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Jean-Paul Riopelle
Untitled, 1953
74.5 x 107.4
Coloured inks on wove paper
© Jean-Paul Riopelle, SODRAC (Montreal) 1999

Jean-Paul Riopelle began his career in Montreal as a student of Paul-Émile Borduas and went on to become a founding member of the Automatistes. Following the initial recognition of this new group of artists at the 1946 exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society, Riopelle left for Paris, returning briefly in 1948 to Montreal, where he signed the Refus Global. During these early years he made Paris his home, and from there eventually succeeded in becoming one of Canada’s most internationally acclaimed painters.

By 1953 Riopelle was well on the way to establishing himself in the forefront of France’s evolving movement of Lyrical Abstraction. Represented by leading avant-garde Parisian dealers, he won the admiration of the respected critic Georges Duthuit, whose brother-inlaw was Pierre Matisse. Matisse was one of New York’s preeminent art dealers, and in 1953 he offered to act as Riopelle’s American agent. Untitled was part of Riopelle’s first exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in January 1954 along with several other coloured ink drawings and eighteen canvases, including Knight Watch (NGC) and Tocsin (NGC). The exhibition must have been spectacular, and it certainly established Riopelle as one of Canada’s most important abstract expressionists.

Riopelle’s work in coloured ink is probably the least appreciated aspect of his work and undeservedly so, particularly when confronted with a drawing of such monumental achievement and beauty as Untitled. It belongs to a series of coloured ink drawings inspired by Riopelle’s admiration for Claude Monet, in particular, his waterlily paintings. It is not difficult to see Riopelle’s emulation of Monet in this work. By spray painting on the colours, Riopelle captures the transparency and infinite depth of water as well as its shimmering surface. Applying india ink in daubs and dripping lines over the colours, he replicates the effect of waterlilies floating on the surface, their roots penetrating the liquid colour of the pond.

Untitled is a pivotal work in Riopelle’s oeuvre. The application of black ink looks back to the Pollock-influenced action painting of 1950–52, in which drippings of paint were splattered and dribbled across the canvas. We can also see in the daubs of black ink the mosaic-like style of the 1952–53 paintings created by applying paint with a palette knife. In these paintings from the early fifties, we observe a dense layering of pigments that, by offering a uniform overall application of the colours, squeezes out light and air. The Monet-inspired coloured ink drawings of 1953 point to a new direction achieved by breaking down the mosaic patterning and decreasing the density of pigments. Air and light are allowed to enter the work – an effect that can be seen in paintings such as his masterpiece, Pavane (1954; NGC).