McEwen's career as an artist spans more than 50 years. Born in 1928, he trained as a pharmacist. He worked for a pharmaceutical company for some years, but his real avocation was painting.
At first, he was a figurative painter, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was deeply affected by Refus global writer and firebrand painter Paul-Émile Borduas and his followers, including Jean-Paul Riopelle. He worked in Paris from 1951 to 1953, where he came into contact with the exciting new abstract expressionist painters, many of them American expatriates.
McEwen has been an individualistic and even contradictory artist. According to Canadian Contemporary Artists, in the mid-1950s, he attacked those of his own paintings that he thought were too strongly influenced by Borduas and Riopelle, covering them by hand with white paint.
White on white became his preoccupation as he tried to infuse his painting with greater intensity and inner control. His style continued to evolve through the years, and he worked consistently in both oils and watercolours.
His first solo show was in 1950 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Since then, he has shown all over North America, and two of his works are in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Art History Professor Sandra Paikowsky has written extensively about McEwen and has "known him forever."
"He's an extremely dedicated painter, working continuously within the mode of abstraction, unaffected by passing fancies in the art world," Paikowsky said of her friend. "His work is a constant exploration of light and colour." Indeed, the major retrospective held in 1987 at the MMFA of McEwen's work was called Le profondeur de la couleur.
McEwen taught part-time in our Faculty of Fine Arts from 1983 until his retirement in 1993. Many years ago, he created stained-glass windows for the east wall of the Henry F. Hall Building mezzanine, the floor which then housed the University's art gallery. Unfortunately, the windows are now somewhat neglected, and virtually obscured by a computer store.
About 40 of McEwen's latest paintings are on view now at the Galerie Simon Blais, 4521 Clark St., and a magnificent illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.