The Canadian Art Database


John Clark Tribute

[ 4,584 words ]


Jeffrey J. Spalding, Director, University of Lethbridge Art Gallery

Upon learning that he had been stricken by a terminal cancer, John Clark was able to reflect back over the events of his life and conclude that he had lived life the way he wanted to; he wouldn't want to have changed anything. Nor would there be any need to urgently drink in of yet untasted experience. It was his resolve that his remaining time was to be spent as it had always been, shared in considered measure between time spent with his family, friends and colleagues, engaged in thinking and writing about art, and his passionate involvement with art making. It would be good, John and I had agreed, if we could assemble a show of his work so that he might be able to look over and consider the merits and achievements of a life spent in the pursuit of artistic expression. Tragically, his battle with cancer was brief, on September 20, 1989, John Clark died at the age of 46.

The exhibition planned thus evolved to its present state — John Clark: A Tribute organized and selected by Victoria Baster, Assistant Curator and Tim Nowlin, Extensions Curator. It is with gratitude that we thank Pamela Clark for her kind assistance in gathering and sorting, and her advice in selecting and lending material for the exhibition. We also acknowledge the thoughtfulness of colleagues, sister institutions, the Alberta Art Foundation, the University of Lethbridge and Wynick-Tuck Gallery in making arrangements for loans and other generosities. Within a few short days, interest was expressed in this exhibit travelling to Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal and elsewhere. In itself, this speaks well of the high regard that we hold for the art and the man.

We at the University of Lethbridge have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such a fine individual, teacher, writer and artist. One could scarcely imagine a more sterling model to argue in favor of that oft-maligned individual, the artist-teacher. It would be hard to equal the high standards set by his example. He gave generously, effectively, and with great care and consideration for the development of students. This was coupled with a steadfast commitment to personal, professional contributions to the discipline as both an accomplished practitioner and commentator.

As Tim Nowlin notes in his essay that, while at Lethbridge, John Clark produced some of his most remarkable works. 'The Trans-Continental Man' who developed his art and career in tandem between England and throughout Canada seemed to find special resolve here. He found within artists in Canada and America many kindred spirits and he expressed a deep admiration and appreciation for the art of Peterson Ewen, John Meredith, David Milne and early American moderns, especially Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and Philip Guston.

Yet, in Canada particularly, advanced art has often institutionally been associated with art that has assumed new, non-traditional and often technological form. What was the role for the socially conscious individual committed to being a painter within this current situation? At Lethbridge, Clark seems to have come to some considerable clarity concerning this issue. Less cautious now and less guarded, the last works burst forth with a new sense of purpose and self-acceptance. His way was through painting and the last works mused over the place of the individual within the larger scheme of things — at once cultural and social, and later within the natural, even spiritual realm. What is our connectedness, the paintings seemed to say? Modestly, honestly, they offer no conclusiveness. Perhaps it should be so, as his own favoured master, Philip Guston, offered: 'All one can do is try.'


Tim Nowlin
University of Lethbridge Art Gallery
October 6, 1989

Recently, Canada lost one of her most thoughtful and imaginative artists. We at the University of Lethbridge lost a dear friend and a remarkable, influential teacher. John Clark, in his own unassuming way, was a strong presence here.

John's paintings and drawings will remain as some of the finest produced in this country during the last decade. John's work, as John was in life, is neither self-aggrandizing nor hindered by theoretical complications. Over the course of his career, as the work as a whole will attest, John Clark patiently and intelligently absorbed the lessons of the great modern painters until he had formed a unique and reciprocal discourse with the world through art. In successive stages, his life's work reveals an increasingly poetic relationship between the artist and the larger realms of existence. Revealed also is a firm victory over a crucial aesthetic problem involving form and personal content.

The artist once mentioned that his first and foremost influence was Cézanne and this seems obvious enough in the painting. The brushstrokes are direct and significant, the 'petit-sensation' being somewhat amplified. In earlier work, however, it is evident that much was gleaned from the Modern British painters as well as Matisse, Picasso's figurative works of the 20s, Morandi, Hopper, de Chirico and Guston. Like every good artist, he assimilated rather than borrowed. Having intelligently forged an approach to image making which enveloped vital aspects of Modern art, Clark nonetheless responded imaginatively and expressively to the circumstances of his own world and its natural forces.

Throughout, he was always a painter of images, yet Clark's work had reached something of an impasse around 1975. He approached and eventually resolved this crisis by reevaluating the relationship between figurative content and the overwhelming demands of modernist painting. It was during this period that his considerations of de Chirico and Guston were to prove so crucial to the development of his mature painting.

In a series of studies begun just prior to his move to Halifax in 1978, the image or object now self-consciously lies within the long shadow of modern formalist abstraction. An approach to the implied narrative or symbolic function of an image and its relation to a constructed spatial arena is tentative and aware of its intrusion onto a sensual surface of paint. These objects: a T.V., a radio, mirrors, or, as seen here, a Foden Truck, appear somewhat divested and seek a sense of rootedness in a meaningful ground.

Through 1978 and 1979, the pictorial space that the images inhabit remains extremely shallow. The objects, in a renewed or redeemed role as subjects for art, are not so much recalcitrant as they are testing the ground on which they appear. Self-awareness at this point lends them an air of idiosyncrasy. Astutely aware of the irreversibly altered role of figurative content after the impact of modernist abstraction, Clark's work from this time forward raises important questions concerning the nature of meaning in painted images.

In The News (1980), the flatness of both field and meaning is reinforced by a seriocomic conjunction of an adherence to the modernist surface and the possibility of entropy inherent in the reduction of vital information to a common form. Clark had felt that the tension underlying the paintings of Guston was caused not so much by grotesque subjects as by the menacing 'hidden presence of the void'. (1)  Seeing this as a pressing problem in contemporary painting, the artist first exposed the enigma, as in The News, and later sought to resolve the dangers of falling back into what he considered the oblivion of mindless painting.

In the paintings of the early 1980s there begins a genuine search for a fertile ground. More fully developed physically as well as metaphysically, the figures now directly confront the tenuous structural horizons of the picture plane. The disquieting cityscape of Halifax, for example, is engaged from oblique perspectives by compelling, though comically bereft figures: one in the guise of a mad Van Gogh, another mindlessly playing bolo. In more direct paintings, figures search along the more tangible metaphor of rock, still searching, presumably, for a meaningful spatial reality.

With the move back to Hull in 1983 and due perhaps to a psychologically testing residence in Halifax, Clark seemed to find both a new optimism and the sought-after space for his painting. In the work between 1983 and 1986, the figures move more easily, often within a lush and organic environment. In Guardian of the Valley, one of his finest paintings, the field promises both real pictorial depth as well as the structural cohesion of a beautifully textured surface. With almost pantheistic longing, the figure seeks to reconcile itself with the world while mingling quite literally with nature. Just as man's alienation from nature persists in life, however, the fall from grace frequently recurs as a theme in the paintings.

In 1986, John and his family moved to Lethbridge, Alberta. He was at first so overwhelmed by the vast beauty and peacefulness of the place that he couldn't help but doubt the stability of it. In a series of works entitled Scissors in the Sky, these anxieties take the form of scissors that snip open the great calm sky above the prairie. Though uprootedness and the fall from grace continue as realities, his reaction to the environment of southern Alberta was immediate and astonishingly poetic. His was the perfect example of the premise that it takes an outsider to point out the beauty of a place.

Clark's production in Lethbridge was varied and prodigious. He reinvigorated previous subjects and themes and found new ones, only now in relation to grander structures and immeasurable spaces. He resolved pictorial depth on rich, atmospheric surfaces and often introduced brighter and more vibrant colour. A personal and lyrical view of the world manifested itself in mythic themes of transformation. In Bird and Bridge (1987), a great bird rises phoenix-like above the Lethbridge high level bridge. In the fluid, inky skies of The Night Paintings, soft umbilical ropes reach out towards the bright moon and Halley's comet. In all of the Lethbridge paintings there is evidence of a possible reconciliation with the world and a sense of human purpose in John Clark's commitment as an artist.

In surveying the artist's work from beginning to end it is that obviousness of purpose and commitment, which is most striking. He worked constantly and continually reinvestigated subjects until his work as an artist had achieved both a density of experience and a wealth of variety. It is especially sad to note that in the past three years John seemed to have reached the most fertile and productive period of his life.


1943 Born in Yorkshire, England, became a Canadian citizen.
1961 — 65 Attended Hull College of Art. Received N.DD in Painting.
1965 — 66 Post-diploma in Printmaking.
1966 — 68 Attended Indiana University; received M.F.A. (with distinction) in Painting.
1966 — 68 Fullbright travel grant to U.S.A.
1968 — 73 Part-time lecturer in Fine Art / Art History, Hull College of Art, Hull, England.
1973 — 74 Part-time lecturer in painting, Newcastle Polytechnic, England
1974 — 76 Senior lecturer in painting, Hull College of Art.
1978 — 83 Co-coordinator, Painting and Drawing, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
1983 — 85 Head of Painting, Hull College of Higher Education, Hull, England.
1986 — 89 Associate Professor, Art Department, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta.


Private and public collections in Canada and abroad including:

Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The Canada Council Art Bank, Ottawa, Ontario.
Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Yorkshire Arts Association, Brandford, England.
Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, England.
C.I.L., Toronto, Ontario.
Westburn Industrial Enterprises, Montreal, Quebec.
Esso Resources Collection, Calgary, Alberta.
Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, Toronto, Ontario.
Toronto Dominion Bank, Toronto, Ontario.
University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, Lethbridge, Alberta.
Nova Corporation of Alberta, Calgary, Alberta.
Alberta Art Foundation, Edmonton, Alberta.
Cineplex Odeon Corporation, Toronto and Lethbridge.


1972 Park Square Gallery, Leeds, England.
1975 Park Square Gallery, Leeds.
1977 Abbott Hall Gallery. Kendal, England.
1980 Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, Alberta.
1981 Mount St. Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
1982 49th Parallel Gallery, New York City.
1982 Mercer Union, Toronto.
1982 Plug-in Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
1983 Struts Gallery, Sackville, New Brunswick
1983 The Grey Paintings 1978-83, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario.
1983 Recent Paintings, Wynick / Tuck Gallery, Toronto, Ontario.
1983 John Clark, The Grey Paintings 1978 — 1983, Ed Gallery, Guelph, Ontario.
1984 Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, England.
1984 H.A.A. Galleries, Hull. England.
1985 New Paintings and Works on Paper, Wynick / Tuck Gallery, Toronto, Ontario.
1986 New Paintings and Works on Paper, Wynick / Tuck Gallery. Toronto, Ontario.
1988 New Paintings and Works on Paper, Wynick / Tuck Gallery, Toronto, Ontario.
1988 — 89 Equivalent Worlds: The Figurative Paintings of John Clark 1979 — 1988, Art Gallery of Windsor; Owens Art Gallery, Sackville, New Brunswick; Dalhousie Art Gallery, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.


John Clark: 1943 — 1989
by Nancy Tousley

The painter John Clark died of cancer on September 20, 1989, in Lethbridge, Alberta, at the age of 46. His program as an artist, marked by intelligence, learning and a profound generosity of spirit, was large in its search for meaning. This he found when the physical materials of his craft met the transforming energy of his thinking / feeling painter's hand. The work that now stands for his full, if unfinished, career encompasses more than 20 years' devotion to painting. It also includes every viewer he continues to touch through his medium, the innumerable students he taught in both England and Canada, and a small body of lucid, clear-sighted critical writing on modern and contemporary art.

Linked to the English tradition, to Cézanne, to Hopper and Avery and Hartley and Guston (painters with whom he found a kinship), Clark searched for a means to marry matter and spirit in images that embodied the humanizing qualities he missed in so much recent painting. Of Avery, he wrote: 'The painter reminds us that the action of the artist on the painting's surface can be an organic process similar to the action of natural forces.' The same is true of Clark. In the same piece he held to 'that older notion of style' as 'personal inventiveness'. He sought 'that much more delicate and ambitious goal of figurative painting...transformation' — that necessary metamorphosis of subject-matter that takes place on 'the specially sensitized space of the painted surface.' He once said in an interview with painter Ron Shuebrook, 'I want my paintings to be both overtly figurative and overtly abstract if such a thing is possible — not synthesized into an ambiguity.' To that end, he turned drawing into painting and painting into drawing, bringing that 'language through which all painting is expressed' to the surface so that a viewer, guided by his solid yet transcendent touch, might witness the process that drew an object in the world into another order of being.

A true trans-Atlantic man, well schooled in European art history, Clark, in his painting The Man With the Hat of Fire (1981), could savor the wry poignancy of Van Gogh by portraying a figure in a candle-trimmed hat painting a Halifax landscape that includes the Holiday Inn. Born in Yorkshire in 1943, Clark moved back and forth between England and North America several times: to take his M.F.A. as a Fulbright scholar at Indiana University (1968); to lecture at his alma mater, the Hull College of Art in England, where he had lectured from 1968 to 1973 and (following a lecturing stint at Newcastle Polytechnic) 1974 to 1978, to teach at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1978 — 83); to become head of the painting department at Hull in 1983. He returned to Canada in 1986 to teach at the University of Lethbridge. North America gave Clark some distance on European traditions and he allied them with new affinities. He was bent upon conserving painting's wholeness and well-being by drawing directly from life, nature and art of the past and reshaping the mixture. 'Transformational painting has more in common with the novel and with poetry,' he wrote. 'Being structured and multi-layered, it acknowledges the world as a reality, not a fantasy, and the artist as an individual with the responsibility and ability to act in its interpretation.'

An exhibition of John Clark's work was shown in the fall of 1989 at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, then toured to Calgary's Glenbow Museum from February 3 to March 25, then to Concordia University in Montreal from April 12 to May 19, and Toronto's Wynick / Tuck gallery also mounted a show, The Night Paintings: A Memorial Exhibition, from February 10 to March 3, 1990.

Canadian Art, Winter 1989


John Clark, artist, born Howden 7 February 1943, died Alberta 20 September 1989.
by Simon Lewis

John Clark was a figurative painter who had a comprehensive knowledge, understanding and respect for mainstream modernist abstraction.

His particular concern was to revitalize the figurative tradition of European naturalism through the analysis of the conventions of painting, a practice that has usually been the province of abstract artists. This often uncomfortable juxtaposition of intent, in Clark's hands, produced vigorous paintings that were both beautifully painted and a challenge to the intellect.

Clark's work contains layers of wit, ironic visual asides, references to artistic convention, distortions of space and the sheer exhilaration of rich paint. Perhaps because his paintings are so 'difficult', he did not receive the exposure he deserved in the United Kingdom; blander, more decorative or superficially idiosyncratic fare has suited British taste in this department over the last decade.

Ironically it was in Canada, the country he often wickedly referred to as the land of the 'rampant beaver', that Clark received recognition and respect. He will be remembered in this country by the artists of his generation that knew him as someone of strong intellect, ready wit and uncompromising dedication to the enterprise of painting.

He saw painting as a live and healthy undertaking, capable of infinite regeneration and reinvention: not an outmoded anachronism, but the only true depository and hope for the future of advanced art.

Coupled with his practice as an artist Clark was also a skilled and dedicated teacher of art students. He studied at the Hull Regional College of Art and as a Fulbright student at Indiana University, and taught at Hull College of Art for several years before going to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1978.

It was for his years at Hull, between 1974 and 1978, that Clark will be best remembered by the British students he taught. At a pivotal point in the development of his own painting he taught a rigorous and demanding first-year programme that held the disciplines of drawing at its centre.

A consummate draughtsman himself, he certainly knew how to teach that most difficult and expressive discipline with great energy clarity and humor. For him drawing was the muscle and sinew of painting. He often referred to his desire for his paintings to be full of drawing; for it to be the vital glue that held the work together, not as naturalist description but as a tensile element that carried the surface from one edge to the other.

Clark was a painter of rare quality who possessed the gifts that made him an outstanding teacher. He had an uncanny ability to inspire his students to work beyond their own capabilities, to discover creative and imaginative depths within themselves and put them to good use.

A stickler for good studio discipline, he also cherished the unconventional and problematic characters that all art schools should value. In them he recognized an echo of his own anarchic and renegade wit which, hidden below his Yorkshire pragmatism and outward reserve, was a delight to discover and a mainspring of his art. It leavened his seriousness and made him a superb companion and colleague.

The Independent, UK
October 1989


John Clark

John Clark, a Canadian painter and educator, has died of cancer in Lethbridge, Alta., where he worked and taught until recently. He was 46.

Mr. Clark was born in Yorkshire in 1943 and studied at the Hull College of Art from 1961 until 1966. After being awarded a Fulbright travel scholarship, he completed a master's degree in fine arts at Indiana University in 1968.

For the next 10 years, Mr. Clark was a lecturer in painting at the Hull College of Art. He moved to Canada in 1978 to accept the position of co-coordinator of painting and drawing at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

After two years in England, he returned to Canada in 1986 to become professor of painting at the University of Lethbridge, a position he held at the time of his death.

Among the many institutions that invited Mr. Clark to lecture and work in residence was the Art Institute of Chicago, the Parsons School of Art in New York, Vancouver's Emily Carr College of Art, and Reading University in Britain.

Mr. Clark's work is in collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Alberta Art Foundation, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Cineplex Odeon Corp., the Toronto-Dominion Bank, and others in Britain and Canada.

A traveling retrospective of Mr. Clark's paintings, organized by Toronto independent curator Gregory Salzman for the Art Gallery of Windsor, concluded its six-month itinerary this summer. Exhibitions are also planned by museums in Canada and in Britain.

Mr. Clark leaves his wife, Pamela, and their two children, Alice, 18, and Joseph, 14.

The Globe and Mail, 22nd September, 1989.


Painting and teaching in two worlds: John Clark
by David Sweet

John Clark was a figurative painter who, though he trained and spent much of his working life in England, found only outside this country something approaching the recognition he deserved. In Canada, in what he rather cruelly sometimes called the cultural fourth division, he built a strong following among official curators and private patrons. His death in mid-career at the age of 46 will no doubt enhance the desirability of the pictures he leaves behind him, and his ghost, like that of many painters before him, will have to cope with the irony of the posthumous doubling of the prices of his work.

Here he was known by many, not so much through the medium of enthusiastic reviews, prizes won or work sold to the Tate, but on a more personal level. He will be remembered by the artists of his generation as someone who gained their respect and admiration, by his old students as an influential and effective teacher.

He taught for several years in Hull before taking up a post at Nova Scotia's College of Art and Design in 1978. Five years later he returned to Hull and stayed until 1986 as head or the college's painting school. It was in the British system, with its long practical hours in the studio, echoing the natural routines of a committed artist rather than the pluralist 'liberal arts' mosaic of North America, that his talents as a mentor were best utilized.

He passed on to his students his firm belief in painting as a dynamic and continually exciting activity ever open to originality yet underpinned by a secure discipline and inspired by the greatness of its past, not something outmoded or overtaken by newer art forms. But he also taught them to draw, which is a far more difficult task, educationally. He himself was a gifted draughtsman.

His painting style went through several developments, from direct studies of objects to using images from the interior realms of autobiography and imagination. Its strongest foundation remained his ability to draw expressively, and by drawing to create pictorial space, secure the boundary of form and build up volume, paying tribute to Cézanne.

He was on the Arts Council advisory panel for a couple of years — invited, he suspected, as a token provincial. And he was a provincial who suffered from the London-centredness of the art world, but whose work gained by his lack of metropolitan conceit what might have been lost in coterie success.

Manchester Guardian, 18th October 1989.


Clark's dark pictures of post-modern skies radiate integrity
by John Bentley Mays

After a brief fight with cancer, John Clark died last September. The Yorkshire born Canadian artist was 46, which is young by any yardstick, but especially young for a painter.

Clark was, indeed, a painter's painter, with half a life-time of devoted apprenticeship and respected professional work behind him, and the most productive and adventurous half still ahead of him, when the disease that would soon deprive him of the second half began to sap his strength.

What we have been left, then, is a fragment: a body of work consisting of experimental painting from Clark's beginnings in the 1970s, of the increasingly assured canvases done in the 1980s and, beyond that, only opinions about what he might have done had he lived to see old age.

The exhibition of 12 paintings and works on paper from John Clark's final period, now on view at the Wynick / Tuck Gallery (the artist's dealer since 1983), is sure to inspire speculations of this sort. It's already been loaded with rather funereal interpretations, as though this studious, straightforward English painter deliberately made his last somber pictures into meditations on impending death.

To my knowledge, he did nothing of the sort. These works are surely best understood as the last work-throughs of Clark's abiding concerns — with the relation between drawing and easel painting, for instance, and the issues of painterly figuration from Cézanne through Philip Guston, and with the English tradition of pastoral and atmospheric painting.

The three most striking pictures in this show effectively embody all these concerns. The Night and The Night (Yellow Moon), both from 1988, and the 1989 canvas entitled Above The City (1989) confirm Clark's mastery at working up paintings from drawings, but with no tightening-up of the brushy looseness that distinguishes modern drawing. There is strongly sustained energy in Clark's renderings of broad crescent moons, strange ropes of cloud and smoke hanging in those inky skies, the telecommunications mast — another of those emblems of language and contact Clark used from time to time — piercing the dark night.

These works also recall the sky paintings of Turner, if only because they represent our twentieth-century skies in ways exactly opposite to the Turneresque sublime.

For Clark, the skies are not radiant with the last sunshine, but dark; objects are not lit by the sun, but by mysterious sources inside the objects themselves — as though the sun had vanished, leaving only luminous, fading memories of its light, like phosphorescent watch dials. The sublimity of Turner's skies — symbolic of nature's grandeur and the glories of the infinite — is answered in Clark's paintings by inert darkness, a kind of opacity in the very air itself. Clark's nocturnes depict secular modernity's closed skies, from which no intervention is expected and no revelation anticipated. Looking skyward, we find darkness, not the route to transcendence — but in this very frustration, we can hear the clear call to take responsibility for what we are and what we have received on the untranscended plane we live and struggle on.

John Clark willingly accepted this responsibility — the task of rigorously understanding and renewing the traditions of modern painting, and reinterpreting them in the context of post-modern experience. In the two years before his untimely death, as we learn in this fine show, Clark was discharging that responsibility with the same integrity that had characterized his project in art from its beginning.

The Globe and Mail, 16th February 1990.


Text: © All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.