Rita Letendre (born 1928) is a Quebec artist of Abenaki heritage whose distinctive approach to colour field abstraction grew out of an intense engagement with avant-garde painting of the 1950s and 1960s in Quebec. As a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal (1948–1950), she was exposed to the thrilling environment of revolt that accompanied the declaration of the Refus global, in 1948. Introduced to the Automatistes by Jean-Paul Mousseau, she was initially influenced by Paul-Émile Borduas, but she proceeded to embrace, over the course of the 1950s, the geometric abstraction of the Plasticiens, the spatula work of Jean-Paul Riopelle, and the bold abstract expressionist compositions of Franz Kline.
In developing her own language, Letendre rejected both the spontaneous invention of Automatisme and the rigid formality of the Plasticiens; instead, she staged powerful collisions between blocks of solid colour. By the end of the 1960s, these collisions had taken the form of hard-edged arrows of thinly painted colour that converged sharply at the edges of the canvas. As she used ever more intense pigments, her colour field work gained widespread attention, garnering solo exhibitions at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (1972) and the Palm Springs Desert Museum (1974), as well as a series of public commissions. With the addition of fields painted with an airgun beginning in 1976, and an increasing emphasis on horizontality, Letendre’s work began to reference with greater insistence the vocabulary of landscape painting. Zacatlan (1977), Letendre’s artwork in the exhibition As It Unfolds, dates to the iconic decade in which she defined her vocabulary of solid, hard-edged rays set against modulated fields of colour. The artwork is as an outstanding example of the numerous compositional strategies that she employed during this period.
As a key player in the development of modernist abstraction in Quebec, Letendre created work that relates to that of several figures already represented in the MacKenzie’s collection, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, Guido Molinari, Yves Gaucher, and Alfred Pellan. As one of the few women artists involved in the movements of the 1950s and 1960s, Letendre offers an important voice, alongside that of her ground-breaking contemporary Françoise Sullivan. Finally, as an artist of First Nations ancestry, she created work thatomplements the work of other artists who have employed the language of abstraction to articulate Indigenous identities, such as Bob Boyer, Faye Heavy Shield, and Robert Houle.
Timothy Long, Head Curator