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Barrie Hale

Son of Toronto Painting 1953-65
The National Gallery, Ottawa, Fall 1972 . . . being an account of further adventures of a few of the heroes from the recent exhibition . . .

artscanada # 176/177, Feb. / March 1973
[ 3,466 words ]


It was one of those impossibly foul Toronto winter days, about a year ago, and Dennis Reid had come down from Ottawa for just about the last in what had begun to seem like an interminable series of meetings to clear up details of the Toronto Painting 1953-65 exhibition that opened last fall at the National Gallery. We were marching along from gallery to gallery under bleak skies that were soon to deliver still more snow, when I felt moved to remark that I felt kind of strange about the whole thing, as if I were writing, and otherwise helping to construct, an epitaph — of a time of my life, of an era, of a kind of art community and maybe a kind of painting that had simply slipped away. And then Dennis said that he felt kind of strange that I should feel that way; he looked upon these things — the exhibitions and the catalogues and the painters and periods that they marked — as all parts of an ongoing process that he certainly couldn't see an end to.

There was, and is, still considerably more to be said for both points of view, but we didn't talk about it any more then and haven't since; we were too busy working on the exhibition that was to be an affirmation of Dennis's point of view and, despite my sombre moments, mine too. There was a reason, though, for arriving at 1965 as a termination date for the exhibition. It was not a date easily determined, and was arrived at only after several other rationales had been discarded; I think we came to it, finally, not only because it was the year of certain events, but because it was the mid-point in a decade that saw basic changes in the composition of the Toronto art community make themselves truly manifest. Toronto has since become a town where business columnists write about the 'blue-chip' galleries — Dunkelman, Mirvish, Marlborough Godard — their volume and prices, and the fact that Toronto has become one of the few cities in the world where the forces that affect the international art barometer can be measured. By 1965 the rising interest of the Toronto art collector, dealer and critic in international — for which read Manhattan — painting was already clear, as was the rising gorge of anyone who would be a champion of native work and found himself repeatedly forced into the position of native apologist. By the middle of the 60s, too, many of the artists whose work appears in Toronto Painting 1953-65 were either dead, or seemed to have abandoned painting or Toronto or both.

A couple of months after the exhibition was finally put together and it seemed time to be doing other things, I talked to Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland about what had become of the Toronto art community, interested to hear what they had to say, for during most of the 60s, despite what is regarded in some circles as their notorious sojourn in New York, they had remained presences in Toronto, showing here regularly, staying here for months of every year. Wieland put it this way: in the early 60s, she said, Toronto's artists were providing a fantastic service to the community in a very shamanistic sense — there's no other way to say it, because there was one point when the rich and everybody met on some very important level with the artists here and there was a fantastic integration. The artists were performing a classic function here for a few years — catharsis, everything. And if it can't function like that, forget it. It certainly has in the States.

Now, I think the artists here have gone underground. It's like the Eskimoes, they've lost their shamans because they've been overtaken by another society that has a different technology. The Eskimoes had developed a very great technology in art but now it's on the wane and the shamans are hidden and if you ask anyone if there's a shaman around they say there aren't any. And we can say that there aren't any artists here, just a few artists who do this quaint bad art that we do here. And if you want to look for some art you better look at those big guys from the States. That's your shaman now.

You might call that the heads of the coin that, when it comes up tails, results in remarks like the one made to me around the same time by a bright young editor who was looking to collect art: 'I'm not really interested in buying any of these guys,' he said of the Toronto painters, a number of whom are his friends. 'I want a De Kooning.' The phrasing is interesting, and not uncharacteristic — apparently any De Kooning would do; one also wonders how he would feel about buying De Kooning if he knew him as well as he thought he knew his friends. At any rate, the door to the hothouse that had been Toronto painting in the 50s and early 60s had swung fully open by the latter half of the decade and the atmosphere was distinctly cool for a number of the painters who stayed here to work; the sense of community was gone, and the number of people who transplanted themselves elsewhere increased — Snow, Wieland, Levine, Gorman, Coughtry, Hedrick, Rayner, all spent months and years elsewhere during this period — and the Manhattan activity of local collectors accelerated to the point where Michael Greenwood could gather an exhibition called American Art of the Sixties in Toronto Private Collections at York University in May, 1969, that might have chastened all but the most major of American public institutions.

And yet, during the late years of the 60s some of the qualities, speaking of painting, purely, that I sought to identify in Toronto Painting 1953-65 — the lyric expressionism coupled with a toughness of stance and manner ('Nothing chic,' as Gordon Rayner puts it), above all the painterly persistence — continued in what now seems to have been only a temporarily diminished number of artists. After 1965, Bush, Rayner, Meredith and Iskowitz, for example, continued to exhibit new work that was consistent in its frequency and the evidence that each was moving within an assured manner; and among the four of them there is not one who is, was, or would be the centre of each other's or anybody else's movement. They persisted, and so did the quibbles: despite the internal evidence of painting after painting, Bush was quibbled with as just another of 'The Greenberg School' [and what is that? Chardin?]; it was just too, too exotic of Meredith to have not studied Tantric art said some [and whatever happened to intuition?]; Rayner was at once 'all over the place' [and whatever happened to art about art and its making ?] and too 'handsome' [whatever happened to art?] and 'too rough' [whatever happened to 'handsome'?]; Iskowitz was, somehow, 'out in left field somewhere, he doesn't look like these other guys' [what other guys ? they didn't look like any other guys either].

Dennis Burton, alone among artists in the National Gallery exhibition I think, has been able to articulate, in writing, what he thought of Toronto Painting 1953-65, to articulate suggestively the space the best of Toronto painters have occupied these past two decades: 'By historical comparison to the Renaissance in Italy and the subsequent mannerism and anti-mannerism that led to Baroque art, it is as if an Italian artist-group allowed themselves to derive the best of Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bellini, Della Francesca... if Caravaggio is considered an anti-Mannerist then Toronto painting is like he was, because his work is like the essence of the Renaissance recaptured... the Toronto 'school', if one can call it a school, is as if the New York Abstract Expressionist painters chose Toronto as the logical geographical location for the movement to continue.' If the logical geographical location for a painter is up against the wall, any way you care to take that, and his characteristic expression is up yours, any way you care to take that, then the 'movement' did in fact continue here. Wieland's 'underground' was still very much up front in fact, the shamans all the more secret because they could not be identified in the new language of the day. It was as if Toronto's painters were keeping some kind of unconscious faith with a twenty-year-old dictum of De Kooning's: 'It is disastrous to name ourselves.'

The response to Toronto painting of the late 60s is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that while certain painters were quibbled with because they did, certain others of them were quibbled with because they didn't still. 'You know,' Gershon Iskowitz said a month after the Toronto Painting exhibition showed here, 'there was that period after '65 for a while when people would say, 'Do you still paint?' and I'd say, 'Yes, yes, I still paint.' And they'd say painting is dead, you know. Or if they didn't say that they'd say, 'Why don't you use acrylics?' Well, I tried them, but I stayed with oils, and the watercolours I'd been doing since I was a kid. It doesn't matter what you use, it matters how you use it.' Within the same week I spoke to William Ronald, who had by this time been back in Toronto for nearly a decade. 'We live in such a small country,' he said, 'that people zero in on us. In New York if somebody doesn't paint or doesn't show for five or six years, nobody says anything. But here, you're painted out or burnt out or some goddamn thing.'

Such a small country. Well of course there aren't many of us, and we are new, and self-conscious, and ill-defined and all the rest of it, and Toronto at times seems to be all the worst of those in its position as the keeper of the English-Canadian flame. Yet in a ten month period or so before and after Toronto Painting 1953-65 made its appearance at the National Gallery in Ottawa and The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, three artists as disparate as Michael Snow, William Ronald and Jack Bush had remarkably similar things to say about Canadian art, or at least being an artist in Canada, or a Canadian who is an artist; that they have all found Toronto to be some sort of base is to me equally suggestive. Snow: 'Maintaining these Canadian things may not be as difficult a problem as we think. We may be stuck with it. Just the same as people talk differently in different parts of the world. Even with TV, this fantastic thing — you remember that one? The McLuhan-era thing, the fact that we'd have this contact to bring us all together and do away with all these terrible differences. But people still talk differently in Buffalo. Those things don't go down that fast — they have more to do with day-to-day living than watching that ghost.' And Ronald: 'When I was showing in New York I don't know how many times the critics spotted me as a foreigner and a Canadian, but they did... If you make it as a painter you make it because you're in communication with yourself, and if you're a Canadian that's how you'll make it, because that's what you are.' And Bush: 'When I went down to Boston last year for the opening of my show [a ten-year retrospective] as the first show at the new wing of the gallery, everything was going beautifully and then this assistant ambassador or something from Washington got up and said we were a new country and terribly honoured by the fact that they'd opened their new wing with Jack Bush, a Canadian painter, but wait around for a while and we might have other painters who would come up to their standards. Silence. Then he said, I want to tell you an anecdote about Jack Bush: He was doing this painting and ran out of red paint to finish the lower right-hand corner, so he got a piece of steak he'd been saving for the dog out of the refrigerator and wiped it on the canvas and finished it off that way. Silence. And then the dog ate it. Silence. And then, Booooo, said Larry Poons, and Booooo said somebody else... and eventually Clem Greenberg got everybody settled down, saying, he's just an after-dinner speaker, forget it. I asked this guy what he thought he'd been doing and he said, I just thought I'd have a little fun. But just a little while ago I was down there again and people came up to me and asked, is that the kind of ambassador you send to our country?... we've got to have pride. The stuff is here, but these people are twenty years behind... '

Nearly 50,000 people saw Toronto Painting 1953-65, about 60% of them in Ottawa, about 40% of them in Toronto. I don't know for sure, but I suspect the reason for the disparity lies in the fact that the National Gallery is still just about the only show in town, in Ottawa, while The Art Gallery of Ontario hasn't been Toronto's only resource for some time now — which was one of the reasons for mounting the exhibition in the first place. I do know I hadn't felt such a sense of community at an AGO opening in a long time, maybe not since their Happening in 1965. The Artists Jazz Band played, and played well, to an attentive audience, the hard core of which seemed to be students. A large number of students saw the exhibition, and the feedback some of the artists got from them — at York University and The Ontario College of Art and Three Schools — was a little disturbing; they liked the show fine, they said, but what was all the excitement about? They knew all along, they told their artist-teachers, that you guys could paint. For the most part, they had not read the catalogue, brought no historical sense to the exhibition, were unaware of the struggle involved in the arrival at the work they saw. 'I really am worried that some people didn't see the show in the right context,' Rayner has said since. 'Overnight I found myself 'established' and an old man [he is 37] and grouped with a bunch of painters — some of whom, like Jock Macdonald, are a groove — who are dead. I thought the show was dated, good as it was, and of course it was dated because the work was done then. I worry that people might think that that's what's happening now. But I thought that the show was significant the same way that Painters Eleven were significant — for the time they were happening. It was as outrageous for its time and this provincial city as Alfred Jarry was in his time and city.'

During and since the exhibition, there has been a flurry of interest on the part of collectors — not so much, curiously enough, in new work as in old, as if the stuff had now been officially certified and maybe they'd better pick up a piece or two just in case. It is a flurry that is easy to exaggerate; it is too easy to count the Art Bank's recent purchases as part of it, because the Bank would probably have been collecting anyway. And, of course, prices have gone up, which has tended to retard the activity somewhat. Collected or not, most of the artists whose work appeared seemed pleased with the way it looked — almost, in many cases, with a kind of gratitude that time had been so kind, and the vitality they all felt when they were doing it was still apparent.

They were, most of them, astonishingly young when they made those paintings, and by most standards still are — 'In New York,' says Ronald, who is 45, 'I'm still considered a baby, just now someone to be taken seriously. But here, I'm one of the old guys.' In the late 60s, it was a general cause for unease that some of those old guys seemed to have 'stopped'; if an artist didn't whack out a show every 18 months or so, there appeared to be many people eager to say that all that young energy had been aberrational and that Toronto once again had been overcome by work from elsewhere. If it is not too late to ease this curious impatience, I should like to report the following:

Graham Coughtry, after five years or so of working with film, drawing and making music, will show new oils at The Isaacs Gallery in March, powerful figurative work that is redolent of both the 'classic' Coughtry of the middle 60s and his activities during the pause in his painting. A little before that, Rayner will show new paintings at the same gallery — nearly all of them done in or 'about' the Magnetawan country of Northern Ontario that occupied so much of his work in the mid-60s, all of them at once difficult, tough and 'handsome.' Richard Gorman is back in this country, has taken a studio, and is at work on new paintings. William Ronald is working in oils, in a five-and-a-half by six-foot format — loose, free, explosive paintings, some of them done or started in public performance with a group of young jazz-rock musicians and a dancer. Late in January, Robert Hedrick showed new paintings at The Morris Gallery; he is working with gesso just slightly tinted with primary-colour acrylics and the paintings that result — formally organized as series of rectilinear colour fields on a ground that is very close in tonality -are like the experience of pure light, a further reduction and refinement of his already demonstrated elegance and analytical intent. Bush, late last year, showed another group of superb new canvases at The David Mirvish Gallery and continues to paint steadily every day, his command of colour, always authoritative, advancing almost impossibly with each passing year. Dennis Burton, last fall, showed an enormous group of new paintings at Isaacs — serial, systematic, analytical 'calligraphic' paintings, black-and-white for the most part, so intensely focused that the entire exhibition seemed to be one big painting. Robert Markle, too, showed at Isaacs last year, grouping for the first time his black-and-white works with recent explorations in coloured inks and acrylic canvases. And Gershon Iskowitz, about the same time as Rayner's and Coughtry's shows this year, will show new work and work from the period covered by his exhibition at the Venice Biennale last summer — two full galleries of it, Hart House and Gallery Moos. There is, in short, a feeling afoot that 1973 is going to be a very good year — that 1972, as a matter of fact, was not so bad either.

As indicated at the beginning of this essay, I have purposely confined my remarks to the painting activities of a few of the group of artists whose work lies at the core of what is described as 'the Toronto look' in Toronto Painting 1953-65. The entire list of artists represented in Toronto Painting: 1953-65 included Dennis Burton, Jack Bush, Oscar Cahen, Graham Coughtry, Paul Fournier, Gerald Gladstone, Hortense Gordon, Richard Gorman, Robert Hedrick, Tom Hodgson, Gershon Iskowitz, Les Levine, Alexandra Luke, Jock Macdonald, Robert Markle, Ray Mead, John Meredith, Kazuo Nakamura, Gordon Rayner, William Ronald, Michael Snow, Mashel Teitelbaum, Harold Town, Tony Urquhart, Joyce Wieland and Walter Yarwood. A fuller treatment in historical perspective of the work of each is included in the National Gallery's catalogue for the show. Of course, the years since 1965 in Toronto were characterized by a great deal more activity than this. They were the years, for example, that saw Michael Snow explore sculpture more ambitiously and reach his present world prominence as a filmmaker, the years when Joyce Wieland moved ahead with her filmmaking and her mixed media and wall hanging work. During this period a native sculpture of high quality, particularly in the work of Arthur Handy, Nobuo Kobota, Robert Hedrick and — from London, Ontario — David Rabinowich, Royden Rabinowich, Tony Urquhart, Ed Zelenak and Walter Redinger, became a constant presence in Toronto, along with the 'conceptual' and 'process' works of Les Levine and a number of younger artists. It was a period also marked by the appearance of many new young artists, by the debut of a new generation of Toronto painters.

artscanada # 176/177, Feb. / March 1973


Text: © Barrie Hale. All rights reserved.

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