Jean-Paul Riopelle was born on 7 October 1923, in Montreal, Canada. Riopelle studied at the École des beaux-arts (1942) and then at the École du Meuble (1943-45), both Montreal, where he met teacher Paul-Émile Bourdas. Bourdas would found Les Automatistes (the Automatists, 1946-51), a group of Quebecois artists influenced by Surrealist automatism, and also spearheaded the controversial Refus global (‘Total refusal’), an anti-religious and anti-establishment manifesto that extolled the creative virtues of the subconscious. Riopelle would join participate in both. In 1945, he travelled to Paris on a Canadian government fellowship and in 1946 visited New York, where his work was included in the International Surrealist Exhibition.
By the time the Refus global was published in 1948, Riopelle had been settled in Paris for a year, organising an exhibition of Canadian avant-garde artists at the Parisian Galerie du Luxembourg in summer 1947. In the same year he was included in Exposition internationale du surréalisme (International exhibition of Surrealism) at Galerie Maeght, Paris, organised by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Riopelle had his first solo show at Galerie Nina Dausset in 1949. By the early 1950s, he would apply pigment straight from the tube with a palette knife, sometimes over multiple canvases, which developed into his ‘mosaics’: large-format, dense, and colourful compositions articulated by flecks of pure white and black. Riopelle’s reputation grew with an exhibition of his new work at Galerie Pierre Loeb in 1953, and he subsequently had his first U.S. solo show in 1954 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
During the 1960s, Riopelle’s canvases became wider, and his compositions began to connote an ‘abstract landscapism.’ He also began to work in lithograph and pastel and to create sculptures that led to painted collage assemblages in 1967. Riopelle re-introduced representational themes into his work from the mid-1970s onwards, and he was again inspired by nature. In the early 1980s, he introduced acrylics, stencils, and automobile aerosol paint into his practice. Wild geese would become a recurring representational motif, influenced by his surroundings in Canada. His 1990s works fully developed this multimedia accumulation of abstracted figures built up in his signature dense, crisscrossing layers and lattice forms.
From the late 1950s Riopelle lived and worked near Giverny with the American painter Joan Mitchell, who had similarly traveled to France in the post-war period, settling in Paris after 1955. Their work from the 1960s, especially, shows their mutual influence on each other. Riopelle returned to Quebec in the 1970s, and his relationship with Mitchell ended in 1979. Soon after Mitchell’s death in 1992, Riopelle stopped painting. Riopelle died on a decade later on 12 March 2002, in Île-aux-Grues, Canada.
Riopelle’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec; Montréal Museum of Fine Arts; Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris.
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