Early Life and Career
After studying briefly at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal in the late 1940s, the artist opted to leave school and mingle directly with the Québec artistic milieu, attracted by the impact created by the strong cultural statement of the Automatistes group of artists in their 1948 manifesto Refus Global. He participated in the last group show, La matière chante, in 1954 at the Galerie Antoine, an exhibition inspired directly by the movement.
His paintings of the 1950s reveal a search for flexible structures which may be identified with a postautomatist aesthetic. He was torn at that time between the loose paint handling evident in the work of the automatistes and the emerging geometrical rigour proposed by the new Plasticiens movement of Montréal. The more-or-less curved bars in his series of abstract paintings done between 1954 and 1956 would find later echoes in the modular form of the strips found in his playful sculptures of the 1960s.
It was after visiting a New York exhibition of sculptures by Julio Gonzales around 1960 that Comtois enthusiastically embarked upon welded metal sculpture, and he later became one of the first sculptors to experiment with that technique in Canada. Comtois was keenly interested in the Dadaist ideas that permitted sculptors the often ironic use of scrap materials; working in that medium, he produced small sculptures of welded steel in 1960-61 which were shown at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal the same year.
A Canada Council grant allowed him to travel in Europe and Israel in 1963. From 1964-66, he brightly painted or varnished his sculptures, which were made of strata of laminated wood and characterized by twisted and interlocked forms. In the mid 1960s, he began producing more ambitious modular sculptures that included aluminum plates that rotated along a tubular axis and involved viewer participation. Some of these sculptures were selected to be part of the 1968 Venice Biennale to represent Canada. At the same time, he was commissioned to create a mural for the Administration and News Building of Expo 67 in Montréal.
Comtois returned to painting in the 1970s using an enlarged pointillist technique to explore the energy generated by vivid chromatic juxtapositions. Continuing his oscillation between expressive and geometric forms, he became interested in revisiting Mondrian's legacy in his painting. Very knowledgeable about the history of sculpture, the artist taught at the Université du Québec in Montréal in the early 1970s, and subsequently at Concordia University. He was awarded the prestigious Paul-Émile Borduas Prize in 1978 by the Government of Québec, and the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal organized a comprehensive retrospective of his work in 1983.