1958. It was the year Elvis joined the army, the Avro Arrow made its debut flight and Toronto launched an international competition to design City Hall. In Paris and New York, abstraction was all the rage and one of the biggest couples in art, American Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) and Canadian Jean Paul Riopelle (1923–2002), were creating monumental paintings.
We asked Kenneth Brummel, the AGO’s Assistant Curator of Modern Art and coordinating curator of our current exhibition Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation, to tell us more about two amazing works created in 1958.
AGO: Riopelle and Mitchell are incredible painters in their own right. What can we learn from comparing their works from the same year?
Kenneth: The exhibition at the AGO encourages visitors to compare and contrast major paintings by Mitchell and Riopelle in order to show how their relationship impacted their respective techniques and styles during the 24 years they were together. They each represented competing but related schools of art – for Riopelle, Art Informel in Paris; for Mitchell, Abstract Expressionism in New York. The convergence of their styles is remarkable and illuminating. Like many couples, their relationship ebbed and flowed, and this can be tracked in their paintings.
AGO: Seen together, what do Mitchell’s Piano mécanique (1958) and Riopelle’s Landing (1958) tell us?
Kenneth: These two works illustrate how in 1958 the two artists were influencing one another. Consider how Riopelle emulates, in his own way, Mitchell’s brushwork in Landing. In the May 1958 issue of Arts and Architecture, art critic Dore Ashton describes the “muscular” quality of Mitchell’s paint application, her trademark lashing brushstrokes. Riopelle also creates these effects, using the handle of a paintbrush to simulate the appearance of Mitchell’s long arcs and flourishes in the heavily troweled and sculpted paint he loads onto the surface of his painting.
In Piano mécanique, Mitchell builds up a surface thicker than in her previous paintings, a sign of her increasing engagement with Riopelle’s work, as she usually painted with thinned, diluted pigments. She also used a palette knife when applying yellow paint in the upper left area of this painting. The palette knife was Riopelle’s painting tool of choice.
There are other common features – both artists use canvases with horizontal formats; both avoid any central points of focus; and both evenly distribute red and white paint across the surface of their canvases to create shimmering effects. And yet, how the two artists use white paint in their works shows how distinctive their techniques are. Mitchell layers white paint in the areas between her muscular brushstrokes, while Riopelle scrapes white paint into the work.
AGO: What happened in 1958 that makes these works so important?
Kenneth: In 1958, Riopelle is in Paris, associated with Art Informel. Mitchell is shuttling between Paris and New York, her toe still in the waters of American Abstract Expressionism. She doesn’t relocate officially to Paris until 1959. In the spring of 1958, both artists participate in a major exhibition in Japan entitled The International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai. Their paintings are included with works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jirō Yoshihara. This coming together – of their work, of international artists, of varying schools of abstraction – is remarkable. Bridging New York, Paris and Tokyo, Abstract Expressionism, Art Informel and Gutai, Mitchell and Riopelle are, at this moment, representatives of a truly international movement of abstract art while they are influencing one another.
Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation is included in General Admission and runs at the AGO until May 6.
Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation was developed by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and organized in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario, with the support of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Yseult Riopelle and Sylvie Riopelle.
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