Operating under the banner of surrealism, post-war automatist painters sought a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind; and by extension, the rules of a society they saw as oppressive. Instead, they embraced the involuntary actions and processes not under the control of the conscious mind and attempted to integrate this level of effortlessness onto the canvas.
This collection is representative of my preferred form of painting, which tends towards mixed-media abstracts on small, easily movable canvases. The improvised application of color, texture and depth borrows from the tradition of mid-century Canadian and American avant-garde artists who explored the creative potential of the subconscious and defined the expressionist category often referred to as automatism.
Heavily influenced by Surrealist manifestos and poetry, their work was largely stream-of-consciousness inspired, believing this to be a truer means of communicating subconscious emotions and sensory experiences; they wanted to be liberated from intention, reason, and any kind of structure, in order to communicate a universal human experience without bias.
Famed art critic Clement Greenberg championed this turn toward abstraction. Greenberg argued that figurative painting (from Michelangelo to Monet) was based on an illusion: the illusion of depth in a canvas, and the pretense of three-dimensional human life on what was, in truth, an inert, two-dimensional surface.
Franz Kline and Helen Frankenthaler, who rank amongst the most celebrated abstract automatist, are both important influences. In addition to these well-known American painters, this collection of work also draws on the disruptive tradition of the Canadian expressionism forwarded by Paul-Émile Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Marcelle Ferron.
Less well-known than their American and European counterparts these Canadian "automatistes" favored a fluid, painterly technique over the comparatively reserved, hard-edge abstraction that was popular in the U.S. and Europe at the time. Much like a nonfigurative Group of Seven, they were looking to create a distinctly Canadian artistic identity.
In Greenberg's opinion, the dedication to stream-of-conciousness expressionism was a natural reaction to the overwhelming nostalgia of figurative painting, whose subject matter was too easily manipulated for the purposes of propaganda, both political and commercial.
Sentimental scenes of human life were, after all, what the Nazis and the Stalinists had championed. They were what the admen of Madison Avenue utilized every day. Meanwhile, the abstract sought to continue, in the realm of the visual, the modernist critique of the self.