The Canadian Art Database

Ihor Holubizky
The Wunderkammer (1989)

The Isaacs Gallery

[ 3,632 words ]

This aspect of the exhibition considers a wider view of the artists who showed with The Isaacs Gallery, and the meaning of cultural property in an extended cultural sample. Reading the list of exhibitions over thirty-five years gives some indication of the range of work and visual eclecticism. Cycles can be identified, akin to the rise and fall of fortunes — an artist's moment in the limelight. Robert Varvarande, who appeared in the first Isaacs exhibition, at the Greenwich Gallery in 1956, is one such example, working in an abbreviated moderne style of the 'School of Paris' (but not surprising as Varvarande came from France). His 'stock'peaked by mid-1963. The reasons for his dropping out are complex and personal, but with it, the idiom he represented also disappeared from the cultural index. Of the five inaugural exhibition artists, Michael Snow's career has been the most resilient and sustained, perhaps as a consequence of his broad intellectual inquiry and work in diverse media, responding to and exploring the shifting cultural conditions. It should be noted that this rationalization, call it an 'adaptability quotient', does not explain why other artists who also moved through radical changes, could be dismissed as being too eclectic. Graham Coughtry is an example of an artist who has survived, but in the short term (his lifetime) has paid the price. Gordon Rayner said of Coughtry in 1968 (at a down period in the 'cycle'), 'He's so brilliant, he's got to guard against himself.' Because Coughtry's subject-matter was focused (or presumed to be so), his work was vulnerable to the dictates of external fashion and shifting taste. Richard Gorman and Robert Hedrick are examples of artists who fell from favour by the early 1960s, even though they had been promoted in the initial stages of their respective careers.

To some degree, the changes and additions of artists during these years reflect these dynamics. But the Isaacs' exhibition history does not touch on every shift in art which took place over thirty-five years (nor could it), even though it charts many of the concerns in the Toronto art scene — abstraction, Dada, Pop, conceptual, installation, performance, and the occasional appearance of the international scene with Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and Richard Serra. If art-making became pluralist in style, processes and ideas , starting in the late 1950s — drawing from wide and divergent sources — the term pluralism may not be adequate to provide even a generalized category. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to explore the dilemma by presenting it in the form of a poetic metaphor.

The primary reference is a wunderkammer, the 'cabinet or room of curiosities,'which first appeared in Europe in the 16th Century, the private museum and the beginning of the public museum, as we know today. It was a means by which art (material culture) and nature could be presented together, as the extraordinary, before indexing demanded strict categories. If this seems anachronistic at the end of the 20th Century, consider that virtually every museum is based on such a model, wherein a collection of disparate objects are given an artificial order. What must be taken into account is that the wunderkammer operated by deferring meaning, i.e. if meaning cannot be determined within the known boundaries, no effort is made to investigate. But the loose framework of the wunderkammer, even in its embrace of all things, is guided by singular taste and general notions of connoisseurship, and eventually supported by scholarship.

The 'Isaacs wunderkammer' is conceived in the manner of museum open storage — the congestion of over-sized shelves — and an inventory of works of art and artifacts. This is not a second rank selection of minor value, but a way of considering another context for work which, for varying reasons, cannot or has not been determined, or has simply fallen off the existing cultural scale. It can also be read as the conceptual equivalent of The Library, in the functional style (steel construction) of the industrial age. Many contemporary artists have used this strategy in their work. Liz Magor's Pulp Fiction Presents: The Special Collection was a collaborative work by Magor and students from the Ontario College of Art, and shown at The Power Plant, Toronto in 1987. A group of 'cultural anomalies', based on actual museum artifacts, were cast in papier mache and covered an entire wall of a central celestory space in the gallery. Another example is Joseph Beuys' Wirtschaftswerkte (1980), roughly translating as 'the economy of values.' Beuys presented steel shelves on which he placed an inventory of packaged food products and edibles. One of the many questions raised is, who determines value?

The selected works and objects, here, are displayed in a non-hierarchical manner. The fact that no single entry point exists, allows for a primary investigation. A group of three-dimensional works, for example, do not fit comfortably within sculptural indexes — call them hybrid, cross-over, multi-disciplinary, or anomalies. Michael Snow's 1956 sculpture, Three Chairs, appears to follow the model of European modernism — the work of Alberto Giacometti — rather than the Walking Woman or later photo-based work he is identified with. It is the model of the idea of a chair, but not a chair. At the other end of the spectrum is Arthur Handy's 1964 stoneware piece, Aphrodite Yawns II, which may not be that far removed from pottery techniques and revives the ongoing discussion of distinctions between art and craft. Juxtaposed to this work is an aluminum multiple, which Handy produced in 1972 as part of a pilot project, by the Ontario Arts Council, of inexpensive artist multiples. The 'distance' between Aphrodite Yawns II and the starkness of the aluminum multiple can be reconciled if we consider the respective application of technologies to create 'simple'forms, rather than a distinction between handwork and manufactured objects. Angus Trudeau's modelled boats can be just as easily relegated to the curiosity of well-meaning 'folk craft' describing the mechanical age. A careful examination of Manitou, however, reveals the use of found objects, a plastic bleach bottle which becomes the cabin and a plastic lens from an automobile brake light. In effect, it draws its vocabulary from industrial waste.

Another route of examination is the appearance of new, industrial materials and processes. When used by artists, they move quickly into the middle ground, but inevitably lose their value because they cannot acquire a traditional patina — hence their historic value. Don Jean-Louis' Nocturnal Flower (1967) is an example, which incorporates vacuum-formed uvex and neon. Such work often appears before we have aesthetic standards by which to judge it. Another example is Les Levine's Disposables (1965) — made from expanded polystyrene, formed over common objects — a type of industrial skin. These unsigned and undated objects become artifacts and documents of a critical idea of its time — not meant to survive as masterpieces. (The irony is that polystyrene is only considered for the problems of recycling, not conservation as artwork.) Levine was conscious of these contradictions, and wrote 'When I invented disposable art, I wanted to create a non-object. Its concern is not with ownership. It is concerned with active experience. The purchaser may arrange and rearrange the units according to his personal taste. The disposable in fact does not become art until arranged by someone.'

The inclusion of American designer Harry Bertoia's Diamond Chair (1952) may appear as a digression, but illustrates another aspect of the wunderkammer. The chair was part of the original furnishings when Isaacs opened his Yonge Street location in 1961 — and duly noted (manufactured by Knoll International) in the brochure published for the occasion. It is not presented merely as memorabilia, or Isaacs' taste, but an aesthetic sign — the connection between his aspirations for the physical surroundings of the space and the chair itself, which is regarded as one of the classics of modern design. Bertoia also made sculpture, which is regarded as a lesser activity for him. The Diamond Chair, unlike Snow's Three Chairs, is Bertoia ideal model of a chair, and in that case, may well be (functional) sculpture. Other cross-connections are possible to make — such as Stephen Cruise's sculpture, Spot Abundance (1987-88) and a 1950s Dahomey fabric — that culture's expression of man and myth in the latter and Cruise's poignant tableaux of nature and the world. Similarly, an affinity can be seen between a large New Guinea standing figure (from Isaacs' personal collection) and the stylized figurative sculptures of Anne Kahane and John Ivor Smith, and Gordon Rayner, whose Toting Pole (1983-84) extends our understanding of what it means to make a totemic form.

Some works serve as fractional documents. An example is Brian Burnett's painting, Universal Man (1982). Burnett came to notice in the early eighties for his eccentric views of Toronto and the social scene — a form of reportage — done in a neo-expressionistic style (one which Burnett has carried through and developed). Universal Man depicts the mens' urinals at the Cameron House, a local Queen Street bar, turned into an artists' hangout in 1981 by the new owners. This is a bridge between the 1980s generation and the 1960s artists who frequented the Pilot Tavern on Yonge Street and Grossman's Tavern on Spadina. Universal Man plays with the shock of Marcel Duchamp's urinal, Fountain, exhibited at the 1913 Armory show in New York. Other works and objects have a direct association with the heyday of The Isaac's Gallery: a study for a larger portrait of Avrom Isaacs, by Christiane Pflug; and the original logo-sign from the Yonge Street gallery, designed by Jim Donoghue in a contemporary manner, but gilded by William Kurelek, using 16th century techniques, in Isaacs' framing shop.

The significance of contemporary ephemera is often overlooked. One such manufactured gesture is a T-Shirt produced by the Isaacs artists in 1970. The motif is a reproduction of the original logo designed by Franklin Carmichael for the first Group of Seven catalogue. The T-Shirt was worn by the artists on the occasion of the Group of Seven retrospective opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A shirt was presented to the surviving member of the Group, A.Y. Jackson, hence becoming a social gesture to bridge generations and aesthetic differences. Another ephemeral manifestation is a melmac dinner plate from Michael Snow's New York studio in the 1960s. It was part of his everyday life, but Snow brought this item into the realm of his work by attaching a Walking Woman sticker to the bottom, with the inscription, 'Endorsed by Walking Woman Enterprises, president Michael Snow.' The meaning, arguably, is relative to the (major) works which were meant for exhibition (gallery) scrutiny, but the examination and inclusion of the everyday cannot be dismissed as mere busy work. Snow, in fact, dated the plate, June 11, '64. The commonplace often falls into the artist's field of vision and their work. In contrast, Joyce Wieland was commissioned to design a stamp for the Canada Post Service in 1972, celebrating World Health Day. This can be described as an example of a maximum distribution without cultural indexing. The stamp (and its design) is used and transmitted, literally, through the social mechanisms of the everyday, to send letters, pay bills, etc., without the necessity of a conscious aesthetic choice. The stamp, as an object, has a built in obsolescence, a true example of capitalist marketing, with the exception of the few philatelists and the sheet of stamps kept by the artist and signed, as a work of art, thereby becoming a unique object identified by authorship rather than its function: the useful becomes useless.

Another aspect of social-cultural engagement appears in graphic designs — posters produced for various events. Coughtry designed a poster for a Duke Ellington concert at Massey Hall (December, 1959). In this way the influence of music, for the artist, is returned in a public way (Coughtry was also member of the Artist's Jazz Band). Arnaud Maggs, who was to exhibit with The Isaacs Gallery in the 1980s, worked in graphic design at the time. He designed the first cover for the record of 1953 Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie concert at Massey Hall, considered by many to be the 'greatest jazz concert ever'.) Many of the artists who showed with Isaacs supported themselves financially with related work in the field of graphic design, independently, free-lance or working for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — for television graphics) Anton van Dalen recalled the influence of doing television graphics — images which would be used as spots or programme identification — on his later work, when moving to New York. Van Dalen extended the notion of the brief encounter with an image to create a vocabulary of stencil-motifs, which he explored over a number of years. The motifs referred to personal history, neighbourhood, social ideas, but also functioned as explicit symbols without words.

The Isaacs publishing endeavour, Gallery Editions, although not sustained (as much an indication of the state of speciality publishing in Canada as their own will), did produce a few unique projects. Raymond Souster's Eyes Without a Face (1959) came about as a result of the early poetry readings at the Gallery, combined with illustrations by Graham Coughtry and Michael Snow. The book included a signed print as a means to emphasize the handmade nature of the project. Another publishing project was a facsimile of a Tony Urquhart sketch-book (also with a drypoint etching included), a means for the public to understand how an artist works in the periods between exhibitions, the continuing journal of images. The journal could also appear in a radically different form as witnessed by the press release for Les Levine's 1970 exhibition Les Levine Copies Everyone. The press release took the form of a boxed set of copies of reviews, self promotion etc., creating an ephemeral summary (the sum of an artist's 'value') from ephemera. Not to be forgotten are invitations and artwork for invitations. Many of the existing examples are small works in themselves, given the predilection towards collaging, montages and appropriation and the cryptic.

If we examine this material in the manner of an archaeological dig, fragments become clues to reconstitute the time, and reopen the complex relationships that make up the living manifestations of cultural production. Whether the selection of works constitutes a premeditated condition i.e. to support the curator's premise of the wunderkammer, is ultimately left for the viewer to explore. Another model for the wunderkammer is the basement storage at The Isaacs Gallery on Yonge Street. It was not, as one would expect, a place for the relegation of 'unworthy' art, but a treasure trove of explorable objects. Isaacs mounted an exhibition, entitled From the Catacombs in 1974, using his own storage as a source.

Art as Social Document

Portfolio projects selected for the exhibition, serve as social documents as well as evidence of a state of the art. The Toronto 20 suite is a snapshot of images and ideas by 20 artists working in Toronto in 1965. Similar projects appeared in the United States during this time.* The Toronto 20 portfolio was initiated as a co-operative venture between the University of Toronto Press and five Toronto commercial dealers. The fact that 11 of the

20 artists were represented, or had exhibited, at The Isaacs Gallery may give some indication of the creative energy (or monopoly) which was present there, and acknowledged. The portfolio was pluralist in style, images, and techniques. At the centre of familiar approaches are William Kurelek and Jack Bush's works — using the print medium to create a direct transcription of their recognized 'way of working'. But the concern with producing a potent image did not stop at a stage of production. Kurelek was dissatisfied with the density of his lithograph image and retouched each of the 100 prints. Sorel Etrog, Kazuo Nakamura, Mashel Teitelbaum, and Joyce Wieland used the print medium to express the notion of the elusive image and impermanence — the fleeting gesture which appeared in their works in other media, and used unconventional techniques in producing their works. Etrog's signature link motif was formed with a coat hanger to create a white on white embossed print. Wieland, who was working with animation and film, used a process in the making blueprints for her work. In the case of Les Levine's X-ray piece, a medical negative was used to produce a print in the manner of a vernacular snapshot. The prints by Robert Markle, Robert Hedrick and John Meredith, although conventional in technique, were suited for their particular interest in gestural invention and draughtsmanship.

The works by Dennis Burton, Graham Coughtry, Greg Curnoe, Richard Gorman, Gordon Rayner, William Ronald, Michael Snow and Tony Urquhart, were variations of monoprint techniques, to express the process of making the image in a direct and recognizable fashion. Gordon Rayner enlisted the aid of a live frog, which he covered with paint. The frog worked for its 'keep' (Rayner fed it worms), imprinting each of the 100 sheets in an uncontrollable manner, but ultimately providing a leitmotif. Richard Gorman utilized a similar behavioural technique, using ink-covered steel balls and magnets to move them on paper — creating a gesture based on chance and phenomenon. Greg Curnoe gathered broken hockey blades for his monoprint, to which he added his 'signature' rubber stamps to indicate the edition number, and thereby being part of the visual composition. William Ronald used found images from the media. Each print was composed with a different central image and border by a block print application in wholly different combinations. Tony Urquhart's work was the most discrete, the difference between each imprint being a collaged element which varied with the scissor cut of the paper. Vitality is the obvious description — the diversity of images — but as well fashions a document of the state of art at the time.

The Artist's Jazz Band portfolio from 1974, produced by The Isaacs Gallery, is another example of the inter-connection of purposes and disciplines. The project started with the recording of a live performance by the AJB in 1974 and expanded to include a suite of prints — and to hopefully off-set the cost of producing the record. All the members, at the time, contributed an image, even though some were not visual artists. Cowan was an architect, Foster and Jones were musicians. They nonetheless understood the spirit of both ventures, and produced images in a manner which was appropriate to the spirit, thereby embellishing it as a truly collaborative venture and document of its time as recording and images.

Michael Torosian's Toronto Suite is a document of a different order - done through Torosian's publishing venue, Lumiere Press, which produced small editions of handmade books. There is a book — text by Dennis Reid — but the main event is a suite of twenty-four portraits of Isaacs Gallery artists. Torosian rehearses history in a different way, setting the 24 artists whom he photographed in a neutral, black cloth background (in one of the portraits, the cloth becomes a prop, an artist wrapping himself in it) . Without stating as much, the collective sign of the photographs is that of a social order, perhaps even an obscure monastic order. That is the game that the photographer and subjects have played.

Ihor Holubizky


1- Cent Life (published by E.W. Kornfeld in 1964) was a portfolio of 62 lithographs, including contributions by many of the New York artists who were achieving prominence: Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, senior artists such as Alfred Jensen, European artists such as Enrico Baj and Ovid Fahlstrom (although born in Brazil). It was published in an edition of 2,000, a quantity intended for a wide distribution at a modest price. Stamped Indelibly (published by William Katz, New York in 1967) was a bound book of 15 rubber stamp prints (essentially monoprints), including work by Tom Wesselman, Red Grooms and non-artists, such as Beat writer Allen Ginsberg. Another eclectic portfolio was SMS (Shit Must Stop] published by William Copley in 1968. Contributions from a cross-generational group of artists (and Congo the chimpanzee, whose 'artistic' talents had been brought to public attention by author Desmond Morris) came in unpredictable forms —

prints, cut-outs, records and objects to be assembled. It was published in an edition of 2,000 and made available through mail subscription. The American Surrealist William Copley had leased a third-floor loft in New York's East Village, and invited his fellow artists to exercise a collaborative freedom few had experienced before or would experience again. Each portfolio is a dossier on the subject of personal singularity and the way to establish a favorable relationship between an artist's impulse and the impersonal means of mechanical reproduction. Gathering up traces of those individual impulses, preserving them through replication, then merging them with the flow of daily life, SMS showed artists how to come to terms with forces that often drive them into the seclusion of the studio. As a surrealist, William Copley believed in the unity of art and life...It is a reminder of what is possible when artists have the opportunity to work without impediments.' Carter Radcliff, SMS: Art in Real Time, Reinhold-Brown Gallery, New York (not dated).

Artario, a similar project in spirit, artists multiples and prints, was initiated by the Ontario Arts Council in 1972 and developed by Peeter Sepp, visual arts officer for the Council. It was designed as an art package deal, a kind of instant art exhibition, involving the work of 21 Canadian artists, based on a Swedish art concept done in 1967. It was made available simultaneously to schools, institutions, corporations and individuals, on a subscription basis. The single price ranged from $3.00 to $15.00

Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.

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