Rita Letendre: Eternal Space

Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum presented seven works by the acclaimed Canadian artist Rita Letendre in the exhibition Eternal Space. This exhibition celebrates the recently passed artist, tracing her gestural phase in the early 1960s and exploring the stylistic precursors that led directly to the creation of the Sunforce mural on Cal State Long Beach campus. It then follows her path through the dynamic geometric "wedges" and "arrows" that mark the mature phase of her practice from the late 1960s to the late 1970s and culminates with the more atmospheric airbrushed acrylics created in the early 1980s. Through five paintings and two works on paper, including a work of art from the Museum’s collection, a storied artistic career is considered. 

As a young artist in Montreal, Canada, Letendre joined two Québécois artistic groups, Les Automatistes, who were influenced by Surrealism and its theory of automatism in their creation of gestural abstract paintings, and Les Plasticiens, who were inspired by Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Letendre was also fascinated by the Abstract Expressionist paintings emerging from New York, particularly those of Franz Klein. Such an influence is evident in the exhibition’s works on paper, Untitled (RL-60-12), 1960, and Un monde en fête, 1962.  

In 1962, Letendre traveled to Europe, spending time Rome and Paris, where she was drawn to the expressionistic Lyrical Abstraction movement. Subsequently, she created expressive oils on canvas like Impact II, 1965. While in Italy, Letendre also met her lifelong partner, the Russia-born abstract sculptor Kosso Eloul. Following their union, Letendre’s paintings became more geometric and hard-edged, as seen in two works in Eternal SpaceLodestar Trail, 1969 and Heat-Vibration-Heat, 1968. 

From her geometric abstraction came her powerful "wedge" and "arrow" motifs, shapes which for Letendre established a feeling of vibration that climaxes in what she calls "eternal space," the namesake of this exhibition. A masterwork of this phase is the atmospheric Ishrem, 1979, with its pulsating dark fields airbrushed in the lower half of the picture plane, an atmospheric base under a blazing wedge of crimson, tangerine and goldenrod breaking above. Letendre captures hues so intense the canvas seems to emanate heat. 

A picture containing building, outdoor, tree, house

Description automatically generated

Rita Letendre, Sunforce, 1965. Epoxy paint on concrete, 22’ x 21’. CSULB Outdoor Sculpture Collection, Courtesy of Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum. ©Rita Letendre. Photo by Sean DuFrene. 

Eternal Space was a full circle return in some senses, as Letendre has long been associated with Cal State Long Beach. Her first major outdoor mural, Sunforce, (1965) was executed in her signature dynamic style. Letendre was invited by 1965 California International Sculpture Symposium organizer Kenn Glenn and University President Carl McIntosh to paint the mural on a suspended walkway between two campus buildings. Through the mural, like many of the artist’s other paintings from the era, Letendre explored light and energy. Sunforce’s tangerine, yellow, and green epoxy brushstrokes are vivid against a stark blue-black background; such vibrant color choices were intended to “wake people up" as they "go along [. . .] never seeing," so that "then other things fall into focus and we start living,” according to the artist. 

In 2015, during the leadup to celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the International Sculpture Symposium, enthusiasm for the mural regained momentum. As a result, a conservation plan was put into action. In 2018, the Museum collaborated with the Getty Conservation Institute and the preservation team from Rosa Lowinger and Associates, Conservation of Art and Architecture Inc. to return it to its original glory, restoring its rich tones. 

About the Rita Letendre  

Rita Letendre was born in Drummondville, Quebec in 1928. She was one of seven children. Letendre's father was of Mohawk/Québécois descent, while her mother was Abenaki/Québécois. When she was five, the family moved to a neighboring town, Saint-Majorique-de-Grantham and then to Montreal, where she was cruelly treated by other children for being métisse, a girl of mixed racial heritage. At an early age, she would stand up to this by declaring, "I am myself; I am Rita." Throughout her career, she would insist upon this self-definition as a person, woman, and artist. Fierce and independent, Letendre and her paintings remain unapologetically her own in style, motif, and technique. 

Letendre left home at 17, to marry and work as a waitress. It was at a restaurant that her talent as an artist was discovered by a frequent patron, who encouraged her to take classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. Her goal at that time was to become a commercial artist. She befriended artist Ulysse Comtois, who introduced her to Paul-Émile Borduas, founder of the gestural abstract painting movement, Les Automatistes. Soon thereafter, Letendre dropped out of the École to participate with the Automatistes, who were influenced by André Breton and the Surrealist practice of automatic writing. By the late 1950s, Letendre won several major Canadian prizes and used the money to buy better quality and more vivid oil paints, which were used in compositions with a thickly impasto surface.  

Her interest in abstraction shifted from the styles preferred by the Automatistes to those of another group, the Plasticiens (led by Rodolphe de Repentigny), who were inspired by Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.  In this phase, Letendre's painting became more geometric and hard-edged. Another influence was the New York-based Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline. In the early 1960s, Letendre went to Europe, spending time Rome, Paris, where she was also drawn to lyrical abstraction. After meeting Eloul in Italy, Letendre traveled with him to Israel. She joined him when he was invited to participate in the 1965 International Sculpture Symposium on the University campus. The two remained in California until 1968. While in Los Angeles, Letendre was a guest artist at Gemini GEL and Tamarind. Letendre's paintings were featured in the formative exhibition 25 California Women of Art, which was curated by Josine Ianco (Kline) Starrels in 1968 at the Lytton Center of the Visual Arts, which was founded by LACMA co-founder Bart Lytton. 25 California Women of Art was the first survey on the West Coast to focus exclusively on women artists. In the early 1970s, Letendre had solo exhibitions at De Vorzon Gallery in Los Angeles and Malvina Miller Gallery in San Francisco. In 1974, her paintings were the subject of a solo exhibition at the Palm Springs Desert Museum. 

Rita Letendre is recognized by Canada as one of its most important living artists. She was the subject of a major 2017 retrospective exhibition, Fire and Light, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She received the Order of Canada in 2005, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, and the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas in 2016. In 2019, Rita Letendre was honored with a Fellowship by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.  


Eternal Space was made possible by support from the Québec Government Office in Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Canada in Los Angeles, Cal State Long Beach Associated Students, Inc. Instructionally Related Activities fund, Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum Board of Advisors, Constance W. Glenn Endowment, William R. Svec Endowment, and Elizabeth & Charles Brooks Endowment.