different colours of paper, Bush has built up shapes in layers, culminating with a central abstract expressionist—or perhaps Matisse-inspired—blue starburst. This starburst form is one that repeats in subsequent works, such as “Red on Pink,” 1962. As the artist and critic Terry Fenton writes, “By the late 1950s, Bush was producing what appeared to be emphatically outlined versions of abstract expressionist paintings. The splatters, blobs and colour area…are part of the vocabulary of abstract and near abstract art established by Matisse, Arp, Klee and Miro…”

This work will be included in the forthcoming Jack Bush Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné by art historian, curator, and Director of the Jack Bush Catalogue Raisonné, Dr. Sarah Stanners.


We’re always thrilled to answer your questions, provide a condition report or talk about Canadian art.

Contact Ellie Muir, Manager Canadian Fine Art for more information. 

View the online Auction Gallery.

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