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art

Nothing in moderation

A bouquet of rolled canvases sparked a 25-year relationship between painters Jean-Paul Riopelle and Joan Mitchell, whose works are on display together for the first time in Quebec City

Untitled by Jean-Paul Riopelle. Oil on canvas, 1968.

A few days after Jean-Paul Riopelle met Joan Mitchell in Paris in 1954, Riopelle appeared at Mitchell's painting studio with "a huge bouquet of rolled canvases from the Lefebvre-Foinet arts supplies store," writes curator Michel Martin. Riopelle's practical yet romantic gift addressed present needs but also future hopes, for what both artists could create in their studios.

Riopelle's gift marked the start of a turbulent 25-year relationship, during which he became the first contemporary Canadian artist to be recognized internationally, and Mitchell rose to a position of lasting importance in American abstraction. Every account of their lives touches on their complex partnership, yet until now no major exhibition has presented their work together.

It makes sense that the first to do so would be the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ), which holds a comprehensive Riopelle collection. With the opening last year of the Pierre Lassonde pavilion for contemporary art, says executive director Line Ouellet, the museum also gained a facility that could handle its majestic current show, Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation . Rather than merely reshuffle its existing collection into a new exhibition, Ouellet says, MNBAQ borrowed Riopelle pieces that had not been shown in the museum before, as well as a large stock of Mitchell canvases.

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The 25-year relationship of Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle, pictured in Chicago in 1959, is laid out at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City.

This impressive gathering of 60 major works, which moves to the Art Gallery of Ontario in February, pursues a dual chronology of the painters' careers, searching always for points of mutual influence. These may be less striking than the way these powerful creative personalities orbited each other for a quarter-century without being deflected from their own particular vision.

Abstraction is sometimes discussed as a kind of closed conversation between painter and canvas, but for these artists it was a way of responding at high intensity to the visible world. Mitchell often said her goal was to "paint the feeling of things," though without making her own personality the focus of the work. Riopelle challenged any attempt to identify what was abstract or figurative in his canvases. "Those of my paintings considered the most abstract have been, for me, the most figurative, in the literal sense," he said. "Abstraction doesn't exist in painting."

Unlike others in the big-city milieux associated with abstract art, both painters were strongly drawn to the natural world. Mitchell was greatly affected by flowers and gardens, especially after she bought, in 1967, an estate northwest of Paris where Monet had once lived. Riopelle was a life-long hunter, whose predatory interest in game birds was a point of friction with Mitchell, who responded in 1973 with a large work entitled Chasse interdite (Hunting Forbidden).

The City, 1949 by Jean-Paul Riopelle. Oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm.

Their method of touching the canvas differed radically. Mitchell used a brush, and an expansive stroke that can look spontaneous, though she made careful sketches and aimed for precision on the canvas, "like a poem." Riopelle used palette knives and trowels, marking his surface with his implements and building up texture until, in a work such as Landing (1958), the painting demands to be seen in three dimensions.

Riopelle's earliest canvases to gain wide attention were his "mosaic" paintings of the late 1940s, in which he marks the entire surface with bold daubs of colour, subtly mingled on the canvas. His later paintings open the space with dynamic colour areas that often register a feeling of weight towards the bottom of the frame. His 1954 painting Sant-Anthon loads the lower part of the frame with applications of black that fork up through a mainly white field like a ship's rigging. At close range, this canvas also shows Riopelle's skill at tempering apparently monochrome areas with ultra-thin traces of red, green and blue.

Mitchell also registers the pull of gravity in her painting, most often by suspending it. From the mid-1950s, many of her paintings frame a central colour area that appears to float in space. Her 1964 triptych Girolata presents several hovering masses that impress with their airy bulk, like the crowns of trees in full leaf. As she settled in at her estate with her gardens, the floating centres of her canvases sometimes evoke the sunflowers she loved – not massed in fields, as in her hero Van Gogh's paintings, but single specimens.

Untitled, by Joan Mitchell. Oil on canvas, 228.9 × 206.1 cm.

Riopelle gravitated towards klaxon extremes in colour, often building a painting around robust interactions of black, white and red. A bristling untitled canvas from 1968 projects itself into the gallery as boldly as a trumpet blast. It's the loudest canvas in the show, and proclaims his partial allegiance to the macho ethos of New World abstraction that prompted Mitchell to quit New York for Paris.

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Mitchell's palette is more often full of earthy greens and browns, sometimes fading into pale washes that invite comparisons to Monet. She rejected comparisons with his work, however, just as Riopelle turned away all attempts to link him with Jackson Pollock – "a superficial similarity that I compare to the idea that all Chinese people look alike," he said.

Travels in Canada in the mid-seventies had a seismic effect on both of them. Mitchell's Canada series includes an unusually crowded, untitled canvas that is filled with blues and black. In Riopelle's Piroche panels (1976), the painter "draws" by dragging something through his heavy white impasto, as if making toboggan tracks in snow. La ligne d'eau, from the following year, looks like ice breaking up, with black water appearing in the cracks. But it's also part of the same contest of forms that appears in works that are harder to link with his surroundings.

Untitled by Joan Mitchell. Oil on canvas, 1964.

Curator Martin's juxtapositions of the painters' works are always interesting, though he puzzles too much about how they "resolve the fundamental question of the figure-ground relationship." It seems more likely and natural that they regarded this formal concept as a tension sometimes worth exploiting. Occasionally they moved towards each other's palette, as if detouring briefly through each other's studios, but their own colours remained foundational.

Yves Michaud, who knew Mitchell, says in his catalogue essay that her later career marked the "gradual victory of lyricism over abstract structure." In Riopelle's paintings, a feeling for structure is always pushing things around. His paintings mark out space the way maps do, most obviously in the city-like divisions of the mosaics, but also in later canvases. The cartographic impulse is a controlling and even a dominating one, but it would be foolish to call Riopelle the stronger artist. They were both tough as iron in their work.

Large Triptych, by Jean-Paul Riopelle, 1964. Oil on canvas, 276.4 × 643.7 cm.

Mitchell was a fragile person when not painting, and grieved Riopelle's increasingly frequent absences. He finally left her for a much younger painter whom Mitchell had taken under her wing. Her painterly response was a triptych called La vie en rose (not in this show), the title of which riffed ironically on a nickname Riopelle had given her.

When Mitchell died in 1992, Riopelle took up the grieving, and the word play, in a huge coded triptych called Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg. The piece, which is permanently installed in a passageway linking the Lassonde pavilion to the rest of the museum, chases the furtive ghosts of a hunter's life in ways both explicit and poetic. It's the heart-broken coda to a provocative show about two painters whose lives joined around the search for something more alive than life itself, on the surface of a canvas.

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Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation continues at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City through Jan. 7 (mnbaq.org/en). It opens at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario on Feb. 18 (ago.ca)

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