The Canadian Art Database
 

   
Roni Feinstein

Report From Toronto, part 1.
Canada's Art Capital: The Public Sector
[1994]
[The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Power Plant, The Art Gallery of York University, Oakville Galleries, The Art Gallery of Hamilton, The Art Gallery of Mississauga, The MacDonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph and The Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation.]

Art in America, Vol. 82 #7, July 1994.
[ 5,887 words ]


Despite its proximity to a number of major American cities — it is a mere one-hour flight from New York and Chicago, a two-hour drive from Buffalo, a three-hour drive from Detroit — Toronto has a wholly distinctive art scene, one surprisingly unfamiliar to most Americans. As the artistic capital of Canada (Montreal having lost this distinction as a result of French separatist policies in the 70s), Toronto has two major, active, publicly funded institutions, a few small but significant public galleries, one extraordinary private foundation, a diversified network of commercial galleries, a number of artist-run spaces and a host of interesting artists, the great majority of them unknown in the U.S.

This lively mix of public and private exhibition spaces is only about six years old. The seeds were planted in the early 70s when the Canadian government began to fund 'parallel' galleries. These noncommercial artist-run centres were originally devoted to the exhibition of experimental work by younger artists, many of whom were themselves supported by government grants. They ran parallel to a commercial gallery system then geared to the presentation of international art or of conservative painting and sculpture by established Canadian artists. By the early 80s, however, numerous commercial galleries devoted to advanced Canadian art appeared on the scene, showing artists who had begun their careers in the parallel galleries.

As collectors of contemporary Canadian art were few, the commercial system was largely dependent on sales to a few public institutions or to the Art Bank, a 'percent for art' program which purchases the work of living Canadian artists for government buildings. The rotating, three-person Art Bank jury, which consists of artists, has a reputation for buying 'difficult' work. The government also helped support the arts by offering tax breaks to corporations: the entire purchase price of a work by a living Canadian artist can be written off over a period of four or five years. Although few corporate collections can be described as truly adventurous, their purchases have bolstered the commercial gallery system.

The fact that the art scene was, in essence, legislated into existence has created problems. The Toronto art world remains distinct from that of the U.S. or Germany in that it is not sales-driven. Artists' reputations are based on exhibition histories and critical reception, not on sales or collecting, and even those with national stature cannot support themselves on the sale of their work.

Moreover, growth through government intervention abets the local belief that art of real consequence is created elsewhere. One finds in Canada, and in Toronto in particular (perhaps due to its nearness to New York), an inbred inferiority complex — a 'less-adept younger sibling syndrome,' as it was described to me by a leading figure. Canada lacks both the depth of European culture and the power and bounty of America, whose television, movies, fashions, household goods, food products, etc., permeate the whole of Canadian life. The American art world (like the American population) is 10 times the size of Canada's, which has resulted in a certain modesty of vision and withdrawal from competition (making the recent victories of Toronto's sports teams all the sweeter).

Until recently, although Toronto artists were keenly aware of developments in America and Europe, they engaged in a dialogue among themselves rather than with the world outside, and their art remained insular and peripheral. Those seeking to participate in a broader dialogue and to enter the mainstream left Canada. Among those achieving prominence after moving to New York are Agnes Martin, Jennifer Bolande, Moira Dryer, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Vikky Alexander, Jessica Stockholder, Jack Goldstein, Alan Belcher, Jackie Winsor, David Rabinowitch, Dorothea Rockburne, Ronald Bladen and Les Levine, to name just a few.

Critically lacking in Toronto was an institutional support structure that would foster an identity and a sense of history for contemporary artists, as well as an audience beyond artists and art-world professionals. It was not until the mid to late 80s that new institutions began to appear and existing institutions began to strengthen their commitments to advanced contemporary art, shaping the scene as it exists today. Before then, retrospectives of even the most significant artists were extremely rare in Toronto, meaning that for most people knowledge of artists' production remained fragmentary, based on occasional gallery showings. Lack of comprehensive solo exhibitions also meant the absence of catalogues that critically analyzed the work and put careers into perspective.

In 1985, the Art Gallery of Ontario became more adventurous in its collecting and began to mount retrospectives of prominent Toronto artists. The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre was founded in 1987, and in the following year the exhibition program of the Art Gallery at York University was infused with new vigor upon the arrival of a dynamic new director. These, plus a number of university and community galleries on the fringes of Toronto, have helped recover the history of contemporary art in the area by mounting one-person shows by significant artists.

Equally important is the fact that some institutions are committed to both Canadian and international contemporary art. They present international art to a Toronto audience and, by bringing in foreign artists, curators, critics and dealers, improve the exposure of Toronto artists. The most important has been the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, established as a private museum in 1988.

Today, more Toronto artists are exhibiting abroad than ever before. Significantly, they continue to live, work and exhibit in Toronto. Still, they lag behind 'the men from Vancouver and the women from Montreal' (in the local parlance). In the 70s, with his inclusion in MOMA's 'Information' show, the Vancouver artist Jeff Wall began to establish an international reputation. This reputation subsequently extended to a group of artists, including Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace and Stan Douglas, most of whom produce discursive photographic work, detached and ironic in tone, which is to a large degree endemic to Vancouver. In the mid-80s, René Blouin, an aggressive Montreal dealer with extensive international contacts, drew widespread attention to the sensual photo-installation work of Barbara Steinman and Genevieve Cadieux; this attention has more recently extended to the photographer Angela Grauerholz as well. In Toronto, where the art world is larger and more diverse, one does not find groups of artists with related sensibilities beginning to gain recognition; instead, one finds isolated individuals who display a variety of orientations and concerns.

Toronto's artists, along with the gallery world, will be examined in Part Two of this article. But first one must consider the institutions that have laid the foundations for the city's international emergence.


The Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is the only museum of any size in this city of four million people that displays and collects Western art from the 15th century to the present; its collection includes paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, films and videos. It is a major cultural centre and regularly offers film, concert and lecture series, and art and art-history classes. The AGO has been a venue for such travelling blockbusters as 'The Treasures of Tutankhamen' and is scheduled to host the Barnes Foundation exhibition in September 1994. Its own exhibitions often travel across Canada and particularly through Ontario (circulating exhibitions through the province is part of its mandate).

The AGO reopened in late January 1993 after having been closed for about seven months for the final phase of a major renovation and expansion project. Additions were designed by Los Angeles-based Barton Myers Architect, Inc., in joint venture with Myers's former associates at the Toronto firm of Kuwabara, Payne, McKenna, Blumberg. The $58-million project provided 30 new and 20 renovated galleries, representing a 60-percent increase in exhibition space. For the first time, the museum's extensive holdings of Inuit and international contemporary art were given permanent galleries. The project also added an indoor sculpture court, an outdoor sculpture terrace, a new library, expanded offices and technical facilities, a print and drawing study centre with spacious, state-of-the-art storage vaults, and a retail operation.

In a mid-70s expansion project the AGO was given a modernist façade — concrete, symmetrical, ribbon-fenestrated. The blocky structure, dark-tinted windows and 'moat' (a below-ground approach for school and tour buses, crossed by way of an entrance bridge), are said to have made the museum appear inaccessible. The AGO of the 1990s is inviting in appearance and postmodern in conception and design. The façade is of red brick and faintly tinted glass, with tawny-coloured limestone bands, stainless-steel roofs and steel accents painted gunmetal grey. The use of brick and limestone recalls the museum's Beaux-Arts appearance of the 1920s, an appropriate reference, as numerous galleries within the building were restored to that original style.

The interior layout is reflected in the new, asymmetrical façade. To the left, a futuristic steel tower and pyramid-roofed pavilion with a steel-and-glass canopy signal the main entrance; a vaulted gallery articulated by tower-like forms extends to the right. When finances permit, a narrower version of the entryway canopy will run the length of the facade.

In the mid-70s, there had been an attempt to unite the architectural styles of three generations of museum-building in a vast, homogenizing whole: beige scrim fabric was hung on gallery walls and drop ceilings obscured all pre-existing ornament. The recent renovation took the more current approach to gallery design in which the context is geared to the character and period of the work on display. In the galleries devoted to 15th to 19th-century European painting the walls are painted resonant hues (those in the Renaissance galleries are grey to simulate the stonework of churches) and completed with rugs and furniture. The effect is tasteful and striking, and the collection is shown to fine advantage.

The historicizing approach backfired, however, in the galleries devoted to historical Canadian art. Neutral rooms of uniform size were reconfigured into a maze of eccentrically subdivided spaces crammed full of pictures. Vivid, attention-grabbing wall colours and 'period details' now distract from the art on display. Compounding the difficulty of viewing art in these galleries is the overuse of signage and educational 'enhancements' (i.e., computer terminals equipped with touch-choice programs and telephones offering taped information). Since the AGO's Canadian collection is said to be the strongest in all of Canada, the museum has missed an opportunity to present the best of Canadian art in a way that would aid its recognition in histories of world art.

Historical and contemporary Canadian art and Inuit art make up roughly half the AGO's collection. The work of Henry Moore makes another sizable portion. During the early 70s, Moore, appreciative of the AGO's support for a sculpture he designed to stand in front of Toronto's new City Hall, offered the museum a collection, with the understanding that a building would be constructed for it. (The gift was solicited by museum board members and curator Alan Wilkinson, who recognized that funding for the 1970s expansion would be more likely if an artist of Moore's stature and appeal gave his sanction — and lent an additional level of interest — to the museum.) The Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, one of the few elements of that expansion project to remain intact, houses the world's largest public collection of works by Moore: 139 bronzes and original plasters, 94 drawings and almost 700 prints. Moore's work became a kind of focus for the museum's collecting. Art by his contemporaries in Britain is well represented. Surrealism is one of the strengths of the collection of early 20th-century art, with high-quality works by Tanguy, Miro, Giacometti, Matta, Gorky and others having been acquired through a series of well-timed purchases.

For the most part, however, due to an acquisition fund that remains minuscule for an institution of its size, the AGO's European and early 20th-century collections were formed through gifts and bequests. The collecting pattern in Toronto — rather than the history of art — is represented in Florentine bronzes, 17th-century Dutch painting, late 18th-century British painting and French Impressionist landscapes.

The newly constructed second-floor galleries that house international contemporary art are handsome and spacious, with high ceilings (some with barrel-vaults and skylights) and polished wooden floors. Although the AGO's early 20th-century collection is spotty and uneven, the holdings of postwar painting and sculpture are impressive and recount in some detail the history of recent art, beginning in 1960 with the New York School and tracing the path from Abstract Expressionism to Earthworks. Fine examples of work by Kline, Oldenburg, Warhol, Segal, Louis, Kelly, Close, André, Flavin, LeWitt, Judd, Serra, Smithson and Winsor, among others, serve as markers. Almost all of the art from the late 70s to the present is European, with an emphasis on German and Italian art. Beuys, Haacke, Kiefer, Kounellis, Pistoletto, Gerhard Merz, Mario Merz, Richter, Rebecca Horn and other major artists are represented, often by multiple examples, many of which are of monumental scale. Recent American works in the collection are by Cindy Sherman, Nancy Spero and Jenny Holzer.

The vast majority of this work was acquired under the direction of Roald Nasgaard, who for many years served both as chief curator and curator of international contemporary art. Nasgaard, who developed strong international contacts for the museum, was responsible for such noteworthy exhibitions as the 1988 Gerhard Richter retrospective, co-curated with Michael Danoff of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (it also showed at the Hirshhorn and San Francisco's Museum of Modem Art).

As would be expected, the AGO's collection of contemporary Canadian art gets a generous amount of space. Although most artists represented are unknown to non-Canadian observers, the 'I never knew he / she was Canadian' response is also evoked. Among the more familiar artists are Jack Bush, Alex Colville, General Idea, Michael Snow, Jeff Wall, and New York-based David Rabinowitch, Jack Goldstein and Les Levine.

Philip Monk, who came to the museum as curator of contemporary Canadian art in 1985, has shifted the conservative, painting-focused collection toward sculpture, installations and photo work. Since the mid-80s, Monk has curated a series of exhibitions reviewing the careers (or aspects of them) of such Toronto artists as Ian Carr-Harris, Liz Magor, Paterson Ewen, Shirley Wiitasalo, the team of Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak, and Robin Collyer, most of whom had never before had a major exhibition, book or catalogue devoted to their work. The 1988 examination of Ian Carr-Harris's work of 1971-78, for example, studied the moment in his career that helped spearhead Toronto's transition from Minimalism to Conceptualism. The influence of his early works, in which tables were used as sites for photo-text pieces, continues to be felt today in Toronto's art-and-language orientation. Other exhibitions initiated in the mid-80s have showcased younger artists such as Robert Wiens, Will Gorlitz, Stan Douglas, Fastwürms, Micah Lexier, Lani Maestro and Barbara Steinman.

Shortly before the reopening of the renovated museum, the departments of international contemporary art and Canadian contemporary art were united under Monk's direction. Nasgaard was subsequently fired (provoking much protest from the art community) and Matthew Teitelbaum, a Toronto native who had worked for four years as curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, was hired as the new chief curator. These were but a fraction of the multitude of changes that began at the museum in 1991, initially driven by the refusal of Ontario's newly elected New Democratic Party to increase the AGO's base funding to the level that had been agreed upon by the previous provincial government. The museum was left with a $4.5-million deficit, its first in 91 years.

Director Glen Lowery, who had come to the museum a few months earlier from his position as curator of Near-Eastern art for the Sackler and Freer Galleries at the Smithsonian, closed the museum's doors to the public for seven months and dismissed 240 people from the staff. Seven curatorial areas were reduced to three, and long-planned exhibitions were cancelled. Lowery, who apparently thrives on adversity, seized the opportunity to mold the museum to his vision, centring the control of its operations in his office. He hopes to get AGO 'on the map,' to make it count among the major museums of North America. In hiring a chief curator who is focused in the contemporary area, Lowery reveals that he is aware of both the strength and potential of the AGO's contemporary collections.

A retrospective of Toronto artist Michael Snow, co-organized by the AGO and the Power Plant, opened at both institutions in March 1994. Snow, who lived and worked in New York from 1962 to 1972, is today best known in the U.S. for his films. His artistic production, however, includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, holograms, films, videos and music recordings, and his reputation in Canada, Europe and Japan acknowledges that diversity. Still, the retrospective (planned long before Lowery's arrival) is not scheduled to travel outside of Ontario. This quite literal provincialism is a manifestation of the modesty of vision that characterizes the Toronto art scene. Circulating the exhibition would have extended knowledge of a major Toronto talent and helped to put Toronto's public institutions 'on the map'.


The Power Plant

The Power Plant is already on the map. A non-collecting gallery of contemporary art, it is one of the leading institutions of its kind in Canada. Located at Harbourfront Centre, a 92-acre stretch of lakefront property redeveloped by the Canadian government as a site for housing, recreation and the arts, it began life in 1980 as the Harbourfront Art Gallery, a small exhibition space devoted to art, craft and design. In 1987, the gallery moved across the plaza into the former power plant for the warehouse of the once-active working harbour, and was rechristened the Power Plant and endowed with a more ambitious mandate.

Peter Smith, of the Toronto firm Lett / Smith Architects, was responsible for transforming the heating and refrigeration facility into an exhibition space. Preserving the industrial character of the building, Smith restored the towering red brick smokestack and exterior, as well as the broad windows that open onto water views (but are often blocked from the inside during exhibitions). The former coal bin serves as a central corridor, called the Fleck Clerestory, this 42-foot-high, 12-foot-wide glass-roofed passage poses a considerable challenge to the display of art works. Other spaces, however, are infinitely adjustable, as is necessary for a facility that exhibits installation art. To promote flexibility, Smith adapted features of stage design to the galleries, among them movable walls, adjustable lighting grids and floors that are raised like a stage to make provision for power, water and air ducts.

The Power Plant is committed to exhibiting the work of Toronto artists, especially those advanced in their careers who have not yet received deserved attention. Given that until the late 80s few Canadian institutions mounted mid-career retrospectives, the vast majority of Toronto artists fall into this 'neglected' category. Because the building is small, with just 3,000 square feet of exhibition space, shows tend to focus on a particular body of work or a single installation piece. Catalogues, however, are generally quite ambitious; they tend to establish a critical framework for the artist's whole career.

In 1993 the Power Plant presented a six-year retrospective of AIDS-related projects by General Idea, the internationally known Toronto art collective consisting of AA Bronson, Jorgé Zontal and Felix Partz. The exhibition was organized by the Württembergischer Künstverein, Stüttgart. The trio had come together in Toronto in 1968 and, reacting against the conservatism and insularity of the art scene at the time, had invented a fictional international, commodity-driven art culture within which they assumed the persona of an artist in corporate form. At the same time, however, General Idea began to alter the real Toronto art world by means of artist-run galleries and magazines (among them the well-known FILE Megazine) and the founding in 1974 of Art Metropole, a publicly subsidized archive and distribution centre for artists' video tapes, books and multiples.

During the late 80s, while two members of the collective were living in New York, General Idea set about producing and distributing worldwide an 'imagevirus' — an AIDS logo which appropriated the colour scheme and design of Robert Indiana's famous LOVE emblem of the 1960s. As was well documented in the retrospective, the logo was disseminated as paintings in museums, as public sculpture, as billboards and subway posters.

Among the most striking works in the Power Plant exhibition were One Day of AZT and One Year of AZT, installed together in the Fleck Clerestory. Some 1,825 enlarged, blue-and-white plastic facsimiles of AZT capsules (the drug most commonly used in the treatment of AIDS) were set in orderly rows in groups of five, lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Five giant capsules, fabricated in fiberglass, were set on the floor, obstructing passage through the corridor. Although the horrifying reality of the day-to-day burden of ingesting and putting one's faith in a costly and highly toxic drug was immediately apparent, the viewer was seduced by the orderliness of the design and by the clear, white light that bounced off the capsules and bathed the space in a heavenly glow. Like Fin de siecle, an installation in which three white seal pups were isolated on an Arctic ice floe, the AZT works challenge the viewer's sustained attention and ability to identify with people with AIDS (General Idea's Zontal recently died of AIDS).

Also in 1993, a mini-retrospective of the work of David Buchan was presented. In the 70s Buchan was at the forefront of Toronto artists doing performances, videos and photo-text pieces that commented on the mass media and popular culture. The show consisted largely of sardonic photographs of the artist in various guises through which he confronted the fraudulence of identities put forward in advertising. Shown at the same time was a two-part allegorical installation by the Toronto artist and writer Eldon Garnet. In a darkened gallery three large steel-framed photographs — of a heap of butterfly wings, a mound of ashes and a pile of teeth — were hung on separate walls. On the floor, in a tree shape, Garnet arranged charred fragments of a large tree. Outside the museum, on a patch of grass, were the tarred, massive roots of an unearthed tree. This piece, titled When?, invoked loss and decay — physical as well as environmental — with an elegaic note.

Among the non-Canadian artists shown during the past two years are Mike and Doug Starn, Mark Luytens, Ilya Kabakov, Tony Cragg, Rosemarie Trockel, Günter Förg, Clegg and Guttmann, Anish Kapoor and Ann Hamilton. Although these exhibitions have tended to originate elsewhere, curator Louise Dompierre (who is also the Power Plant's assistant director) organized Hamilton's exhibition and intends to have more such shows generated in-house. She curated the exhibition of works by the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura currently on view [through Sept. 5] and invited Jessica Bradley to guest curate a Kiki Smith show for November. Dompierre also hopes to present more thematic exhibitions which demonstrate the shared concerns of Canadian and international artists.

During the six years of its existence, the Power Plant has played an important role by drawing international attention to Toronto. Now, although foreign institutions have begun expressing interest in its exhibitions of Canadian artists, budgetary constraints are forcing it to operate with less funding than it had when it opened in 1987, and no staff or resources are available for organizing touring shows.


The Art Gallery of York University

By means of ambition, the tireless pursuit of grants and certain benefits of university affiliation, the Art Gallery of York University — a small, physically undistinguished exhibition space about 30 minutes by car from downtown Toronto — has in recent years managed not only to mount but also to tour some remarkable exhibitions, often with impressive catalogues. Its success is unquestionably due to Loretta Yarlow, director and curator since 1988. The U.S. born Yarlow owned and operated the Yarlow-Salzman Gallery, a Toronto commercial space, from 1974 to 1984, where she exhibited the work of Cragg, Kounellis, Penck and such Canadian artists as Greg Curnoe and Carol Wainio. Yarlow brought her international focus and discerning eye with her to AGYU, resulting in such exhibitions as Meeting Place of 1990, which demonstrated the compatibility of installation works by Canadian Liz Magor, American Robert Gober and Spaniard Juan Muñoz.

In 1991 Yarlow organized a national conference on curating, which brought to Toronto Michael Auping, then chief curator of the Albright-Knox in nearby Buffalo, Pier-Luigi Tazzi, one of the curators of Documenta IX, and Adelina von Furstenberg, director of Le Magasin, a public gallery in Grenoble, among others. An exhibition of the work of Montreal artist Tony Brown was then on display in the gallery. Impressed, von Furstenberg brought the show to Grenoble in 1993; it was the AGYU's first exhibition to travel abroad. The second, also in 1993, paired paintings by the Dutch artist Rend Daniels and Toronto artist Shirley Wiitasalo; it was organized for the AGYU by Ulrich Loock, director of the Bern Kunsthalle. After stops in Canada, the exhibition travelled to Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld. Wiitasalo's portion appeared at the Bern Kunsthalle and Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam. Her brushy, colour-drenched paintings, which employ doubling, reflections and other devices to expose pictorial deceptions, have been highly visible on the Toronto art scene since the early 70s; the AGYU show propelled her international emergence.

In the fall of 1993, the AGYU presented a version of Toronto artist Vera Frenkel's From the Transit Bar, a video installation in the form of a piano bar (selling actual drinks) that was included in Documenta IX in 1992. On monitors distributed around the bar in Kassel, Canadian immigrants told their life stories. Frenkel's family had fled from the Nazis in Eastern Europe to Canada when she was a small child; the immigrants on the tapes spoke Yiddish or Polish, the first languages of her parents and grandparents, with subtitle translations in French, German and English. Profits from the bar went to a refugee centre in Kassel, thereby calling up the parallel between recent and earlier waves of violence against the 'Auslander' in Germany.

In the Youm in New York in 1995. Although Frenkel has been known in Canada for her videos and multi-media work for over 20 years (she has been a professor of visual art at York University since 1972), the catalogue for the AGYU exhibition provided the first comprehensive analysis of her work.

In December 1993 the gallery presented a solo exhibition of the French sculptor Jean-Marc Bustamante, co-organized with the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. This collaboration with an American university gallery, new for the AGYU, was followed in January 1994 by an exhibition of Iranian-born British sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary organized with the University of Massachusetts Art Gallery. In April the work of the Dutch painter Marlene Dumas was presented in cooperation with the van Abbemuseum of Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and the Goldie Paley Gallery at Philadelphia's Moore College of Art and Design. The collaboration will soon go beyond merely sharing shipping and publication costs for international exhibitions: in September 1994 the Renaissance Society will present the AGYU's exhibition of the work of Vancouver artist Rodney Graham. With the lines of communication open, an exchange of exhibitions involving Toronto artists might well follow.


Other Public Venues

Although the Art Gallery of York University has been the most active with regard to opening up a dialogue between Toronto and foreign centres, a number of other public galleries, each less than an hour's drive from downtown Toronto, have made distinctive contributions during the past few years. These institutions, which not only exhibit but collect contemporary art, include the Oakville Galleries, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph. Although all have existed for years, most have only recently shifted their programs from a suburban-community orientation to a focus on advanced contemporary art.

Late in 1989, for example, the Oakville Galleries, located in a town west of Toronto along the lake, hired Steve Pozel (now director of the Power Plant) as chief administer, and charged him with presenting significant contemporary art. Francine Perinet assumed directorship in 1992 and expanded the program to include influential early work by major Canadian artists, as well as a range of international art. In the summer and fall of 1993, two consecutive duo shows featured the multi-layered photographic work of New Yorker Bill Barrette and London (Ontario) artist Wyn Geleynse (with a catalogue essay by New York critic John Yau); and the furnishings-referencing work of Chicago artist Mary Brogger and Toronto artist Susan Schelle. New work by Vancouver artist Ken Lum will be on view Sept. 17 — Nov. 13, before travelling to Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York.

In the fall of 1993, the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre collaborated with the Centre d'Art Contemporain (CREDAC), Ivry-sur-Seine, France, on an exhibition of the work of Christine Davis, a young Canadian artist now residing in Toronto, who had, for a decade, lived half of each year in Paris. (The exhibition appeared at the Indianapolis Museum of Art early this year.) Davis produces allegorical installations and photo-based works that investigate the body, sight, knowledge and power. In the wall-size black-and-white photographic polyptych Eclipse (1993), the image of Davis's bare feet standing on a dictionary of mathematics forms the two central panels. These are flanked by photographs of a solar eclipse, irradiating images that suggest eyes and female genitals: the photos of the sun are enclosed by images of Davis's parted thighs.

Davis used a colour image of the same solar eclipse on a cover of Public (volume 7, 1993), for which she was editor. Public, produced by the Public Access Collective, is one of the most handsome and specialized of the art periodicals printed in Toronto. Published only once or twice a year and sponsored by government funds, it is distributed around the world. Among other publications receiving government support are Montreal's Parachute and Toronto's Canadian Art, C Magazine and M5V, which recently developed out of the defunct Impulse. Of these, Canadian Art aims at the broadest audience.


The Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation

Although Toronto's galleries and periodicals have played important roles in extending knowledge of the city's art, none have had the impact of the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation. Ydessa Hendeles operated a commercial gallery devoted to contemporary Canadian art from 1980 to 1988. (1)  Although the Ydessa Gallery was a respected and influential venue, it had only a handful of steady customers — the three or four curators responsible for purchases at public institutions. Frustrated by lack of sales and lack of recognition beyond Canada's borders, Hendeles decided to use her personal resources, derived from her father's real-estate development company, to embark on a personal project with public ramifications: to open a private museum of contemporary international art in which she would curate all the exhibitions from her own collections.

To this end, she purchased a two-storey, late 40s manufacturing building in Toronto's garment district (a sign reading 'Uniforms Registered Co.' still appears on the facade). She hired Peter Smith, the architect who converted the Power Plant, to create an interior in which all details that might distract the viewer's attention from the art (door frames, baseboards, electrical outlets) were eliminated. The scheme — concrete floors, white walls, sandblasted windows — is minimal, elegant and meticulously crafted. Jenny Holzer's aphorism-incised granite benches provide seating in the entrance foyer, a wall text by Lawrence Weiner is installed in the stairwell. The gallery space, 12,000 square feet on two floors, is reconfigurated for each show. When the Foundation was established, Hendeles's personal collection included little non-Canadian art. Specifically for exhibition purposes she began to buy in depth the work of American and European artists about whom she felt strongly. Initially, several solo shows often filled the building at once, opening and closing on different timetables; since May 1991 exhibitions have been synchronized, on a 10-month schedule.

Hendeles has said, 'I am a collector who curates...I am not inherently a hoarder, obsessively acquiring the latest things. I have given myself a job and am very focussed on doing it.' (2)  Her 'job', as she describes it, is twofold: to 'create a place where I can offer a visual art experience of the highest standard, comparable to any place in the world, and build an in-depth, serious collection of what I think are works of consequence.' (3)  In her estimation, 'works of consequence' are those that express artists' struggles to come to terms with self and the society in which they live. She believes that the making of art is directly attached to trauma, healing and the urge for resolution, and she patronizes those artists who, she feels, live examined lives and whose works display psychological vulnerabilities.

That the work Hendeles exhibits is often intensely personal in nature is nowhere better seen than in the installation piece created by Christian Boltanski for his 11-work solo exhibition which inaugurated the Foundation in November 1988. Thousands of pieces of old clothing were densely layered upon the walls of a small, two-storey, skylit gallery, filling the space with an intense odor and producing in viewers a disquieting sensation of closeness and confinement. The title, Canada, comes from the name Auschwitz prisoners gave the store-barracks that held the clothing stripped from them upon their arrival. Hendeles's mother remembers this place well, as she was one of the inmates who sorted the clothing.

Boltanski's exhibition was followed by solos by Thomas Ruff, Lawrence Weiner, Giulio Paolini, Craigie Horsfield and Bruce Nauman, and two shows each from Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois. Particularly noteworthy for having offered new perspectives on the artists' work were the 1991 show of more than 100 Diane Arbus photographs, which for the first time traced her development chronologically, and the Hanne Darboven exhibition of the same year, which was her first retrospective since a 1971 offering at the Munich Landesmuseum. The Darboven show covered 1979-89 with nine works, several of which had never been seen outside of Europe; it opened with the world premiere of the artist's first Symphony for Chamber Orchestra, performed by a Canadian collective. From May 1993 to March 1994, the Foundation presented an untitled group exhibition that brought together 130 vintage collotypes from Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion series of 1872-87 with film or video projects (two each) by Gary Hill, Bill Viola and James Coleman, and a sculpture by Giulio Paolini.

The strength of these exhibitions, and of the growing collection, has drawn worldwide attention to Toronto, as was Hendeles's intent. Thus far, the only Canadian artist featured solo is Jeff Wall (in 1990), who is perhaps the Canadian artist of greatest reputation abroad. One wonders whether a second part of Hendeles's plan might be to integrate Canadian artists producing works 'of consequence' and 'of the highest standard' into her exhibitions. Her in-depth purchases of works by certain Canadian artists hold this promise.


Art in America, Vol. 82 #7, July 1994.


Text: © Roni Feinstein. All rights reserved.

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