Features

Sullivan at the modern

Danse dans la neige, Françoise Sullivan shot by Maurice Perron (1948)

Sullivan at the

modern

In her first exhibition at the modern.toronto, Françoise Sullivan’s recent work is stunningly paired with her early photography and choreography.

The entrance of the new exhibition Sullivan at the Modern sets a distinct stage upon which to view the rest of her works. Faced with the unexpected round Tondo 6, as well as captivating photographic images of the artist dancing with nature, and engaging with industrial developments, one is immediately made aware of Francoise Sullivan’s interpretive and improvisational approach to art-making. The collection of works in the exhibition are mostly acrylic on canvas, however, in this first room we see a variety of creations from dance, to photography, to pastels, to paint. The artist herself is incredibly versatile, with her hands in several unique art forms. However, one thing is markedly clear - Sullivan approaches her work, no matter what form it may take, from the same expressive place. By beginning the exhibition with these works, the modern.toronto provides us with a valuable vantage point through which to view Sullivan's work.

Born in Montreal in 1923, Sullivan would begin dancing and choreographing at an early age. At 17, Sullivan enrolled at Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts in drawing and painting but maintained a keen pursuit of dance throughout her studies. Receiving accolades in nearly every area of creative expression, Sullivan never felt limited by her medium. Instead, she explored and expressed herself triumphantly through every material she touched. Throughout her career, her artistic style retains its robust spontaneity, creating a steady connecting line from her early work until now. As a founding member of the famed group, Les Automatistes, and a signatory of Paul-Émile Borduas’ revolutionary Refus Global - which also included her well-respected essay, “La danse et l’espoir” (“Dance and Hope”) - Sullivan established herself as a vital tenant of Canadian Art History. The artist was admitted into the Order of Canada in 2001, and received a Governor General’s Award in 2005, among numerous other accolades. Though these awards provide her with a rare level of honour and prestige, an encounter with Sullivan’s work in person demonstrates the real power of this artist’s abilities.

Each piece in the exhibition at the modern.toronto is an example of a single encounter between artist and medium. As she explained in 2003,

I took up the challenge of making a painting about nothing, a painting dependent on nothing, and that could hold together through nothing more than its inner force, a painting without an image that would capture attention. - via The National Gallery of Canada

The artist approaches her canvas from a unique standpoint - she believes in the value of a planned out canvas, but privileges the surprise moments of improvisational impulse and human error. The result is often a complex canvas that seeks a pensive viewer, committed to studying her work for more than a few seconds.

Though many of the pieces included in the modern.toronto’s current exhibition may appear to follow a strict outline, it is clear, upon closer inspection, that the artist permitted her hand to emerge through her work. Up close, each canvas is a lyrical composition of multi-directional brushstrokes, every one definitive and sharp. With a step back, however, it is still possible to experience Sullivan’s expressive technique. For example, in a piece such as Only Red no. 2 (shown below), Sullivan has given herself restrictions, following a 4 x 4 grid pattern, and limiting herself to various shades of red. However, this pattern has become subject to the irregular movements and habits of Sullivan's active hand. The lines are imperfect, creating a dynamic work that maintains a sense of Sullivan’s instinctual approach to all forms of art making.

Only Red no. 2, Françoise Sullivan (2016)

As one can determine through research and study of Sullivan’s work, her experience and early work as a dancer had a significant influence on her artistic style throughout her life. However, through the exhibition at the modern, one does not need to spend hours with his or her nose in a book. Instead, we are immediately reminded of Sullivan’s past as a dancer. Recognized profusely as a pioneer in the Modern dance realm in Canada, Sullivan’s work as a dancer never disappeared. The influence of movement and improvisation are prominent throughout her career, a fact that the modern does not let us forget this.

Sullivan at the modern continues until November 17, 2018.