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Françoise Sullivan, 91, is one of the last living signatories of the artistic manifesto Refus global.

Johany Jutras/The Globe and Mail

When Françoise Sullivan's paintings were first shown at Montreal's Dominion Galleries in 1943, Mackenzie King was still Canada's prime minister and Jackson Pollock had yet to make his first "drip" paintings. Sullivan's latest exhibitions are going on right now, at the Galerie de l'UQAM in Montreal and the Musée d'art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul, northeast of Quebec City.

Sullivan, who is 91, has been making art for seven decades, as a painter, sculptor and dancer-choreographer. She is one of the last remaining signatories of Refus global (Total Refusal), the 1948 artistic manifesto that marked a turning point in Quebec's cultural and social history.

Standing in front of three enormous abstract canvases at Galerie de l'UQAM, her dancer's frame looks compressed by time, but her eyes are bright. She says that there's still something mysterious for her in the act of painting, which seems less a matter of creating a painting than of discovering it as she works.

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The big canvasses at UQAM appear from a distance to be monochromes. At closer range, however, variations in shade and background colouring animate each surface, which begins to seethe with chromatic tension. The more you look at it, the more there is to see, and the more you realize that this kind of painting needs to have a big, immersive scale. It's so big that Sullivan had to turn the canvasses as she worked, in the studio where she paints nearly every day, in order to reach the entire surface.

"I always felt that painting was a great force," she says. "I still believe it's No. 1 in the visual arts."

She laughs as she says that, perhaps because for part of her career, in the 1960s and 70s, painting was thought by many to be a spent force. She herself has had periods in which painting did not seem possible, in part because some instinct told her it was time to move into another medium.

"She was always ahead of the wave, and she never camped in one discipline," says René Blouin, a leading Montreal gallerist and art dealer. "She is one of our first multidisciplinary artists in Quebec, and she was always in dialogue with what matters."

Sullivan grew up in a privileged, cultured Montreal household, and didn't feel personally oppressed by the deep conservatism of Quebec under premier Maurice Duplessis. But when, at the age of 17, she met the painter Paul-Émile Borduas, she recognized something essential in his insistence that everything be made fresh and rooted in the moment.

Refus global began as an idea for an exhibition catalogue, then morphed into a free-standing collection of nine essays, headed by Borduas's famous call for spontaneity and "glorious anarchy." Sullivan's contribution was a piece called Dance and Hope, initially written to be read at a private salon.

In it, she wrote that dance should concern itself with spontaneous states of feeling, and with "prototypes of various emotional rhythms." That was in line with the attitudes of Borduas and the younger painters around him, who became known as the Automatistes. But the crystallization of the group's views in print, and the furor that it caused, was also the beginning of its end. Borduas lost his teaching job and left for Paris, and the group, which also included Jean-Paul Riopelle, drifted apart.

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That winter of 1948 was also a time of new beginning for Sullivan, who in February danced alone in the snow near Mount Saint-Hilaire, east of Montreal. Her dance was photographed by Maurice Perron, another Refus global signatory, and through Perron's photos, Danse dans la neige became a landmark of modern dance in Quebec. The work seemed to propose a new beginning, on the land, with no reference to past traditions or the theatres built to sustain them. Sullivan's current standing as the grand matriarch of Quebec modern dance leads back to the freedoms she claimed then. "It was Françoise who made an artist out of me," veteran choreographer Paul-André Fortier has said. "She gave me my sense of freedom, of being able to go for what I want and not caring about whoever."

The Galerie de l'UQAM exhibition includes photos of a recent re-creation of Danse dans la neige, of a summer dance she created in 1947, and of two new dances for the remaining seasons. Fall takes place in an orchard; spring, in Montreal during a rain shower.

Sullivan married the painter Paterson Ewen in 1949, and had four sons in 10 years. Daily dance practice was no longer possible, so she began working in sculpture. Painting was always in her future, however: As she told an interviewer in 2008, "Everything returned to painting. My dance thoughts were painting thoughts."

In the decades since, she has sometimes included figurative elements in her canvasses, but in the main, she has worked with paint, gesture and colour, sometimes dividing the space into bands or freehand squares.

When I ask how her ideas about abstract painting may have changed over the years, she seems stuck for a reply, perhaps because her ideas work themselves out beyond words, beyond any concept of what she may do before she starts doing it. As she remarks in a small book of essays and images assembled by Galerie de l'UQAM director Louise Déry in 2003: "Painting must think for itself."

"You go through different phases, because you're searching," she says. And whatever you find contains a hint of what more there is to discover. At the start of her 10th decade, Françoise Sullivan is still in the hunt.

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Françoise Sullivan: Trajectoires resplendissantes continues at Galerie de l'UQAM in Montreal through Feb. 18 (galerie.uqam.ca). Françoise Sullivan: A Tribute to Painting continues at Musée d'art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul in Baie-Saint-Paul, Que., through June 4 (macbsp.com).

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