Marcel Barbeau (1925 – 2016): A Life Well-travelled

Beaverbrook Art GalleryJanuary 7, 20160 Comments

It will be hard to imagine a world without the presence of Marcel Barbeau. Marcel passed away January 2, 2016. His work has been a guiding light since the mid-1940s. We followed his every move as painter, sculptor, photographer and performance artist. He traversed much of the territory of abstract art, as a trailblazer rather than a follower. The youngest member of Les Automatistes, signator to the 1948 Refus Global, Barbeau created some of the most commanding, challenging all over, tachiste abstractions of the period. For this alone he could be amply celebrated and remembered. Some of us think he made some of the most inventive works of the entire group.

His travels took him to periods of residence in Montreal, California, Vancouver, Paris and back. He was a ceaseless venturer within his art explorations as well. By the mid-1950s he was making monochromes and highly reductivist geometric abstractions so sparse they anticipate minimalism. His stark black and white 1950s abstractions can stand beside Pierre Soulages, Franz Kline, Lucio Fontana and are the confrères of his Montréal contemporaries Fernand Leduc, Fernand Toupin, Claude Tousignant, Guido Molinari, and Paul-Émile Borduas (his teacher 1942-47). By the early 1960s he was making hard-edged abstractions and was recognized internationally as a contributor to the Op art movement.

His lifelong work in sculpture and painting jockeys to find a balance between organic free expressionistic flair, geometry and intellectual control. Personally, I think he hit his stride again later in life, by the 1990s he was creating a series of paintings that was a happy conflation of both. Leduc and Toupin would smile; these paintings look back to the forebearers of the Abstraction-Création group of the 1930s, mean whilst looking every bit in the present tense. No small feat.

Late night on the occasion of work I created for Nuit Blanche, Montreal, Marcel took the time to come visit me and see my work; one of my most cherished professional moments.

Barbeau’s work was the subject of a few art films and videos, among which renowned film maker, Manon Barbeau, co-produced by Informaction and National Film Board of Canada (2000). In 1963, he received the Zack Purchase Prize from the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1973, he was given a Lynch-Staunton Foundation Grant by Canada Council. He was invited to join the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in August 1992. In 1995, he received the Order of Canada, was selected for the Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2013 he was made an Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2015. You can’t leave your stamp upon Canada unless it appears on a stamp; in 1998, Canada Post reproduced one of Barbeau’s works as part of its series in honor of the automatist painters.

Barbeau’s works are in many private and corporate collections, and 338-plus of his works are in public collections in Canada, the United States and in Europe. Among them are: the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the National Gallery of Canada, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal, Musée National des Beaux Arts du Quebec, Art Gallery of Alberta, Glenbow Museum, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and practically every major art museum in the country. His work is also represented in many international institutions, including the British Museum (London), the Chrysler Art Gallery (Norfolk, Virginia), the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts (Lyon, France) and the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam).

Jeffrey Spalding
Senior Curator

Photo Gallery

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