The Canadian Art Database
 

   
Ted Fraser

Kenneth Lochhead: Garden of Light
The MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan,
January 29-May 23, 2005

from the catalogue [Part Two]
[ 30,938 words ]
page 2

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In his 'wandering notes' from the 1990s, he writes again about colour, making an aside to Barnes's treatise, The Art in Painting, which he and Art McKay had studied at the Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania:

In the past I have felt that drawing as a preliminary step to painting often led to simply coloured drawing, and that colour, shape and mass must be grasped and dealt with first, before one broke down the area to smaller shapes and accentuated details. Matisse and other greats accomplished this difficult process, so important to making of strong expressive wholeness of colour, light, line and space.

Although he was simplifying form, colour, and line in the stem-paintings, he was cognizant of size and shape and fascinated by chance effects, recognizing that formalism depended on literal surface, material, and edge. However, Lochhead never considered turning his back on his own past, since such a course was counter-productive; he would not forsake the achievement of his previous pictures, which to this day inspire him. As a metaphor, he saw his work as a tree rooted in the soil of a particular place. He experimented with new ideas and techniques, and deemed Saskatchewan an industrious province whose government upheld the pursuit of knowledge and truth. He thought that he could achieve his aim by inviting international visitors to Saskatchewan, and felt that the creative drive to make art was the product of doing rather than thinking. And the ease with which he grasped new ideas should not obscure the garden imagery recurring in his art. Contrary to the faith of ideological formalism, progress was an illusion and art was not formulaic, but an expression of being in the world. Thus he values identity conferred by family, community, and place, a connectedness that emerges as a real strength. When faced with decisions, he returns to this axiom, this principle, that art is part of life and derives meaning from an existence well lived.

After 1962, Gerald Findley and Lochhead made several visits to New York, again with the help of Robert Murray and Greenberg. He writes to his friend Murray on October 12, 1962:

A short note to let you know that I plan to arrive in New York on October 21st via T.C.A. When I check into an hotel, late that afternoon, I will try and get in touch with you by phone. I have already written to Greenberg about this and that I will stay in New York for October 22nd and 23rd, leaving for Montreal the morning of the 24th. I will have two full days in New York.

I would certainly like to see you and Diana. Also I would like to meet Newman if this is possible. Naturally I also plan to see the big show.

Murray's new work impressed him. He saw several cylindrical broken column sculptures and preparatory works on paper executed in blackboard paint diluted with mineral spirits. (21) Meeting Newman and Tony Smith in 1962, and later, on a trip to David Smith's studio at Bolton Landing in 1964, he saw that he himself must attempt large-scale abstraction. The stimulus for the large series of totemic works on paper in 1963, executed at his now vacant Balgonie house, can be traced to the first New York visit. These serial works of art allowed colour to flare into wet areas and bleed, introducing chance and excitement.

Lochhead told Robert Murray on October 31, 1962: 'I am very indebted to you for the opportunity to meet Newman. I will most assuredly not forget that evening we spent at Newman's studio and, later on, when I had an opportunity to stretch a Newman canvas by hand.' And he also corresponded that same day with Newman:

I would like to thank you for your very kind hospitality during my visit to New York last week. To have an opportunity to meet you and to see you in your studio was indeed a great highlight for me in my life as a painter. I must say that I find it very difficult to express in words the high regard I have for you and your work. Let it suffice that you have made it possible for me to experience a new dimension in man and his art, and for this I am truly grateful.

He had travelled on to Montreal to see Guido Molinari again and told Newman, 'I believe he can survive in Montreal only if he continues to make contact with New York. I should add that the same goes for us out here.' Lochhead persuaded the Quebec painter to participate in the 1962 Greenberg Emma Lake workshop.

Referring to the stem-paintings, Clement Greenberg called Lochhead 'an original' in a review for Canadian Art magazine published in March, 1963. Unfortunately, the critic dismissed many painters. Greenberg must have realized that a firestorm would result. R.L. Bloore was demeaned, so was Tony Tascona in Winnipeg. Greenberg's views have haunted the careers of many painters including Lochhead, dividing artists into ideological camps. Bemused or outraged, valuing their past, these artists charted their own course. Many never asked for a 'mainstream' critique, although Lochhead did: 'He wasn't unfair to me. He was honest, and really helped me when I asked for his opinions. Sure, crits are hard to take sometimes, but we need informed judgment on our efforts. There are so few good critics.' (22) Returning from Greece in 1963, Bloore took revenge, cancelling a much-anticipated Hans Hofmann exhibition that Greenberg had arranged for the Regina gallery. An overreaction? (23) 

But it should be kept in mind that if a Canadian artist wanted to see modern American art outside the National Gallery of Canada or the Art Gallery of Toronto, a trip out of the country was required. In his Canadian Art article of September/October, 1964, 'Emma Lake Artist's Workshop: An Appreciation,' Arthur McKay expresses similar concern. Having moved in 1964 to the University of Manitoba, Lochhead continued to feel isolated and his frustration boiled over:

I would venture to say that there are no more than two or three major American Contemporary Works in Canada. One is in Regina, an Olitski, and I think that the Toronto Art Gallery have a Rothko. Oh yes, the David Mirvish Gallery had to buy several Nolands to get them into Canada for sale. I doubt that he has sold one so far. The point that I am making is that we in this country have been too National-minded in art, and have missed out on a few provincial developments, and of course the international scene. Until we open up to the world scene, our artists' works will be unexportable, with one or two exceptions, our people will be misled in terms of quality, and will unavoidably settle for less. You will agree, I'm sure, they deserve more than what they get in Toronto, and Montreal, for example. (24) 

Earlier in his mission he had been successful. The acting curator of the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery, Gerald Finley, together with Lochhead, contracted Greenberg to organize Three New American Painters featuring Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, for the winter of 1963. Bloore was on sabbatical, out of the picture. Jules Olitksi's colour-field central image canvas, Ino Delight (1962), which was acquired for the permanent collection for a mere $1600, served as a beacon of excellence. Greenberg wrote to Lochhead on January 26, 1963, hoping that Regina would purchase a sculpture by David Smith:

David Smith has told me he's willing to do an 18-feet piece for the SPC [Saskatchewan Power Corporation] building at cost — because it's a socialist enterprise! Don't say anything about this yet. I'm having lunch with him this Thursday to show him the plan and elevation and discuss the problems involved. He doesn't want to submit drawings, but would rather just go ahead & do the piece on speculation without charging the SPC a cent if they don't accept it. Knowing David, I know that he means it.

He adds, on February 4, 1963:

The price would be the cost of materials plus expenses, and nothing more, with the S.P.C. to pay for transportation. Should the S.P.C. find none of the three pieces suitable, it would be charged nothing, and Smith would assume entire responsibility for all costs and expenses incurred in their making. All the S.P.C. would have to pay for is their travel to Bolton Landing to look at the pieces, and their accommodation while there...

With the selection committee, Lochhead drove from Montreal to Bolton Landing and selected Voltri 1 (1962), one of the many sculptures on the hillside in front of the studio glistening in the sun. Because Smith believed in socialized power, he made a generous offer. Ken Lochhead updated Greenberg on June 27, 1963:

David Smith said that he would let us have one of his most recent stainless steel works for approximately $15,000, which is a little under half the price that he would normally charge for a dealer. I consider this to be a real buy for the Corporation, if they are sharp enough to take it.

I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will not pass this opportunity up and that Canada will have acquired its first major piece of sculpture — that of Smith's.

However, with a Saskatchewan election pending, the commission could not be finalized by the New Democratic Party, and Voltri 1 was acquired by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. Today, the sculpture would be worth more than one-and-a-half million dollars. Lochhead was also planning a film on the siting of the sculpture: 'I arranged with film maker Bob Howard of the Saskatchewan Film Board to do a documentary on this world-leading sculptor if they bought a sculpture. The N.D.P. lost the election, and the liberals won. Ross Thatcher, the new premier, turned down the purchase — What a loss.' (25)

Lochhead toiled fall and early winter, eschewing rigid masonite, to which he had fitted images, and now using adjustable rolls of cotton duck canvas. He abandoned textural enamel paint for the new transparency of waterbased acrylic, first poured and then applied with the scraper-blade, permeating the canvas surface. He won the respect and friendship of Greenberg. The radiant colour and light of painting displayed in Regina in Three New American Painters helped him emerge as a Canadian artist of the 1960s. Through colour he became a modernist. He had never painted to formula, but a serial format suited his formalist experimentation.

Smith's cubist sculptures on the Vermont hillside of Bolton Landing encouraged him to improvise with structure. A surrealist who was drawn to metaphor, Smith was also interested in polychrome. Silhouetted against the changing landscape, Smith's totemic, assembled, welded steel sculptures corresponded to the figures in Lochhead's surrealist canvases of the 1950s. So the Canadian artist was inspired by this powerful dream imagery. Modernism need not annihilate the past. Here was a path to follow if first-hand experience was to drive the visual artist.

He wrote to his brother Douglas on January 7, 1963 about Greenberg's upcoming five-day visit in conjunction with the opening of Three New American Painters, and then on January 16 to Av Isaacs, his Toronto dealer, about the new paintings:

I have had the tendency to branch out in several directions within a short period of time since the figures in landscape period. Greenberg feels that I should 'get my message and stick with it,' and he's right about that. As you know, my latest work is simplified form with colour, and I've got a hold of something for sure. I feel it! I am going to take this seriously, so I'd better not get 'this and that' on display if I'm going for broke.

I am very happy I have caught on to the seriousness of the business of being earnest about one direction at this stage in my life, since I believe I can look ahead to a more meaningful variety within it!

On his return to New York, Greenberg wrote to Lochhead on January 26, 1963, mentioning Pink Centre (1962-63):

Are you painting? If anything ever showed an artist his destined path, those small enamels of yours did, and that big painting in pink and yellow on muslin did. What you in particular have to impress on yourself most is that you're not a virtuoso and that painting is not an instrument like a piano on which one performs, but the means by which a vision is established and explored. What you see and what you are, are far more important than any number of successfully executed pictures. I say this because I was impressed, this last time, by how well you can do anything you want to do. That can be a trap, as you know. And when that trap is present, the thing one has to watch out for is tameness: the inclination to do what succeeds immediately. If any one has to insist on his own temperament and his own idiosyncrasies, it's you — in defiance of the whole world. To hell with what you admire in other painters.

And on March 10, 1963:

Gerald writes that you've begun to paint a lot and in the direction more or less of your small enamels. That sounds exciting. You have no idea of how much I'm betting on Saskatchewan as NY's only competitor. When I tell that to people around here there's general amazement — as you might expect — but there's also a willingness to allow for my being right — which is even more amazing to me.

It's with very mixed feelings that I have to tell you that it looks impossible at this point to think of coming to Regina next fall.

Lochhead responded on March 13, 1963:

My painting is going very well for me at the moment. I have completed what I consider to be four successful works, and I believe they reveal my taking my own message seriously. I have taken some slides of these and, after a while, would like to send them to you to keep you up to date.

We are all anxiously waiting to read the latest Canadian Art with its feature article. Your faith in Saskatchewan is certainly a great encouraging factor for those of us in this area. Given time, I hope you will begin to see some of the proof of your contribution through the work of those who benefited by your criticism. I, for one, can't tell you enough how your criticism has helped me. Taking that message seriously is all I needed to make my way.

On May 8, 1963, Greenberg broached the idea of having Lochhead and McKay participate in the exhibition Post Painterly Abstraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to open April 22, 1964: 'The slides you sent me look damned good (exciting in fact), which is all the more reason why I'm sorry that this answer is so late — though the five other paintings look stronger to me than Blue Extension.' He was beginning to feel the firestorm against his article in Canadian Art and the mounting criticism of his influence with respect to Emma Lake. The same day, he suggested a compromise with Canadian Jack Bush as workshop head:

I think that you could do a good deal of arguing with the Council to demonstrate just why you people in Saskatchewan consciously and knowingly choose to have your seminar-leaders come from NY at this particular time; and I also think you could convince them that it was not because of any personal or local infatuation with American art, given that you could find so many people in France & Italy, let alone England, to agree with you in your present course. Of course, having Bush come from Toronto would be a happy compromise; the Canada Council doesn't have to know that he spurns Toronto art and is essentially a New Yorker of the New Yorkers when it comes to painting. But it would be a shame if the prejudice against the US kept you from having the benefit of such a superb teacher as well as Olitski at Emma Lake... Oh well, I'm sure you'll manage to work things out in the end.

Lochhead countered by enthusing over the Los Angeles show on May 14, 1963:

I want to thank you very much for your remarks about the New York orientation at Emma Lake. I am not in the least concerned about it since we do not have to rely on Canada Council support for future workshops. Whatever feelings they have at the moment about this will change as I am confident that we are on the right track as any other group in the country. I feel this is our only hope in Canadian art to keep in touch with the New York art world. I feel that Jack Bush should make a great contribution at one of our future Workshops.

I will get all the details about the After Abstract Expressionism exhibition when Art returns this week. This is the biggest thing yet, and quite frankly, it will move me to get down to work. I want like anything to be included in this show and will send you a complete slide coverage of my work between now and the time for decision. This is strictly big league and I feel it is high time that I think and feel at this level. I will take the liberty to send you slides of my work from time to time. All this is a real encouragement to me and I hope that I will not flag behind.

Lochhead contributed Pink Centre, Yellow Centre, and Dark Green Centre to the Los Angeles show, his inspired response to the Greenberg workshop of August 1962 and evidence of the fermenting interaction between the two men. The survey illustrates the critic's view that the subjectivity of abstract expressionism had muddied contemporary painting and diverted attention from the progress that colour painting through abstraction had made in the twentieth century. In New York, the centre for advanced painting, pop and minimal art were avant-garde movements rooted in the impurity of the social and political world, challenging the idealism of colour-field formalism that looked to the esoteric history of high art for validation.

For the exhibition Post Painterly Abstraction, Greenberg's selection of artists was broadened to include West Coast painters, yet eliminated one of the most important, minimalist Robert Irwin. Lochhead's paintings were innocently involved in a much larger political art-world struggle between New York and Los Angeles, between the mythic mainstreams of America. Meanwhile great art was being made in the heartland throughout America and Canada. A disappointment, the show travelled only to the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis and to the Art Gallery of Toronto. The Toronto institution purchased Dark Green Centre, a centrepiece in Lochhead's career. In the academic critical debate over Greenberg's legacy, the shadow of his influence across the face of Regina's visual arts has diminished the allure of this breakthrough picture, an icon in Canadian painting. In his 1997 essay for Arthur F. McKay: A Critical Retrospective, David Howard details the response and impact of Post Painterly Abstraction. Pop and Minimal Art had established their ascendancy. At the XXXII Venice Biennale, Robert Rauschenberg, rather than Kenneth Noland, took the Grand Prize. Further, Frank Stella' s minimalist black paintings entered the tactile space of the viewer, beyond the hegemonic visual image.

Greenberg offered a grudging critique of Lochhead's paintings in the Los Angeles exhibition on April 29, 1964:

Your two larger paintings stood up well, but I discovered a weakness in them as well as in the smaller picture 'Pink Centre.' The square shape of the canvas didn't quite go with the contents in all three. Both 'Dark Green' and 'Pink' would have benefited from being narrower, and 'Yellow Centre' might have benefited from being shorter or squatter. There was too much lateral space around the central motif in both the first and second, and too much vertical space in the third (though I'm not so sure here). The moral is: never take the shape of your picture or canvas for granted; in flat & abstract painting more than any other kind, it's got to relate tensely — though not tightly as in Cubism and Cézanne — to what's inside it. The failure to acknowledge this is what makes almost all of Clifford Still's big pictures mushy (I saw seven or eight big Stills in L.A.). His canvas shapes or formats are routine... The way it looked to me, you didn't find the square format of your pictures for yourself, but more or less accepted it, took it too much as given.

Visitors to Lochhead's studio tended to view the new work through the lens of colour-field theory, which obscured the latent figurative elements of the artist's surrealistic landscapes, now abstracted as colour-line. As in earlier pictures, dark passages possessed sonorous hue, as transparent and opaque as in the bright passages. Contour does not contain colour as in simple illustration. On the contrary, the application of colour determines shape, intuitively. And, in his abstractions, closely valued hues gradually replace the theatrical contrast of dark and light areas.

He brought his comedic iconography to the new paintings, foresaw a positive solution to any problem, and remained grateful for the life meted out to him. He was the luckiest guy alive. This buoyant attitude infuses the selection of closely valued colour and the idiosyncratic flaring edges of forms. Teetering totemic figures toy with our sense of balance. In Dark Green Centre, a monolith on the brink, the edges of colour rectangles waver and show the deft touch of the juggler. The surrounding field of unprimed cotton duck keeps the monolith aloft. The spatial field of pure saturated colours creates the spatial structure of Grey Square (1963), of frame within frame, where movement through space is controlled by transitions of tonal colour, and the stem support finally has vanished, a last vestige of the figure-and-ground conundrum of cubism. In Night Ochre (1963), a rectangle is accented laterally by additional colour bars to ensure that the bare canvas field and the edges of the support are incorporated into the visual dynamic of the picture.

Pink Centre (1962-63) made the transition to linen from masonite as a support and the switch to acrylic from enamel, opening a new world of possibility. Although this large stained painting seems geometric and deductive, its totemic structure suggests an expanding square that is almost organic. In fact, the images of the stem-abstractions are metaphoric. His sketchbook reveals the image of a single flower or a single blade of prairie grass as the basis of his revelry and play. The manner in which the painting is made — edges freely brushed and wavering — suggests this landscape. Then there are the constructed forms and calligraphic line of the dignitaries, curlers, scholars, mourners, and gopher hunters of the surrealist landscapes that correspond to the totems of these abstractions. In the declarative colour of the stem-abstractions, he depicts the people of Saskatchewan as standing-stones of endurance embedded in a patchwork of tilled fields. His abstractions use a sense of the underlying modernist grid, but connote much more.

Typically, Lochhead treads a middle ground: absorbing the freedom offered by colour-field painting and enthralled by the garden landscape of Saskatchewan, which furnished the panoramic light and colour manifested by these large abstractions. Painted with a sponge rather than scraper-blade, Cool Suspension (1963) and Night Ochre (1963) seem marvels of economy, the former a deep blue square edged by verdant green bands, with further yellow bands negotiating the entry of the bare canvas into the composition. He is painting the heart and spirit of Saskatchewan: the clear prairie air and productive soil. Utilizing the allusion of metaphor to make this link to the sublime in nature, much like American postwar abstract painters Mark Rothko and Morris Louis, his romanticism diverges from the doctrine of uncontaminated materiality.

On the recommendation of Greenberg, Lochhead selected Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski to lead the 1963 and 1964 workshops. Noland was 38 years of age, having studied with Ilya Bolotowski and Joseph Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His concentric circles and chevrons proved to Lochhead that hard-edged colour and deductive geometry could propel the eye in and out of space and across the surface. There was little need for agitated surface. Colour could do the job without embellishment of line or shading, without extraneous subject matter. However, Olitksi's Ino Delight was less stoic, more luxurious and spontaneous — closer to his sensibility. Olitski's and Louis's colour, like light and air, was a veil that evoked the psychology and mythology of the sublime. Greenberg encouraged Lochhead to express his idiosyncracies since technically he was so finely tuned and could do anything if he set his mind to it. Nevertheless he counselled the artist to avoid the self-indulgence of psycho-drama that would muddy colour. Enjoying painting, this was easy advice to take.

Noland asked Lochhead to ensure an ample supply of canvas and acrylic paint, and the artist's July 11 response gives an idea of the problem of accessing materials:

This is just a note to tell you that we will try and get a ten foot wide roll of unsized cotton duck for the Workshop. At the moment, I cannot think of anything that you might want to bring along from the States. Our situation here is difficult when it comes to painting materials and supplies. As Clem might have told you, a good number of the painters here work on masonite panels since canvas of any size is hard to come by. Also, a number of the painters have been working in enamel. Canada is not blessed with a company which manufactures artists' acrylic paints and so it is necessary for the more ambitious ones to order from the States. By the time it arrives we pay up to twice the amount. This is very discouraging to say the least. Cotton canvas is also hard to come by; however, I will get in touch with some outfits that may be handling it in western Canada.

In 1964 he presented a series of canvases at the David Mirvish Gallery in Toronto, the showing timed to coincide with Post Painterly Abstraction at the Art Gallery of Toronto and Hart House. Broadly brushed bands radiate from the centre across bare canvas, rotating in four or five separate vectors toward the edges. The artist uses a sponge in this return to gestural abstraction. He experiments, challenging his assuredness, returning to drawing with colour. He painted flat on the floor and then cropped, to stress surface and edge; the sizing allowed centrifugal and centripetal readings. There were no immediate sales, as at his first Toronto exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery in 1962 of black-and-white enamel abstractions: 'sold one work — enamel on paper from the only show that I had with him. The buyer I found out later was my brother Doug. What a guy.'

Colour Turn (1964) and Purple Inside (1964) return to hard-edged and saturated colour, inculcating off-centre composition with the rigour of his previous stem-paintings. Purple Inside demonstrates his command of colour and tone, in the widths of the bands and the sonorous purple of the stained ground that presses effusively and warmly forward. Form does not divide the surface, and there are no disruptions of value where dark colour suggests a visual abyss — an optical hole, in Greenberg's formalist terminology.

On Greenberg's advice, Lochhead wrote to Jules Olitski on January 28, 1964 extending an invitation to Regina:

While Clem was here, I had an opportunity to discuss the Artists' Workshop with him. I told him that there had been some minor local criticism about our series of invitations to New York painters and, in particular, painters that Greenberg likes. I am not at all concerned about this since there is no justification for this sort of criticism. It seems that one or two local people feel that there is too much American influence — God save the Queen! I suppose some of them felt that we should get English artists for a change, which is not an impossibility and may be a very desirable move at some future date.

I will be sending you an official letter of invitation under separate cover to ask you if you would be interested in coming to the 1964 9th Annual Artists' Workshop as Leader. The honorarium for this is $800.00, Canadian funds, plus $300.00 for travel, also Canadian funds. This means 8 or 9% less than American dollars. At the moment, I am trying to get a raise on the honorarium to $900.00 (Canadian). So far I have no OK on this.

He also diverges, explaining to Olitski that Emma Lake would mix visual art and music in 1964. Lochhead had collaborated with composer Jack Behrens at the Dunlop Gallery in Regina in 1963, contributing stem pictures as catalysts for corresponding music. American composer Stefan Wolpe led this component of the 1964 workshop:

This year we are going to try something different in our Workshop. We will be offering a Music Composers session along with our artists-painters Workshop. This means that we will limit our invitations to painters to approximately 15 participants. The music people here have a very exciting young composer from the States, and he is trying to attract John Cage, the sound man. I have heard very little of this man's work but gather that he is a very exciting composer on the scene.

Following the workshop, Wolpe replied to Ken Lochhead on December 19, 1964: 'We often recall the enchanting atmosphere of Emma Lake and you, Kenneth, Flower-head among 10 rainy other human flowers. Stay well and happy and a most gratifying new year of work and life!'

The Olitski session was the last that Lochhead attended before moving to Winnipeg. Discouraged by mounting opposition he was encountering in Canada to his revolutionary programmes in Saskatchewan, he felt that after 15 years it was time for a change. He wanted to devote his time to painting, and so accepted a position as professor at the School of Art of the University of Manitoba:

I left Regina College because I had 14 years as an administrator, teacher, and painter; I didn't succeed in getting a B.F.A. from Saskatoon. Eli Bornstein voted against it and the development of Emma Lake and the Artists Workshops; my friend Ron Bloore upset me with his attitude towards Clem (he and others who criticized Clem never went to Emma Lake Workshops); and the cancellation of the Hofmann show for MacKenzie art gallery. (26)

He confided in Greenberg, who responded typically on August 6, 1964 with a postcard:

Your Winnipeg move sounds good. But I hope you don't get challenged to let some air into the general art situation there; it might do Winnipeg good, but you'd be squandering your own essential energy. The real challenge is how productively self-centered you can manage to be. It's going to be tough.

On September 16, 1964, Olitski commented on the contrarian mood after his visit: 'In Regina we stayed overnight — I saw my painting — also visited Bloore — he looks, acts and sounds the part of the villain gunslinger in wild west movies. The bad guy. I'll never forget Emma Lake.'


Three


Lochhead was seriously considering an informal offer to join the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont, where Noland, Olitski and Greenberg were visiting instructors. Noland had purchased Robert Frost's farm in South Shaftsbury in 1963. David Smith's studio at Bolton Landing was ninety minutes away. Anthony Caro also had moved to Bennington. (27) But Lochhead had settled into Winnipeg with his family and begun to plan a new house and studio designed by Gustavo Da Roza at 634 Kilkenny Drive, in the woods by the river.

On June 18, 1965, he wrote to Greenberg:

We still don't know if we can get down east this year (summer). Our decision to stay in Winnipeg for an indefinite period of time is marked with a plan to build a home near the University that will serve me well, and the domestic needs etc. of the family. We hired a local architect to build us a modest home on a very attractive lot on the River bank. With plenty of trees it will provide a retreat for simple living in the woods by the river — with plenty of birds.

Greenberg's postcard reply was dated June 26:

I hope you're not letting this kind of business interfere with your painting. All sorts of things could do that, including your new house (the slides of whose maquette looks more than merely interesting). Do I have to tell you that?

In 1966, concerning an upcoming survey exhibition of his 1950s work at the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery, Lochhead corresponded with Terry Fenton regarding the catalogue. Fenton had suggested that the gallery invite Clement Greenberg to write the introduction, but Lochhead rejected that choice:

I know Greenberg would be very hesitant, but might do it, however I don't agree with his reaction to my early work which may be right, but why should I ask for what I think would be a very negative observation.

Instead Stuart Smith of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton was enlisted, and he glossed over the connections to be made between earlier and recent work:

These early paintings are good narrative work because their constituent elements are chosen with economy, with a clear knowledge of the truly important visual elements, but above all they carry more than technique or compositional skill — they convey a regard for and involvement with humanity. This preoccupation with humanity and its collective psychology increasingly required that he avoid the particular descriptions that marked the earlier work.

Kenneth Lochhead did not invent the idea of surrealism but he has created the only truly Canadian examples of it. They are original in conception and the power and accuracy of their statements is the result of great insight, an unmistakable prairie environment, and a deep love for the humanity they symbolize. This was recognized by the late Donald Buchanan when he wrote in a review, 'If you have ever lived in the west, you now recognize these people
...(28)

An opportunity to illuminate the artist's work had been lost, not for the first time. For some reason, probably the slight of capricious chance, Lochhead's art has passed under the critical and historical radar: the surrealist landscapes, murals, and abstractions have not registered because they have never been presented together in our national galleries. More than sixty years of arduous but joyous productive work in four Canadian cities at such a high level have not been discussed. Pictures were reproduced and exhibitions organized, but there was little commentary about the worth of this art.

The Art Gallery of Windsor's 1977 national touring survey featured a personal essay by the artist's brother and an exhibition history, but it did not discuss the work or provide a socio-historical context for the paintings. (29) The only in-depth treatment that remains was for Kenneth Lochhead: Abstract Paintings 1962-1967, an exhibition organized by Regina's Dunlop Art Gallery in 1988. It skewed appreciation of the artist's work through a veiled antagonism toward Greenberg. The show sought to examine Greenberg's influence, not to clarify the iconography by a study of the artist's work, which an awareness of the surrealist landscapes would have provided. Cursory reviews in art magazines offered little insight. Other than endorsement by the National Gallery of Canada in the 1950s and early 1960s, no effort has been made to follow the career of the artist. Although he was at the forefront of American colour-field painting, this international attention has unfairly worked against Canadian acceptance. His achievements in the 1950s and since the 1970s have been overlooked. He is remembered as the beneficiary of an American critic's influence, when in fact his work was sparked for a moment, but never derailed or taken over.

The artist painted a series of canvases featuring an 'L' motif, a pun on the Lochhead name but also a new formal composition that presents colour as space. Canyon Yellow (1966) marks the dissolution of the square and rectangular format of the stem-paintings, which the painter now found limiting. Asymmetry was more to his taste. L-shaped bands of dark green, blue, and red push the yellow rectangle forward. But the yellow area was only a portion of another L-form cropped by the right edge of the canvas, as were the white cotton duck squares that remain. Sky Blue Location (1967), one of the largest paintings, uses yellow, dark blue, red and purple inset bands to energize the warm blue field. As in Left of Centre and the stem-paintings, board and canvas are left bare between colour passages as an innate hue and optical boundary. The artist also uses a paint roller to smooth out the wide unbroken fields. The L-colour bands of Canyon Yellow owe a debt to Jules Olitski's linear lines of colour, which visually reinforce the edges of his sprayed surfaces.

On January 9, 1966, Greenberg reviewed slides that Lochhead had sent him:

On the basis of the slides, I'd say your big vertical canvases were the best, but maybe not in every case. The work in general looks very, very good — in a class with the best painting being done anywhere right now, & I would say that you ought, by hook or crook, to get some of your best pictures to NY & show them to dealers (alas, there are really so few, still, who show adventurous work)... On the other hand, the slides of your London show were not impressive; it looked too crowded, and the pictures themselves seemed diminished; you simply can't cover a wall with pictures of that kind — they spread out too much rather than going in, as illusionist painting does. And anyhow putting so many items in a show confuses the spectator, at the same time as it makes the art itself look cheap.

All the same, keep going. If this recent stuff has the quality it seems to have, according to the slides, and if you can add to it while maintaining the same level, something is sure to happen. I'll be on the lookout as far as dealers are concerned, but something will, I am sure, happen anyhow.

On May 26, 1967, Lochhead wrote to Kenneth Noland informing him that he had decided not to uproot his family and move to Vermont:

I have naturally thought a great deal about Bennington, and last night decided to stick it out here for a few years or so, and not try for a position in Vermont should it become available. I can't thank you enough for your confidence in me for a position there.

That same day, he wrote to Ken Noland:

Naturally I was quite inflated by your thinking of me re: Bennington... I have been thinking about the possibility ever since, and after some real digging have decided to stick it here, at least for a year or three. This is a big move for me not to try for the position at Bennington since it has so many attractions, 403 to be exact! Or is it 404! Anyway, I feel I want to give N.Y. etc. a try from here with plenty of trips to that 'Dynamic Gotham City.' It is real tough to try from here. Perhaps it is folly to try. I find some comfort that Jack Bush has made headway from Toronto. This doesn't give me insurance that is for sure, however I want to keep my life as simple as possible, and this includes my family connections etc. We shall see. There are probably other reasons for not taking this possibility more seriously but I won't elaborate at this time.

The artist rented a second-storey loft in downtown Winnipeg, spacious enough to allow him to unroll large rolls of canvas on polyethylene and then paint freely on the floor. During 1968 he was still producing the L-series; however, paintings like Colour Change reverted to the suggestion of window-like space as the painter eliminated the bare canvas separating colours that floated hue. The artist felt the familiar tug toward dream-like theatrical space, away from colour-field formalism and toward the surreal architecture of de Chirico or the intimate interiors of Matisse. Change was in the air, and he began to look for another path, another challenge.

In Winnipeg, as a sideline, he and wife Patricia designed and sewed banners for public commissions with varying degrees of success. He and Takao Tanabe each contributed six banners to the vestibule of the Centennial Concert Hall. Each banner was 7 by 35 feet and placed between tall narrow windows. He received $12,000 for this major commission. Italian silk was dyed, cut to follow a paper template and backed with cotton. They tested a prototype of commercially dyed cotton, raising the banner by means of a pulley on a tree behind his house. The installation itself looked superb with the banners swaying gently, at least until the humidifying system impregnated each banner with thirty pounds of water. Lochhead recounts: 'An hour before the opening at 8 p.m., my wife and I made a final check to see the completed work. To our horror, we found the banners sagging and the base of each work drooping onto the floor while stretching the entire banner to that level.' They were able to fix the banners over two months, but they now appeared a shadow of their former selves, 'stiff with a starched effect.'

In Centennial year he was commissioned to produce other banners, works that suffered similar misfortunes. In 1968 he made banners to hang in the stairwell of the University of Manitoba's School of Architecture. The day after their installation they were removed, 'never to be seen again.' For the Pan Am Pool in Winnipeg, the same year, they made two banners to be viewed from lobby and pool. The two works were titled Poseidon I and Poseidon II. As Lochhead recounts, ''hot' and 'cold' came to mind, as in plumbing.' In 1997, on a visit to Winnipeg, he returned to the pool. The banners had been removed and the openings filled in. In 1968 he received banner commissions from Winters College of York University in Toronto and the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. For Winters College, the banner was installed in the dining room. (30)

The installation in Charlottetown suffered from the humidity of Memorial Hall during the long winter months and was removed. A further commission for the wheelchair ramp at Winters College at York University was undertaken, with three panels weighing 750 pounds, layered and affixed with sprayed cotton duck canvas, hanging above the ramp: 'About three months after completion, the work was used as a bulletin board and then in about two days it disappeared. One panel was found functioning as a coffee table in a dorm bedroom. Art works in universities are a risky venture.'

In the studio, he embarked on a last-ditch attempt to pursue geometric abstraction, making a series of long lean canvases that he named colour-line paintings. Seven feet long and fourteen inches high, they were the most doctrinaire of his formalist pictures to date. The series dissatisfied him and he never exhibited the pictures. This work was too aligned with that of Kenneth Noland. He had reached an impasse and desired to return to a more expansive, physical and lyrical kind of painting that expressed his inner life. His art was a creative process, not a furtherance of some other critical agenda:

My own way to painting is to learn by doing, and doing it again, and again, if necessary. I need to understand the nature of what I am into, and develop a confidence in my subjective intuitive approach to the work at hand, to feel free and follow my instincts, and to recognize the finding and deal with it in paint.

The increasing conceptualization and questioning of colour-field formalism culminated in the 1970 aluminum tubing mural for the Canadian Chancery Building in Warsaw, Poland. Asked by the Department of Public Works in Ottawa to submit a decorative scheme, he suggested aluminum tubes, 18 feet long by one-and-a-half inch wide, painted with different automobile colours, a symbolism that would 'contain Canadian air with colours to be seen on Canadian roads.' Moving the tubes could compose various abstract patterns. (31)

Lochhead began to conceive the idea of neon art works. Although no commission resulted, the experience was positive as he was working with coloured line. He realized then that he must devise a method that would restore this dimension to his painting without compromising what had occurred until then. His painting career constituted itself by a steady flow of work in series, some overlapping; Lochhead accelerated through the surrealist landscapes and exploded into the black-and-white gestural abstractions, colour-field, stem, L, and spray pictures — stages in this bewitching garden maze, which can take a surprising turn in his imagination. This independent creative drive is life-sustaining, not self-defeating. The wheel of fire of these arcs — the girandole formed by the many series in this exhibition — ultimately would come full circle, defining him as an original. He has sustained himself by knowing who he is as a person and what he could become.


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Text: © Ted Fraser. All rights reserved.

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