Artwork by Christian Marcel Barbeau,  Rétine Ying Yang

Marcel Barbeau
Rétine Ying Yang

acrylic on canvas
signed, titled and dated 1966 on the reverse
54 x 54 ins ( 137.2 x 137.2 cms )

Auction Estimate: $80,000.00$60,000.00 - $80,000.00

Price Realized $60,000.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2021

East Hampton Gallery, New York
Galerie Jolliet, Quebec City
Private Collection, Quebec
“Rétine Ying Yang” is a bold and arresting abstract canvas that asks first to be considered on its own aesthetic terms. Marcel Barbeau and his paintings of the 1960s are also classics of Montreal’s powerful traditions in abstract art. Understanding the painting’s lineage and affinities can enhance our appreciation of its visual impact.

With other members of the pivotal Québec avant-garde group Les Automatistes, Barbeau was mentored by its prime mover, Paul-Émile Borduas. Barbeau was a signatory to the 1948 manifesto “Refus global” (“Total Refusal”), which was an emotional call to unfetter artistic and cultural expression in the province. Through automatism’s close ties with mid-century abstract painting in France, and later through his own sojourns in Europe and the United States (1962 to 1974 and 1991 to 2008), Barbeau developed a characteristically international type of abstract painting. Most relevant to “Rétine Ying Yang” was his passion for Op Art, especially that of the Hungarian painter Victor Vasarely (1906-77). Living in New York City from 1964-1968, Barbeau exhibited with the American Op Art School. He painted numerous ‘retinal’ works at this time, all of which create visual pyrotechnics that enjoin our eyes and minds work to maintain the balance that the title suggests.

One of the pleasures of this painting is that one can feel oneself being both in and out of equilibrium as one views it. Our visual engagement here is in effect faster than everyday looking: geometrical forms appear (a near square in the top right perhaps, or a triangle near the centre) but as quickly vanish. The eye has no choice but to keep moving as we look for harmony and stasis. Literally at the same time, we can enjoy not being able to hold onto any permanent balance or rest.

Many of Barbeau’s ‘retinal’ paintings feature bold colour. His choice to work in the starkest tonal contrast here – black and white – collaborates with the square format of the canvas to heighten its optical power. The black and white diagonals are at once figure and ground: one can see white forms on black or vice versa. They cancel one another out in this way, with the result that we engage with one hyper-dynamic surface. The square formed by the black outer perimeter of this surface serves as the structural foil for the many diagonals within its boundaries. As we look at the surface, each transverse line necessarily plays off against this square.

As with so much abstract art, Op or otherwise, close attention to detail offers retinal rewards. For example, almost all of the white and black, chevron-shaped lines in “Rétine Ying Yang” are of the same weight. Yet moving left to right from the top left corner, we note that the third form is different. Here a white shard is bifurcated at the frame edge by a black sliver. It darts on a left-right diagonal towards the centre of the optical field. On its way, it becomes a black chevron whose sharpened point misses any promise of centre by just enough to make a comment about balance and imbalance. The motion of Yin and Yang is perpetual.

We extend our thanks to Mark A. Cheetham for contributing the preceding essay. Mark A. Cheetham is the author of two books on abstract art: “The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting” and “Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure since the ‘60s”. He is a professor of Art History at the University of Toronto.

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Christian Marcel Barbeau
(1925 - 2016) Les Automatistes, RCA

Born in Montreal in 1925, Marcel Barbeau was a student of Paul-Émile Borduas at the École de meuble in 1944. Initially enrolled in the École de meuble as a carpentry student who, admittedly, knew nothing about art noticed a rambunctious class run by Borduas. Curious, Barbeau received permission to transfer into this class. Barbeau and Borduas developed an intense relationship as a teacher and mentor. Barbeau signed Borduas’ famous manifesto Refus global but did not receive the same consequences at Borduas as he, at the time, was jobless and did not have a family. The pair remained close until Borduas immigrated to the United States. Barbeau studied alongside Jean Paul Riopelle at the École de meuble.

As early as 1946, Barbeau participated in Automatistes exhibitions. “Veillomonde” (1949) was exhibited in the second Automatistes exhibition that was held in Pierre and Claude Gauvreau’s apartment. Early in his career, Barbeau experimented with many different ways to make paintings. For example, in “Sauvage-Furie ou Automne-delire” (1947) he used a palette knife to peel back the surface of the painting. In “Au Château d’Argol” (1946-47) Barbeau overlaid linear black lines on top of clusters of red and turquoise. In 1947, Barbeau made fifty “all over” paintings. His “all over” paintings were inspired by European surrealism and Barbeau produced works where lines seemingly floated across the canvas. In 1950, he painted three hundred and fifty coloured ink drawings called Combustions originelles.

Throughout his life Barbeau often moved to different cities to experience various art communities. In the 1960s and 1970s he lived in Europe and the United States, in Paris, California, and New York. In doing this Barbeau was able to gain first-hand experience in current aesthetic developments in the art world. He would bring skills he found useful back to his studio in Montreal and incorporate various techniques into his personal repertoire. Due to his extensive travels and knowledge of the modern art world, Barbeau was able to have a conversation of sorts in his paintings with fellow artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Ellsworth Kelly. Movement was important for Barbeau and he composes his work in a de-centred way that makes it slightly off balance. Perhaps, his fascination with movement is derived from his interest in dance. Barbeau first became interested in dance in 1947 when he made a mask for a piece choreographed by Françoise Sullivan, a fellow contributor to Refus global.

Literature Source:
Robert Enright, “Marcel Barbeau: The Colour of Change.” Border Crossings, Issue 114 (May 2010)

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.