JEAN-PAUL RIOPELLE, Sans titre, 1956
Our current Artwork of the Week by Jean-Paul Riopelle comes from a time in the artist's life when his work was at a turning point. He was at his absolute peak as an artist, and during the previous five years he had developed his characteristic 'mosaic' works, oil paintings where the paint was applied by palette knife so thickly that they are essentially 3-dimensional works. For much of his career these oil paintings were defined by what he identified as the three essential qualities of volume, colour and 'range of gloss' (that is the relative sheen of the paints).
By this point in his career Riopelle had worked only irregularly on paper, and indeed it was not until the 1960s that he began experimenting with various media on paper, including watercolour, ink and lithography. In this rare work on paper from the 1950s Riopelle confronted the idea of translating his ideas onto a fragile and absorbent surface. He has had to reduce the sheer weight of paint but, like his friend Sam Francis, he allows the paper to remain in clear sight, creating the void that brings passages of calm to the frenetic action around it. Applying the thick water-based gouache paint in a strictly limited number of colours he has created a vibrant patchwork, harmonious as a whole in spite of the energetic and free technique. Riopelle once described it: "When I begin a painting I always hope to complete it in a few strokes, starting with the first colours I daub down anywhere and anyhow. But it never works, so I add more, without realizing it. I have never wanted to paint thickly, paint tubes are much too expensive. But one way or another, the painting has to be done. When I learn how to paint better, I will paint less thickly." As with many of Riopelle's comments on his art (and indeed his life), it was obviously said for effect and not wholly to be relied upon. But certainly it is characteristic of his art that he never took a backward step but always pressed onwards. From his early interest in Surrealism, he always embraced the element of chance and one can imagine the excitement of painting on paper rather than on canvas, where the chances of correcting a false step are greatly reduced.
Riopelle was described in his obituaries as "perhaps Canada's finest 20th century artist". He actually left Canada early in his career and painted in France for over forty years, reveling in the fact that he and his fellow abstract expressionists (including Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis) were the first group of expat artists to feel invigorated rather than inhibited by the overbearing Paris art scene. He returned to Canada late in life and spent his final years in a house on an island in the middle of the St Lawrence River. In Paris he was a Québécois, in New York he was a Montreal-born Parisian. As Stéphane Arquin wrote: "Wherever he was, in fact, Riopelle would always find his artistic identity in an Elsewhere."
Gouache on paper