The Canadian Art Database

Ian Carr-Harris

A Far Country: viewing the Isaacs Gallery

[This is an edited version of a text written for the catalogue of the exhibition Small Villages: The Isaacs Gallery in Toronto, 1956-1991, curated by Ihor Holubizky and held at the Art Gallery of Hamilton from 10 September to 10 November 1992.]
[ 2,184 words ]

I am in vaguely familiar territory: the public opening of an exhibition in a modern art museum, or at least what an architect thought a few years ago a modern art museum should look like, and it is in Hamilton, Ontario. It's a Thursday evening — 17 September 1992, to be exact — and with just a slight sense of perversity I am standing eight feet from the floor on a rented industrial scaffolding in the middle of a large gallery. It's 8:53 p.m. and familiarity is suddenly focused not on this place and time, but on another trough: a single object displayed in front of me — a 1960s' portable record-player on which a scratchy LP is belting out in a just barely audible whisper a lively cut from that symbol of early 60s Toronto, the Artists' Jazz Band.

It is the uncomfortable intimacy of this other place and time I feel compelled to dissect: the place and time of the Isaacs Gallery. Of course the opening I have just described, and to which I will briefly return, was in recognition of the immense contribution that gallery its artists and most certainly Avrom Isaacs himself has made to the history of culture in this country. But what intrigues me is just what I understand that contribution to be, and I am writing this now because I find I must address this through my own history of recognitions, rather than through the documentary record.

For now, however, we are at the opening, just to pause a while. Not out of sentiment necessarily, nor even out of respect, though perhaps that is a given. This pause is more like a silence, a sort of suspended moment the sort where you watch others talk and gesture, but hear no focused sound. It's a moment of examination that is not so much analysis of something present as it is an experience of history, an episodic space in which fragments of known things merge in patterns of elusive meaning. That is why I found myself oddly caught by the Artists' Jazz Band in 33rpm at close to zero volume whispering: 'we were here.' It is why I found myself struck, in another room not far away, by a disturbing sense of, well, removal, where that whisper becomes a frozen exclamation of exaggerated images merging quickly into one: the image of 'the Isaacs artist'. Young, or at least virile; handsome, or at least imposing; tragic, or at least touched by apparent tragedy; male, or at least trying to be. Perhaps it's time we leave this opening, time to view this history.

My view is a late one. I reminded myself of this by dusting off an old issue of artscanada from October of 1967, the year I enrolled in the Ontario College of Art. Isaacs had been in business already for eleven years, Dorothy Cameron had lost her gallery over the Eroticism show, and Carmen Lamanna had opened his gallery in her old space in the summer of 1966. I had then lived in Toronto since 1964. The David Mirvish Gallery, the Artists' Workshop on Bloor, the Art Gallery of Toronto, the Pollock Gallery, the Jerrold Morris Gallery, not to mention artscanada, Barry Lord, and the Globe and Mail's Kay Kritzweiser: these were the local elements that defined, in large part, the institutional context of my interests. It was a world of Michael Snow versus Henry Moore, of Clement Greenberg versus Harold Rosenberg; of New York City and the Canada Council. It was Canada's Centennial, and for me it was a complicated world of determined disbelief. Too late, then, for me to appreciate fully the frontier world that Isaacs entered in 1956. It is important to remember that the Canada Council only came into existence in 1957, and this watershed in our history marked a fundamental shift in expectations that I believe separated my generation from that of Av Isaacs and the artists he came to represent. By 1967 the Council was a central assumption of our culture: its jury structure and procedures supported immensely diverse claims to national significance that extended into every region and cut across age groups. It represented an idea of literacy and mobility; artists were required to defend their position and to compete with one another. This demand alone however much it was (and is) resented by many artists constructed a climate of skepticism, some would say professionalism, radically different from the more adventurous, perhaps romantic, and certainly patron-centred conditions of the mid-1950s. (1) 

In any case, the Isaacs Gallery that I encountered in 1967 was settled, and impressive: Graham Coughtry, Gordon Rayner, Walter Redinger, Denis Burton, Greg Curnoe, Mark Prent, John MacGregor, and of course the famous couple: Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow. Isaacs was national; indeed, Isaacs was international. But Isaacs remained for me and for others at the time curiously foreign, and if that perception seems curious, it lies at the heart of my response to the gallery and to its moment in Canada's culture. This is what needs some explaining.

It seems to me that the period 1965 to 1970, let us say, represents the maturing into consciousness of a massive new generation, people born after the war into prosperity, TV, constant news programming, Vietnam hysteria, and irony. Irony is a powerful, although duplicitous, force in political awareness, but in 1967 its duplicity was not evident. Indeed, in the figure of Pierre Trudeau's famous shrug, irony seemed the ultimate test of truth. Applied to the truths of modern art, or at least that art which had become synonymous with austere form and its alter ego, expressive or idiosyncratic gesture, what seemed most evident was that artists had failed to grasp a changed condition, one in which identity could no longer be played out in the privacy of the individual as a legitimate model for public contemplation. This failure was itself ironic. Modern art, after all, described itself as 'avant-garde,' as a Tradition of the New, in Rosenberg's words. For a young culture like English Canada's, that tradition would seem to have been tailor-made to represent its interests, both as historically 'new,' and as generationally 'emerging.' Puzzling, that it didn't; that when seen at Isaacs, such art seemed oddly colonized instead, whatever the nationality of the artist, and this despite the obvious fact that Isaacs had with every justification become identified with, and clearly believed in, an independent 'Canadian art.'

The problem lay in the values involved. Modern art, as I then perceived it within the model presented by the Isaacs Gallery, constituted an appeal to humanity. If I think of Coughtry, Rayner, Mark Prent, even Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland, what connected these artists was a strong belief in the presence of the artist as lightening rod to a lost cohesion. Perhaps William Kurelek most obviously and obliviously recorded that longing, but we can in fact trace this presence to the origins of modern art itself. I'll be brief, since this is not intended as a primer on the avant-garde. It has been suggested that aesthetic modernity is a product of the French Enlightenment and its belief in the 'infinite progress of knowledge and in the infinite advance towards social and moral betterment.' (2)  It has further been suggested that the culture of modernity, of which modern art is a category, is characterized by values derived from a collapse of difference and diversity of identity into the transparent embodiment of the single authorial voice, a voice based upon a male-centred notion of the heroic individual as both caught within and in struggle against  (3) 

To note these points is not to dismiss modernity, but rather to recognize certain formulations within it. What was becoming a point of disenchantment in 1967 for myself, and for others, as for others, was that these formulations no longer produced what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas has called 'an emancipatory effect.' The 'liberal' tradition of modern art seemed more and more the problem, not the solution, to the questions: what should I believe, how should I act? Skepticism concerning the viability of this liberal humanism was undoubtedly hastened by the contradictions of Vietnam. But Vietnam only pointed to the obvious: that coherence and truth are subjects of power and force, and that identity is not necessarily portable.

The failure of 'classical' modern art to address these questions adequately was therefore a fundamental problem facing any artist, or gallery, and, by 1967, had become unavoidable. Intelligent and passionate though Isaacs artists were, it seemed to me that they continued to avoid this issue. This avoidance was only exacerbated by the pluralistic approach that Av Isaacs established from the beginning. It can be argued that modern art has many intensities within it, intensities that can be focused into specific critiques, which establish a ground for difference even when they do not themselves acknowledge it. The emphasis that the Isaacs Gallery placed on a multiplicity of voices made it difficult, I felt, to detect such critiques. (4)  Instead, the Gallery appeared to sponsor a congeniality and a celebration of the artist which did not appear justifiable, however 'tough' or honest they remained. Grand, perhaps, especially if you were male; utopian, certainly. But believable? Not really. There was no room in 1967 for such lack of irony; and in a colonial culture like Canada's, abstract heroics or connoisseurship seemed beside the point. (5) 

The point was that such celebration, despite its clear and heartfelt intention to liberate the culture, led back to the New York School, to Clement Greenberg even, rather than to the more socially critical environment which was becoming the hallmark of contemporary art internationally, as much in New York as in Europe. Or Canada; there were many reasons why conditions here in the late Sixties, in Toronto, at least, required a shift which became explicit as the newly founded 'parallel galleries,' or artist-run centres, re-wrote the agenda for serious art. (6)  Admittedly one powerful motivation lay in the lack of private commercial galleries interested in contemporary Canadian art. Isaacs was exceptional, (7)  but the gallery represented a full complement of artists of this generation. Nonetheless, a more fundamental motivation than the obvious need for representation lay in the fact than an increasingly critical culture required an arena in which to question the role of the individual versus the institution, the politics of gender privilege, and the utopian vision of progress itself. These, after all, were the issues that had become dominant for a generation which had grown up on the graphic inhumanities of Vietnam, suburban alienation, and the excesses of Fifties stereotyping. For this generation, there was nothing to celebrate.

On the contrary, there was work to do: a whole culture needed dismantling. What was required was not artistic vision, but cultural critique. It was not that Av Isaacs had no interest in this critique; after all, he came from a background of 'prairie socialism', and remained committed throughout his gallery's history to the core issues of social liberation: freedom from censorship, due process in the public arena, and protest against totalitarian regimes. Rather, it was a question of methodology. Neither the tradition of art he sponsored, nor the pluralistic approach he adopted, could take into account the problem of ideology. For Isaacs, the route to 'social and moral betterment' lay through the individualized voice and in a faith that this progress was an inevitable effect of freedom and independence. For younger artists, there seemed no evidence that progress was an effect of freedom, or of independence, nor that the individual was the key; such betterment as might be attainable lay through investigations of conflict and the recognition of political difference. It lay through close scrutiny of the individual as an institution.

And indeed, that is what this 'history of recognitions' amounts to: a scrutiny of Avrom Isaacs as an institution with quite particular characteristics. The Isaacs Gallery, it could be said, represented a moment of liberal democracy in the evolving culture of this country. This liberalism seems distant now, as it seemed already 'foreign' or 'out of place' in 1967. (8)  But, naive though it seems in hindsight, utopian though it intentionally was, and gender-privileged as its claims to universal value clearly were, the Isaacs Gallery represented a determined faith in freedom, a belief in the spirit, in the body politic, that I think was absolutely essential in the evolution of late-Sixties irony into a self-conscious politics. Isaacs was palpable, and tough-minded. It was precisely for this reason that a legitimate refusal was possible, that a distinction could be made, and that a different voice indeed, many different voices could be raised. It is not just important, but only truthful, to insist that we were I was an inheritor of a vision; and if I opposed it, I was not so much its opponent as its product. That is why, straining to hear the Artists' Jazz Band scratching away on an old portable in the Art Gallery of Hamilton, I can whisper back, with gratitude, 'yes, you were there.'

Text: © Ian Carr-Harris. All rights reserved.

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