| Ihor Holubizky|
Small Villages, The Isaacs Gallery in Toronto: 1956 - 1991
Marking the Frame [ 5,816 words ]
[ Note: the following text was written for the exhibition Small Villages, The Isaacs Gallery in Toronto: 1956 - 1991, mounted at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, 10 September - 10 November 1992. It was one of three planned sections; the other two were not completed when plans for a publication were suspended due to lack of funding. An additional text, by artist Ian Carr-Harris, was commissioned. Editing and proofing of this text was done in January 2002. Some sections, notably footnote 38, have not been revised; it stands as a period document.]
Ihor Holubizky, Brisbane, Australia
Ihor Holubizky, Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Hamilton
Avrom Isaacs marked the opening of his Greenwich Gallery in 1956 with an exhibition of five young painters: Graham Coughtry, William Ronald, Gerald Scott, Michael Snow and Robert Varvarande. Accompanying this moment was a manifesto of his proposed gallery program — one which author and critic Barrie Hale later described as the closest thing Toronto had to the Refus Global, the 1948 manifesto published by Quebec's Automatistes, led by abstract painter Paul-Émile Borduas. To this Isaacs added, 'I also make the best frames in town.' (1) Considering the pioneering nature of the Gallery, in hindsight, this modest factual postscript has taken on a prophetic double meaning. If not as ideologically high-minded as the Refus Global, which attacked the hegemony of institutions in Quebec society, Isaacs was not merely catering to demand, since no one was clamouring to buy contemporary art in Toronto. Isaacs offered a public not yet fully exposed to the ideas and vigour of modernism an unshakable belief in a country whose young cultural history would be served by a regular public forum.
It is appropriate to consider this critical and formative period — the emergence of a contemporary art scene during Toronto's transition from a collection of 'small villages' in the 1950s to a cultural diversity and cosmopolitan air. Ironically, it is a city which continues to wrestle with the idea of preeminence, both in Canada and in the unavoidable comparison to New York.
It should be noted from the outset that the exhibition (and this text) does not follow a didactic or chronological route, and so, by extension, does not form a connective narrative. An art scene is made up of many interconnected and converging factors: the gallery enterprise, the lives of artists, institutional response, critical reaction and interpretation, and the so-called life of the city. It is equally important to note that this exhibition is not a testimonial — to attach the glow of history — and thereby inviting closure on this chapter of Canadian art. The intent is to chart different routes through the history of the gallery, the artists, and Avrom Isaacs's role. This is not an exercise in writing history, but a purposeful reading of the past.
The first consideration is the manner in which The Isaacs Gallery appeared and how the contemporary gallery scene developed. AA Bronson (a member of the artist collective General Idea), in exploring the development of the non-profit artist-run centres in Canada, made the following claim, in his 1987 curatorial endeavour; "Twenty years ago as artists we had to construct not only our art but the fabric of an art scene. We had to start our own institutions, open our own galleries, publish our own magazines and develop our own networks. Since there was no market, we had to develop our own raison d'être." (2)
While such a statement is expected of any good agent-provocateur, Bronson dismissed the commercial gallery in Canada as if it were some step-child of European and American entrepreneurship and limited in its impact, but, more importantly, suggested that nothing existed before. It is true that professional opportunities were limited for Toronto artists forty years ago. Eaton's department store had a Fine Art Gallery, operating from the mid-1940s on. If the notion now seems peculiar, Eaton's stood for quality, and if it could satisfy Anglo-Saxon values in furniture, it could by extension satisfy them in paintings. (3) Douglas Duncan's Picture Loan Society started in 1936; it was the lone venue for experimental work of the time. Duncan was a collector and patron who operated it with an idiosyncratic mixture of sales and rental. Although it was inspired by a British picture-hire society, it fit with North American merchandising principles of rental and lay-away plans. The only other private enterprises of consequence were the Laing and Roberts galleries, distinguished by a gentlemanly connoisseurship and an en-plein-air sensibility. The alternatives had their limitations. Artist Dennis Burton recounted how he entered every available art society show in the 1950s, all of which demanded an entrance fee. (4) The activities of the Women's Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto (as it was known until 1966), were also important for exposure and sales for young artists working in modernist styles. (5)
Writer and critic Robert Fulford noted that Toronto was the last great 'economic bonfire on the continent' in the late 1950s, with the caveat that 'All this is set against the "Closed-on-Sundays, frown-on-weekends" tradition. Toronto was built by Puritan hands and created in the Puritan mould. It rarely has time for culture. The artist's place in all this is still difficult.' (6) The notion of commercial enterprise did not fit the Puritan ethic or with how artists should conduct themselves. This was revealed in J. Russell Harper's foreword to the 5th Biennial Exhibition of Canadian Painting in 1963. Harper (then Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada) made the extraordinary observation that the great danger to creativity was commercialism — his argument for the noble amateur; "Frequent sales make full-time painting possible in those cities [Montreal and Toronto]. Freedom to experiment, from which new developments arise, is much easier when an artist's searching is not hampered by the necessity of making sales. Too often an artist who achieves success fails to develop any further." 7) When galleries did appear, their lifespan was short." 8) The Gallery of Contemporary Art lasted three seasons; the Hayter Street Gallery, one season; the Jordan Gallery, half a season. The Park Gallery opened in 1958 amid great expectations — showing the abstract work of Painters Eleven — but did not continue. Isaacs' longevity — five years by 1961 — was news.
People Will Come>
There is no prerequisite for being an art dealer. If, by some accounts, Avrom Isaacs's transformation from picture-framer to art dealer was as much the artists' doing (primarily Graham Coughtry and Michael Snow) as his own vision and act of faith, he operated without a predetermined commercial agenda or business plan. Such a beginning could only result in a very different type of gallery operation than those in New York or Paris, and with no comparable model in Toronto. The role of a contemporary art dealer is (or should be) more than mere merchandising. A critical mass is reached when the dealer guides the potential buyer to a state of enlightenment as a collector, serving as a liaison between the artists' intent and program, and the existing comprehension of culture and aesthetics. With the artist as the catalyst they engage in a meaningful inquiry. And, if the social conditions are favourable, to establish values and enrich our understanding of material culture. This dialogue and exploration takes place without an outcome being clearly defined. We have come to think of the public museum as functioning in this capacity, but the mandate of collecting, conserving, and research, militates against the introduction and nurturing of an artist's work. Similarly, government agencies, which establish cultural policies and funding, have agendas which presume that democracy and consensus are attainable and desirable. Art bureaucrats have been compared with the Medicis, as enlightened patrons (and sometimes described in the less flattering term, 'mandarins'), but political expediency and due process are the motivating factors, not the promotion of a cultural exploration.
The first few years of The Isaacs Gallery could be seen as a partnership of purposes, embracing a wide and eclectic range of activities. It was a locus of multi-media events, discussions, readings, publishing through Gallery Editions, and a performance venue for the Artists' Jazz Band; a modern home for a social and critical environment; and, perhaps, a purposeful fulfilment of the Painters Eleven-organized Abstracts at Home exhibition in the windows of Simpson's in 1953. In 1960 critic Elizabeth Kilbourn wrote, 'By a remarkable combination of hard-headed intelligence and sensitivity, Av Isaacs has collected almost all the good young experimental artists Toronto has produced.' (9) The initial appearance of this unruly and rough-hewn art, from this unlikely place in Canada (as compared to Montreal's Beaux Arts tradition) was to have a liberating feel and, for a brief moment, it would be described as the 'Isaacs Look.' Though modest in its beginnings, The Isaacs Gallery, when Av Isaacs opened his new space on Yonge Street in 1961, was the largest private gallery in Toronto and immediately acclaimed for its elegance and spaciousness — a reason for the artists to make 'bigger paintings,' reported the Toronto Star at the time. (10) Robert Fulford would observe, later, that by 1961 the Isaacs artists were 'halfway to being the Establishment.' (11) Such a presence would have a ripple effect on art-making practices and be delivered to a country ready to consider the possibilities of a new visual expression for nationhood in the 1960s, as significant as the association made between the Group of Seven and the Canadian landscape decades earlier.
The importance of the Gallery as a mecca of the Toronto contemporary art scene would be recalled by Dennis Burton: "We [the staff at the Ontario College of Art in 1970) had a real challenge to produce some new, young, good painters, for OCA had produced nobody really significant since [Robert] Markle and [Richard] Gorman. And [Greg] Curnoe has said that going to shows at The Isaacs Gallery really motivated him more than OCA itself." (12) Through the pictorial record, it would be easy to indulge in a sentimental view of this period, now relegated (like many of the artists) to a dim past. Captured in Tess Taconis's photographs (who along with Michel Lambeth and others served as the recorder of the times) were the young, predominantly male artists, impossibly thin, posing or caught in introspection, or at some moment of unfathomable creative thought. A social life can be seen here, critics, collectors and intelligentsia, eager for the new and the provocative. Everyone dressed for the occasion. It was, following Barrie Hale's description, the closest thing Toronto had to a bohemia, our equivalent of Paris before the First World War, Berlin in the 1920s, and New York in the early 1950s. (13) Devotees and observers could wrap themselves in its euphoria, although at the time it must have felt like a natural coming-of-age. All this was taking place in a city still struggling with the notion of Metropolitan government. Alternative dining meant the Hungarian Village on Bay Street. Artists frequented the Pilot Tavern on Yonge Street and Grossman's Tavern on Spadina Avenue, and counter-culture could be found at the Bohemian Embassy. And, if the two short blocks of the 'Gerrard Street Village' were not quite as expansive as New York's Greenwich Village, it was close enough.
During these heady times, everything seemed possible. Art was news and shared a (provisional) spotlight. Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, came to Toronto in November 1961 at the invitation of the Women's Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto, and announced that the Canadian art scene was lively, with some highly original painters. (14) The purchase of Michael Snow's Venus Simultaneous, by the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1964, would be reported as showing 'a serious concern to cover what is significant in Toronto art.' (15) Richard Gorman's painting Day of Judgement would be presented to the Art Gallery of Toronto by Charles S. Band in the same year. The donation was in memory of Globe and Mail art critic Pearl McCarthy — an example of how the interests and concerns of a collector, a museum, the artist and art critic could merge in an unaffected and disarming manner. It is a gesture which would be regarded with cynicism less than thirty years later.
Praise could come in unapologetic absolutes. Critic and collector Harry Malcolmson wrote of Graham Coughtry's exhibition at Isaacs in 1965, 'The sustained energy and concentration of this tour de force is unprecedented in Canadian art and, with the exception of certain of Picasso's efforts, I can recall no similar examples of such virtuosity in modern art.' (16) If the artists were heroic figures, The Isaacs Gallery was their Pantheon, somehow imbued with their collective energy and able to deliver the joy of sensory as well as intellectual experiences. The essence of this golden age was cast by Barrie Hale and curator Dennis Reid in their Toronto Painting: 1953-1965 exhibition, mounted by the National Gallery of Canada in 1972. But in reviewing the circumstances of the show a year later, Hale lamented the passing of that age, stating that the exhibition was '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.' (17) He expressed the belief that, 'after 1965, the influx of Toronto galleries exhibiting [importing] international [American] art, radically altered the Toronto art scene and shifted attention elsewhere [New York].'
While some of Hale's observations about the status of owning 'imported' art by the aspiring collector hold true, his conclusions bear re-examination. Hale implied that Canadian contemporary art had some form of immaculate conception in the 1950s, and nourished itself in isolation, only to crumble from the onslaught of foreign ideas and economics. This fixation on a Canadian identity through art has appeared frequently since the turn of the century, and would be a regular feature of the great Canadian art-flex in the 1960s, the National Gallery of Canada's Biennials.
J. Russell Harper's 1963 selection identified five artistic communities in Canada, a type of regionalism-cum-mosaic. He supported his choices, and the lack of an international look, by suggesting that the avant-garde was already rife with clichés — 'as barren as phases of the academic past.' (18) William Townsend, a lecturer at the University of London and the Slade School of Fine Art in England, selected the 1965 Biennial. He, too, seemed compelled to comment, with the perplexed view of an Old World pundit, on the 'identity' fixation: 'I do not know English painters who are worrying about proving the Englishness of their art. Nationalism in art properly belongs to periods when political and cultural independence become irksome and need to be thrown off. Assertion of national independence is then a mainspring for everything. Once independence is assured, there are other things to think about.' (19) Presumably, Townsend meant internationalism. He also made the comment that the young painters of Toronto were responding to the life of a modern city.
The 1968 Biennial was selected by another non-Canadian, William C. Seitz, Director of the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts. The National Gallery's director, Jean Sutherland Boggs, wrote that 'It is appropriate that he is the first American juror ... at a time when the United States and New York ... are becoming such a spiritual magnet for Canadian artists.' (20) Seitz retraced the terrain of national spirit with a wistful musing on the big sky and horizon in the land and in art. He concluded by stating, 'Today, Canadian art is free to grow within a more interconnected social structure than that of the United States. It is a situation in which the artist, as source of ideas, environmental embellisher, critic and poet, can play an indispensable social role.' (21)
The artists' perspective appeared in Canadian Art's 100th issue in 1966. A sense of defiance is evident in Ronald Bloore's clipped declaration: 'Canadian art is not bicultural. Canadian art is not national. Canadian art is international.' Gordon Rayner stated that 'Art changes the existing world,' and reaffirmed the need for a reckoning with peers, from an international perspective. Greg Curnoe took a confrontational stance, claiming that Canadian painting in the 1960s was flimsy, and that if the best artists (Michael Snow, Ron Bladen and Les Levine) were living in New York, the time had come to reassess what fueled the Canadian vision. However, instead of berating those who had left, Curnoe accepted the individual's need to work from, and respond to, a social condition. Sculptor Robert Murray (who was living in New York) saw the dilemma in the establishment and application of government policies: 'Officially there is still too much concern for a purely Canadian art. Being an artist is a matter of artistic identity and in this sense we are able to choose our "fathers"' without geographic limitations.' (22)
If recognition without borders was the objective, other foreign perspectives indicate some of the bewilderment towards contemporary Canadian art. Charles S. Spencer reviewed the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition of painting at the Tate Gallery in 1963, the first comprehensive show of Canadian work seen in London since 1938. 'The public will probably find the Canadian exhibition rather tame. It offers no surprises of technique or vision, nothing gimmicky or based on shock-tactics, and no revolutionary concept of the role of the artist in modern society.... Does all this spell complacency, self-satisfaction? Is it a strength based on stability, or a lack of intellectual curiosity stemming from provincialism?' (23) Spencer was, however, impressed by the work of Jean McEwen, Ronald Bloore and Harold Town. He decided that Graham Coughtry's work was '[Francis] Bacon without the crazed anguish, the tragic self-indulgence of the original, painted in bright, happy colours.'
The 1964 Guggenheim International was selected by Lawrence Alloway. Reviewer Jonathan Holstein gave ample space to the four Canadians included, Graham Coughtry, Guido Molinari, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Terrence Syverson (not unexpected, since the article appeared in Canadian Art). His conclusion? 'Canadian painters have evidently been later than painters of other countries in throwing off provincial idioms, a not surprising circumstance considering Canada's relative artistic isolation, until recently, from the U.S.' (24)
Michael Greenwood (curator of the Art Gallery of York University from 1968 to1984) added a thoughtful perspective into the nature of nationalism and culture, in response to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's exhibition Nationalism in Canadian Art. (25) Greenwood examined the modern cult of national consciousness and the characteristics which he stated, 'furnished its own particular mythology with compelling symbols.' Moving through the work of Cornelius Kreighoff, Maurice Cullen, Lawren Harris and C.W. Jefferys, he considered the contemporary scene and the work of John Boyle, Joyce Wieland and Greg Curnoe, who were not included in the Victoria exhibition. Greenwood saw Curnoe's overt xenophobia as 'part of the game, the semiscared defiance of a beleaguered provincial toward the encroachment of alien mass culture upon local folkways.' He concluded by suggesting that the Canadian political experiment, although creating a constitutional dilemma by a division of authority between a central government and the provinces, could find a strength — a legitimate sense of pride — and the roots for a true liberal humanitarianism.
The cycle of attention, like pubic opinion, has moved unexpectedly over the past forty years. Articles and commentary of the time reveal an underlying sense of discomfort in acknowledging the significance of contemporary art and apprehension towards this new economy. The confusion of signs is most pronounced in the early 1960s. Pop Art's ascent was indisputable, but the abstraction of the 1950s was still a factor, as was the so-called Toronto Dada. Minimalism was also on the horizon. Critic Arnold Rockman questioned the inherent arrogance of modernism, using John Meredith's work as an example of a graphic expression without spirit. 'Isn't it a shame that Meredith has so thoroughly absorbed and accepted the split between sacred art and profane crafts? Why do so many painters today accept without question the notion that to be an artist is almost to sit at the right hand of God? Perhaps Michelangelo really did. Perhaps Picasso will. But few other painters in any age have the intellectual and emotional complexity of these two.' (26) On the occasion of Pop Art's Canadian debut in 1964, Andy Warhol's Silver Liz was featured on the cover of Canadian Art. Rockman commented, 'Silver Liz makes a very good cover design, but after you have seen it once, you probably will not want to see it again.' (27) Ironically, Warhol's work would appear on the cover of Canadian Art again, in 1966 — a multiple portrait of Miriam Davidson (Miriam and Roger Davidson were prominent Toronto collectors of American art).
In 1965 Charles Comfort, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, would deal a body blow to minimalism by refusing a certification for the work of American Donald Judd as sculpture (which would have allowed the artwork into Canada without duty as 'manufactured items') — work that Avrom Isaacs had brought to Toronto for exhibition. The travesty of Comfort's ruling added to the irony that a Canadian artist, Michael Snow (then living in New York), had been instrumental in organizing this exhibition. Comfort reacted in a similar fashion to Pop Art, by refusing certification for Warhol's Brillo boxes, shown at the Jerrold Morris International Gallery in Toronto that same year.
Another recurring topic was the search for an art-messiah who would lead Canada into the international arena (critics as prophets and prognosticators). Harry Malcolmson's two part articles on the Toronto scene — published several months after he praised Coughtry's work — considered the impact of the first nominees from The Isaacs Gallery. (28) The high point of this generation, he wrote, was at the opening of The Isaacs Gallery on Yonge Street, in 1961. The problem, as he saw it in 1965, was that this generation of artists had held on to abstract-expressionism too long. 'This is the reason Toronto art looks dated and conservative to knowledgeable visitors." Where then, he asked, was the climate for a "new generation'?
The crystal ball of reactive journalism also considered the future of culture in Canada. Journalist Ralph Thomas identified 'the greatest upheaval since the Group of Seven emerged in the 1920s.' In 1967 Thomas wrote at length on Graham Coughtry, and on the effect of the international market on his livelihood, remarking that 'Only a dozen Canadian artists were able to earn their keep from their work.' Coughtry, one of the twelve, saw diminishing returns in terms of the private market and the increasing competition from New York — and the need to operate in the international marketplace. (29) The next year, in a review of the Coughtry, Markle, Rayner exhibition organized by the National Gallery, Gordon Rayner was quoted as saying 'I am a happy has-been at the age of 33.' The tone of his declaration was not one of despair, but a resolve to continue with what he believed — and an admission of the vagaries of taste, fashion and opinion; that which had embraced his work in the same decade had now abandoned him. (30)
An open market of ideas and objects was certain to appear in Toronto. It was already present in the Gallery Moos program of European contemporary and twentieth-century masters. By the early 1960s Walter Moos was showing the work of Spanish-Catalan artist Antonio Tapies and Dutch artist Karel Appel. The Dunkelman Gallery (1967-1973) also showed a range of work, from the seminal cubist sculpture of Julio Gonzales to the systemic minimalism of American Sol Lewitt. Ben and Yael Dunkelman were collectors-turned-dealers, a familiar pattern in the Toronto gallery scene. The Toronto dealers who followed in the 1960s and 1970s were Jack Pollock, Carmen Lamanna, Jared Sable (who had been instrumental in developing the contemporary international contacts at the Dunkelman Gallery), and David Mirvish, an influential collector-turned-dealer-turned-collector. In the 1980s Ydessa Hendeles and David Bellman (both dealers, later turned collectors) had a comparable impact, and were, respectively, associated with a particular, contemporary aesthetic and agenda. These dealers tapped into the international market that Isaacs eschewed, in spite of the commercial opportunities or ready-made validation provided by this market. This, it should be noted, was not a lack of foresight, but a marked distinction in Isaacs' outlook, and perhaps an indication of how and why the gallery sustained itself.
Isaacs's pluralist vision was rooted, to some degree, in his background: Isaacs was born and raised in North Winnipeg during the 1930s. Here was a hotbed of Prairie socialism — support for the CCF, and later NDP party — and an environment where social activism was expected. After moving to Toronto in 1941, Isaacs studied political science, graduating from the University of Toronto. In retrospect, he modestly stated, 'I didn't have any great art historical perspective. I suspect I chose my artists by relying on developed instinct and my ability to understand people.' (31) His instincts could accommodate an artist such as Michael Snow, whose seminal Walking Woman series, films, installations and music were recognized in Canada and abroad, and the humanist vision of William Kurelek, who produced a unique group of paintings celebrating the life of the Canadian immigrant population. At the same time, Kurelek was profoundly moved by the loss of a spiritual dimension in the modern world.
Isaacs also understood the importance of broader cultural expression. He sought out and exhibited the historical artifacts of Canada's Native peoples, the ritual artifacts and decorative arts of non-Western peoples, and contemporary folk art. His was the first commercial gallery to exhibit and promote the carvings, drawings and prints of the Inuit. Isaacs would later open The Innuit Gallery, to concentrate on this untapped heritage. (32) Like his association with young painters in the 1950s, this was not as a self-appointed expert (again, versus the European-American model of dealer as expert and authority), but with an intuitive need-to-know. Intuition led Isaacs to respond to social issues through the art world. Art (and the artist) has rarely been a factor in the social fabric of Toronto, with the exception of the recurring public controversies over public art: Toronto's Mayor Nathan Phillips's proclamation that the 'nudes' exhibited by Graham Coughtry and Michael Snow, at Hart House in 1955 were 'offensive'; the charges laid against dealer Dorothy Cameron in 1965 for her Eros exhibition; and the purchase of Henry Moore's Archer for the New City Hall in 1966. The latter may have contributed to incumbent Mayor Philip Givens' defeat in the following municipal election.
Isaacs believed that art did not constitute an autonomous endeavour in society, and responded frequently to what he saw as a need. A concern for the lack of art publications dedicated to art in Toronto led him to approach Marien Lewis (a director of the artist-run centre A Space) in 1974 with the idea of printing a 'broadsheet.' Isaacs raised the money for the first issue. The publication, Proof Only, was a four-page newsprint journal with information, reviews and interviews. The editorial board was a microcosm, covering the spectrum of interests in the art world; curators Alvin Balkind (Art Gallery of Ontario) and Michael Greenwood, artist David Bolduc, Marien Lewis and Isaacs, with writer and poet Victor Coleman as the managing editor. In one of the rare convergences of art and social action in Toronto, a poster portfolio was initiated by Isaacs and a group of prominent Toronto artists in support of the 'Stop the Spadina Expressway' movement in 1970. The expressway, which would have been carved through the centre of the city, was the focus of highly emotional citizens' lobbying, for and against. It was finally shelved by the Ontario provincial government. Isaacs championed the right of free expression in well-documented public court cases involving the controversial work of Montreal sculptor Mark Prent, in 1972 and 1974. He lent support to the publication of another artists' project in 1981, which addressed the issues of censorship. The poster portfolio titled Arts Against Repression was produced by Artspace, the artist-run centre in Peterborough, and included contributions from Greg Curnoe, Mark Prent and Michael Snow. (33) In 1984 Isaacs became involved with an ad-hoc committee from the Toronto arts community after the seizure of videotapes from A Space. He initiated a public awareness campaign by producing a banner, Summer Against Censorship with the funds from the sales being used for legal fees.
International events also demonstrated how Isaacs' involvement with social issues could amplify artistic concerns. He visited Nicaragua in 1984 at the invitation of the government to observe the art scene. Impressed by the power of the Sandinista poster, Isaacs brought back a collection, which he exhibited and later circulated to other galleries. As a consequence, he played host to twenty-nine Toronto members of ARTNICA, an organization of Canadian artists and cultural activists who provided material support for their Nicaraguan counterparts. They created a group of spontaneous works in support of Nicaragua, which were displayed at the gallery in 1985 and donated to the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 1989. Alvin Balkind had written (for an exhibition which explored social concerns in the 1980s), 'they [artists] know that art is a puny weapon to hurl at the inert masses and the tanks of evil.' (34) Isaacs was conscious of this, but the effort was important.
By his own admission and general consensus (judging by the shift in public and critical attention), Isaacs saw and felt a diminished sense of the Toronto art scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the gallery was still regarded as a touchstone during these decades, it was relegated to a comfortable middle ground, its program no longer presumed to be setting the tone for the vanguard. This period, however, cannot be so easily discounted. In the mid-1970s Isaacs exhibited Michaele Berman's Oceans of Blood and Carnivore — paintings in which the Toronto artist brought forward the possible extermination of the species [whales] in the Arctic — and other work of a social inquiry, such as Les Levine's documentary video-drawings on the condition of the Native peoples in the Arctic.
The Gallery represented artists who, although differing in their outlook, continued Isaacs's pluralist operating principle, and his advocacy for work which may not have found another commercial forum. Artists such as Brian Burnett, Tom Burrows, Stephen Cruise, Gathie Falk, Eldon Garnet, Mark Gomes, John Greer, Ania Parie, Ed Radford, Gar Smith, Victor Tinkl, Angus Trudeau, and Lorne Wagman, had their counterparts in the early years, Don Jean-Louis, Anton Van Dalen, Arthur Handy, Christiane Pflug, Nobuo Kubota, and others. Isaacs continued to introduce new artists. Some, like David Clarkson and Judith Schwarz, while not taken on by Isaacs, played a role in the Toronto scene of the 1980s and 1990s. For Avrom Isaacs, this was not a case of being able to pick a winner — the golden touch claimed by prominent dealers — or that the art he exhibited should react to the winds of discourse, but that the solitary voice and idiosyncratic path had its own social purpose and aesthetic value, dialect and raison d'être.
The Past is not History, but it can be shelved
The success of a gallery can be measured in the manner in which public and critical attention is galvanized. This attention is inseparable from the rise and fall of personal fortunes, and the inevitable cycle of exaltation, malaise and demise. Dennis Burton reminisced; 'What were the incentives and motivation? Why paint? What was the goal orientation? For me from 1955 on, it was the financial and media success of the American abstract expressionists, along with the subsequent celebration of their cultural achievement internationally, and that was what I identified with and so did everyone else I know.' (35)
The ascendancy to celebrity status, if limited, cannot be denied. In the period from 1957 to 1964, the names of Dennis Burton, Graham Coughtry, William Kurelek, John Meredith, Gordon Rayner, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland and others, appeared fixed as indicators of cultural vigour and well-being. It follows that this should have continued to serve as a signpost to subsequent generations of artists, the standard by which we gauge our cultural, intellectual and spiritual progress. A summation, therefore, should present the happy ending, where rebellion (a virtue for the vanguard) is rewarded. But to read exhibition histories, reviews and lists of collections without a critical context is to suggest a fraudulent ending. How significance is conferred, let alone verified, is difficult to determine for a single artist's work, let alone the chorus of voices which spanned thirty-five years. History can be generous to some artists and evaporate for others. The unfortunate ones may have the second chance of being rediscovered or reclaimed. For others, attention is suspended — 'dead or abandoned,' to paraphrase Barrie Hale.
There is, undoubtedly, a basis for a myth of the golden age. The leanness of the art scene meant that a few participants could quickly amass large collections — hence the 'economic boom.' Corporations (and institutions, to a lesser extent) would follow suit with a vengeance. 36) The few writers, as sources, is another indicator of the scale of the scene that has not appreciably changed. The drawback was the constant scrutiny, and the inevitable fatigue of familiarity, which leads to the other myth-assumption: a Centennial boom in 1967 and a post-Centennial exhaustion, cited by Hale and others. (37) The active scene did not extend beyond a small group in a few urban centres, primarily Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The conditions were already in place for a 'market correction,' and did not take place as the result of some spontaneous exhaling from Canadian society.
What did not appear, in spite of the flood of reviews, magazine articles, and exhibition catalogues, was publishing. (By this, I refer to general topic books which, inevitably, are used as texts). J. Russell Harper's Painting in Canada (1966) was the first to tackle the daunting task of covering its entire history to the modern era. But Harper was uncomfortable with contemporary art, evidenced by the compression of the post-Painter's Eleven decade in the last dozen pages. The most likely candidate to address the modern period was Dennis Reid. His book A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1973) was also hampered by having to cover 300 years of art in 300 pages. No other major texts appeared until David Burnett and Marilyn Schiff's Contemporary Canadian Art in 1983. 38)
Given the paucity of general publishing, how could Canadian art attract a credible (let alone authoritative) voice? Consequently, it has been the exception rather than the rule that an artist's work 'held its value.' (39) Most of the work, so unabashedly promoted, thirty years later, often languishes in museum storage. It enters into the texts only as an accounting, but does not serve as the foundation of a cultural model. This unspoken dismissal may be likened to the 'refrigerator gallery.' the proud display of a child's work, saved only for sentimental reasons. The Canadian 1960s is seen in relationship to the other decade taking place in New York. (40) The anxiety came from not being there. The consequence of trading in the volatile market of cultural currency in the past two decades is aggravated in Canada by a situation where the past is continuously excluded from the present, if only for the reason that the past is suspect. Robert Fulford's 'Toronto as Boom-Town' in the 1950s has emerged as a 'new town,' marked by the uncertainty of what exactly constitutes a meaningful Canadian contribution to the domestic and global markets.
Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.
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