Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002)
Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002)
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signed and dated 'Riopelle 54' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
51 1⁄8 x 76 3⁄4 in. (129.9 x 195 cm.)
Painted in 1954.
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
Reynolds Metals Company, Auckland, New Zealand
Galerie Laffitte, Montréal
Private collection, 1992
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, Paris, 6 December 2017, lot 60
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Y. Riopelle and T. Riopelle, Jean Paul Riopelle: Catalogue Raisonné, Tome 2, 1954-1959, Montréal, 2009, p. 171, no. 1954.030H.1954 (illustrated).
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Exhibition of recent paintings and watercolors, March-April 1955.
São Paulo, Museu de Arte Moderna, 3 Biennale, 1955, p. 96, no. 17.
Rio de Janeiro, Museu de Arte Moderna, Artistas Canadenses Paul-Émile Borduas e Jean-Paul Riopelle, November-December 1955, no. 17.

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Lot Essay

This remarkable painting from Jean-Paul Riopelle’s oeuvre epitomizes the artist’s swift, rhythmic lyricism and the dynamic impasto strokes that define his mature style. The ebullient force that comes across in Untitled is predicated upon Riopelle’s relationship with nature and his commitment to spontaneous mark-making. The palette knife that Riopelle used in place of a brush served as an express conduit for his instinctual and emotive capacities and would help define his trademark slap-dash style of painting. Riopelle would often hold multiples tubes of paint and squirt them directly onto the canvas as he sculpted the fresh paint with his knife.
Jean-Paul Riopelle’s paintings move fast, much like the man himself. The artist owned a boat and collected vintage cars, such as the Bugatti he is pictured with here; he even built a racecar with his friends and entered into Le Mans. Executed without a hint of hesitation, Riopelle’s thickly-applied, lush streaks of paint dance and strut all over the picture plane of Untitled. Despite the present work’s all-over composition, the eye is directed towards the brilliant whites and jewel-like smatterings of luminous greens and blues in the center of the painting. With this playful tension the viewer is taken in and out of the painting’s boundaries, much like a wave repeatedly crashing onto the shore or a leaf wavering on a branch.
In 1954, the same year that the present work was painted, Jean-Paul Riopelle represented Canada in the Venice Biennale and would start exhibiting regularly at Pierre Matisse Gallery. Born in Quebec, Riopelle moved to Paris in 1946, and would spend the rest of his life living between Europe and North America. The artist would first make friends with key figures of the Surrealist movement, such as André Breton. Riopelle’s paintings from this period share visual characteristics with the early work of Mark Rothko, but by the 1950s Riopelle had diverged from the surrealist group and defined his own style. Throughout his life Riopelle would have close friendships with many other notable artists such as Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell, the latter with whom the artist would share a tempestuous romantic relationship with for 24 years. The paintings of Mitchell and Riopelle both confront and meditate upon nature and its effect on the human psyche. Although their paintings have much in common, such as their vivacious execution and earthy color tones, they often seem to be the visual and spiritual inverse of one another.
Joan Mitchell’s quote concerning her artistic relationship with nature seems to ring true for Riopelle’s practice as well: “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, in J. Baur, “Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). Interested in the environment from a young age, nature remained the cornerstone of Jean-Paul Riopelle’s work throughout his life. Similar to his companion Joan Mitchell, Riopelle made manifest the illustrious ephemerality of nature through his paintings. The freedom of nature, the nature of freedom; Riopelle’s Untitled is redolent of nature’s unhindered energetic force but simultaneously reflects on humanity’s inability to wholly portray the grandiosity of the natural world. Thus we are left with a malleable painting; a painting that activates the viewers mind's eye with its formal fecundity, prodding the audience on to churn up their own definitions and feelings towards not only the painting, but inwards towards themselves and their own relationship with the world at large.
Although Riopelle’s paintings often suggest a natural landscape, they refrain from giving the viewer a clear picture or firmly recognizable image. This push and pull between abstraction and figuration, clarity and obscurity, light and dark, evokes a playful tension that envelops the viewer in a state of imaginative potentiality. The viewer is afforded the opportunity to project their own imagined reality upon the painting: the blacks are perhaps realized as a dense forest and the white becomes an open clearing; the light greens of the leaves awakening as they are touched by the sun’s light. In opposition to this pastoral perspective, the work could be imagined as a violent tornado tearing across the plains. Riopelle’s Untitled speaks to the ever-changing essence of both humanity and the natural world. This painting is a masterwork of variable scope and ethereal presence, allowing for a different viewpoint each time that it is viewed. As Hericlitus famously stated: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man”.


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