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Seventy years after Françoise Sullivan signed her name on an art manifesto, two exhibitions are casting light on her decades of work.eric lajeunesse

In 1948, a young woman named Françoise Sullivan added her name to an art manifesto signed by 15 others, and danced alone on a snowy hillside near Montreal. Those two actions by the now 95-year-old artist have shaped her image in Quebec’s cultural imagination ever since.

The manifesto was Refus global, an ecstatic demand for artistic and social liberty by Paul-Émile Borduas, which is now seen as a pivotal document of the Quiet Revolution. Sullivan’s Danse dans la neige shook the ground in a different way, by integrating the performing arts with the land of Quebec as never before.

The aura of those events around Sullivan seems especially bright now, 70 years after Refus global was published. The challenge of visiting two retrospective exhibitions, at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) and the modern.toronto, is to see her work for what it is, and not through the golden haze of her biography.

That’s easiest to do if you skip the chronological sequence of the MAC’s more ample display, and go straight to the works of Sullivan’s past decade. The quiet but forceful presence of her large monochrome canvases compels you to engage with them directly. What might at a distance or in reproduction look like inert squares of undifferentiated colour, become animated as you approach. Her restless brushstrokes articulate the space and vary the chromatic density, showing how much variety and freedom a single colour can contain.

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Rouge no 3, 5, 6, 2, 1997.

Like most things that look free and easy, these late acrylics are the result of long struggle. The chronology is good at telling that story. The thrashing, turning solo dancer in Sullivan’s Dédale (Maze), shown at the MAC in two different video performances, might be a portrait of the artist herself, repeatedly changing media and approaches to find the way ahead, or to avoid a dead end.

In the mid-1940s, for example, she realized that she was more in sympathy with the ideas and dreams of Borduas and his Automatistes circle than with what they were painting. Automatisme “didn’t do what I wanted," she later said. “I felt I could express myself better through dance.”

She moved from the classical technique she had learned as a girl toward the kind of modern, socially engaged practices she learned during a couple of years in New York. Her pioneering Danse dans la neige exists primarily in dramatic photographs by Maurice Perron, shown both at the MAC and the modern.toronto. Perron’s black-and-white images give a stone-like appearance to the pocked, old, February snow, enhancing the elemental impression of Sullivan’s environment.

In the late 1950s, married to artist Paterson Ewen and the mother of four children, Sullivan found the life of a dancer impractical. “I did not want to go back to painting because my husband was a painter, and I felt this art belonged to him,” she later recalled. Again, she needed a way back into her individual creative life.

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Spirale, 1969.

She turned to sculpture, building elemental pieces from raw or painted steel in a studio in the family garage, as well as stage sets. These sculptural pieces, several of which are displayed at the MAC, show the pleasure in motion and elementary shapes – especially squares and rectangles – that would define her later abstract painting.

Sullivan also made acrylic sculptures, which show the intensities of colour seen much later on her canvases. Her acrylic coils and spirals are also her least personal works, showing no trace of the hand, or of improvisation.

Sullivan did performance pieces during the 1970s, though visual records of these works now seem unremarkable, except as markers that she was in that forefront, too. You feel the golden veil of biography more than any effect from the art. Her dance works from that period (shown on several video screens at the MAC) look stronger; painting was again on the horizon.

Both the modern.toronto and the MAC display some of the more or less round, unframed canvases Sullivan painted while travelling in Greece and elsewhere in the late 1970s. These include fanciful mythological compositions, as well as elemental textured abstracts, which she painted “as if I were washing a floor,” as she told me in a conversation last year.

It’s really in her big abstract canvases of recent decades that all the concerns of Sullivan’s long steeplechase through art media stand clearest and boldest. She has always reached for the elemental, whether related to the earth and living movement, or to the classical leanness of simple geometries. The action of the hand and body are important to her, and the vitality of colour. How wonderful that she found a medium and a practice that brought all these things into harmony and conversation with each other.

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Tondo VIII, 1980.

Both exhibitions include works from Sullivan’s 95th year: quilt-like grids of colour, loosely drawn by hand. One of these, at the modern.toronto, has an irregular number of squares, as if the painter changed her mind halfway across the canvas – another instance of improvisation.

Sullivan is rightly called an influential figure, and the MAC show includes a serio-comic instance of how that influence has been felt. Luis Jacob’s multimedia installation A Dance for Those of Us Whose Hearts Have Turned to Ice includes a video of a pink-skinned male performer dancing in the snow, wearing nothing but boots and a fur hat. A series of other performances will take place live in the galleries throughout the show.

The MAC’s Françoise Sullivan retrospective continues through Jan. 20, before travelling to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Art Gallery of Windsor, the Musée régional de Rimouski, and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The modern.torontos exhibition of Sullivan works continues in Toronto through Nov. 17.

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