How to get LESS out of Art: The Brothers Markle
[A short history of the founders of The Electric Gallery]
Lola #4, Spring/Summer 1999
[ 3,706 words ]
BULLSHIT is a four-inch long rubber stamp in Cooper Bold font. It sits on Sam Markle's desk. He's been using it for a long time. How long doesn't matter because it's part of a conditioned reflex and the philosophical punctuation of his lived experience, hence timeless. BULLSHIT does not come with a guide or manual, and is not harmful if used properly.
Sam and brother Jack operate within the artifice of the Forest of Signs and look out without the need to ever ask why. For argument's sake, let's say that a creative life can take deep root in the smallest clearing on the forest floor.
1964. The Toronto Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup this Spring for the third time. In the off-season Dick Duff is traded to the Montreal Canadiens. Fans will have to wait another two long years before another Leaf cup victory, but Duff will be on the winning team the next Spring. René Magritte has a retrospective in Little Rock, Arkansas.
August. A print ad sits on the Markle desk with a clip coupon and the banner testimonial, 'Yes! I'm Willing to Pay $5.00 for Truth and Beauty in Cigarettes!' Five dollars is the price per carton, but in 1964 a 12-pack of beer costs $2.50. The price of stubbies remains stable until 1968.
Sam and Jack were born in Winnipeg in the 1930s. As everywhere, it is in the grip of the Depression, but noteworthy for the high incidence of iconoclastic behaviour. Sam heads to Toronto in 1953 with the intention of attending the Ontario College of Art. Not having the required school transcripts in hand, he is unable to enroll for the Fall semester and finds a 'practical outlet' for artistic ambition, working for various sign firms. Two years later he forms his own company, Creative Signs Ltd., purportedly with $500 capital from brother Jack, still in high school in Winnipeg. (One wonders how a student can amass such impressive capital at a tender age.) Jack joins the business in 1958 to 'protect his investment,' and in their differences begin to support like-minded thinking.
'Creative' was not a word associated with sign making, certainly not in Toronto. But the Brothers Markle take the term to heart. This leads to a chain of restlessness. They devise a corporate conceptual arm to 'solve problems', and in the Spring of 1964 christen it Thought Inc. (Vancouver artists Ingrid and Iain Baxter's creative art-as-sign N. E. Thing Co. — NETCO — is still two years away.) Even this is too practical and they create their own problem. They lack media contacts and need a launching pad and lift-off of grand proportions. The Eureka is not clear, but Myths are not about truth, rather the beauty of their appearance and the ability to recognize that opportunity is more than a gap to be slipped through, but a type of clay that can be molded. (The best promotion is always free even if it is not the truth or even real news.)
Events conspire. In 1963, cigarette smoking and lung cancer are linked in a Canadian government report and the Minister of National Health and Welfare, Judy LaMarsh, convenes a conference aimed at 'the reduction or elimination of this health hazard.' In 1964, the first major U.S. report on smoking and health is published, and the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' first advertising code is released. In the eye of the media storm, the Brothers Markle devise a startlingly simple and absurd connection - if they create a brand of cigarettes called 'LESS', people who can't stop smoking could smoke LESS. And why not, Sam stopped smoking several months before, though he still indulges in a cigar when the thought strikes. The objective was not to manufacture a product — antithetical to the notion of Thought Inc. as well as requiring venture capital — but to play the name and manufacture meaning, and see how much media exposure could be generated from a 'thought'. The ulterior motive is to demonstrate to potential clients Thought Inc.'s efficient creativity.
A one-page press release is written and mailed out. Total expenditure: $15. They quickly register a new company at City Hall, The More or Less Honest Manufacturing Co. The wheels are set in motion. The City Hall registrar calls Canadian Press to leak news of the new company (ideas need informants, and who better than a bored-of-the-routine civil service worker).
On June 13, 1964, the 'Pay More, Get Less' credo appears in the (Toronto) Telegram, and two days later in the Winnipeg Free Press and Vancouver Sun. On June 16th, it appears in the Windsor Star, the Brandon Sun, Ft.-Williams Times-Journal, Trail Times in British Columbia, and the Vancouver Province. On June 17th, it appears in the Lethbridge Herald, Sault Ste. Marie Star, and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. The media dam bursts on Thursday August 20th, 1964 - a front page box article appears in the venerable Globe and Mail and, further afield, Victoria's Times-Colonist, the Guelph Mercury, London Evening Free Press, Kingston Whig-Standard, St. Catharines Standard, Galt Reporter, Oshawa Times, the Welland-Port Colborne Tribune, Hamilton Spectator, Brantford Expositor, Kitchener-Waterloo Record, and is repeated in many papers. And as art imitates life, a Montreal private-brand cigarette manufacturer, Tabac Trans-Canada Ltd. (yes, the 'TTC'), calls offering production services after the story makes the front page of Montreal La Presse. Sam declines but takes down the contact number.
UPI picks up the news item for the U.S. and the word spreads. A call comes from Ad Age, the Chicago-based journal of the advertising and marketing industry. They indicate interest in running a feature article but call the bluff — who is going to manufacture the cigarettes? Sam realizes that they have become victims of their own PR campaign and more-or-less on the spot decides to take the plunge, the deep drag. They call the 'TTC' and leap into business.
If the idea is ripe, so is the campaign. Thoughts run amok. Poster and print ads announce, 'If you can't quit ... SMOKE LESS!' The retail price is set higher than other brands in order to be truthful to the claim, 'LESS is the Most (yeah, by 2¢),' and 'EXPENSIVE! 4¢ [MORE] than most.' (Yeah, prices fluctuate.) A pure example of truth in advertising is issued, 'the founders ... recommend that you smoke LESS because their company wants to make money.' No LESS bold, the packages are imprinted with 'each cigarette contains no less than 3% profit for the More or Less Honest Mfg. Co.,' and they inform consumers that the filters are '... to prevent lousy tasting tobacco from spilling into your mouth and sticking to your tongue.' Naturally, research focuses on packaging, five different colours and thirty-six different packaging styles. Cigarette packs to fit your changing wardrobe and moods.
To say that the first thought generates more is an understatement, as evidenced in the following excerpt from the August 28, 1964 issue of Toronto's Marketing magazine:
'Getting full details is difficult because talking to the Markles and other members of their creative staff is like being in a room with five radios going, each tuned to a different station.' [Note: only three people are in the room, Sam, Jack, and Michael Barter.]
Sam: 'One of the first things we're gonna do is drop a whole slew of imprinted ping-pong balls from an airplane on downtown Toronto and ...'(interrupted)
Jack (breaking in): 'Oh yeah! and there's this guy who has a plane and he wants us to put neon signs under the wings and he'll fly around town at night and then we'll ...'(interrupted)
Mike: 'Hey, do you know the city'll probably make us gather up all those ...' (interrupted)
Sam: 'We'll offer everyone who turns in a ping-pong ball a free package of LESS, that'll make them self-liqui ...'(interrupted)
Mike: '... damn balls.'
Sam: '... dating.'
The spinning continues unabated. A plan to include only nineteen cigarettes in a pack is thwarted by the federal government excise tax stamp, which will not allow more or less than a standard twenty. A series of ten-second LESS cigarette radio ads are banned. One example: Voice A: 'Did you know that LESS cigarettes cost fours cents a pack more than other brands?' Voice B: 'Yeah I heard sumpin' like dat.' Voice A: 'That's why they say LESS is the Most.' Voice B: 'They can say anything they want, I ain't paying four cents more for no cigarette.'
As art-life imitates art, tobacco companies 'react' by raising their prices one cent a pack. The More or Less Honest Manufacturing Co. concocts other products — toothpaste with food particles for people 'who can't eat between brushings' — but none with the fundamental 'sameness and difference' of LESS. It's all over by the end of 1964, but not before 100,000 packs are sold. It's a small volume for the tobacco industry, as their profit amounts to 1.5-cents per pack, but a credible showing for Thought Inc. The LESS campaign receives an honourable mention for packaging design from the 1965 Graphica Arts Director's show.
Sam understands the precarious nature of Thought and at the height of LESS interest he announces: 'We may form another subsidiary, "Think Inc." Or, we may have to merge and form "Thoughtless." It's hard to decide.' The free play of words is something ad men dream of (lawyers too), but rarely engage in because advertising is serious business. Advertising guru David Ogilvy will write in 1983 that he does not regard advertising as an art form. 'When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it creative.' Ogilvy also predicts that billboards will be abolished. Artists, on the other hand, play freely with word play and the play of business. The art group General Idea sold 'the general idea', and as curator Peggy Gale once wrote, they 'play the media — as others might play the kazoo. They play for the media, in the media, with media; play as BEING the media. (1)
The Baxters' N. E. Thing Co. rises from the ashes of IT to be 'anything it wants to be.' In 1977, curator Alvin Balkind's description of NETCO in action fits the Brothers Markle, when he writes, 'Not even a conversation ... proceeds along conventional lines .... What we get is broken field running, swerving; forays into language coinages, into new ideas ....' Iain Baxter, through NETCO and post-NETCO, is the art insider working to the outside world, and as if a self-fulfilling prophecy, Baxter gets hired as a 'creative consultant' for the Labatt Brewing Co. between 1983 and 1984. The Brothers Markle are the counterpoint (and not the antithesis). They are the business insiders working to the outside of business practice. In doing so, they behave like artists.
From a business perspective they do the unthinkable and feature themselves prominently in early 1960s marketing ads. They appear in urbane poses and attire that predates Gilbert and George. The copy is transparent, witty, and to the point. A November 15, 1963 ad features a dapper Sam in evening tails and the banner line, 'I Only Look Expensive.' The copy continues, 'But deep down, I'm still the same brilliant, expressive, disciplined, inexpensive, modest, creative genius I always was. Let me prove it.'
They declare that they are the idea and the idea is them.
Toronto Goes POP POP POP
The Brothers Markle do not become artists because there is no need; the sign business gives them the process and material at hand for the useless endeavour of art-making; to be bricoleurs of their own industry. Their entry into the legitimate stage, like that of LESS, comes about by acting on the 'unthinkable'. They read about the New York pop scene, and how some of the artists had been sign painters, confirmation that what they are doing as 'illegitimate' side work has critical legitimacy. In 1963 they complete a small sign job for Doris Pascal of Gallery Pascal (specializing in print and graphics, located then at 106 Yorkville Avenue). Jack approaches Doris. She offers him the gallery for the first week in January. No one would mount a real exhibition at that time. The terms are simple: pay for set up, advertising, printing, opening reception, clean-up costs, and a space rental fee. In the (highly unlikely) event of sales, there will be a 35 percent gallery commission.
In late November 1963, the Markles set about making the show, a 'group exhibition' to include artists from Creative Signs. The exhibition is titled Sign of Art (not the reverse). It is Sam's contention that the sign artists were first and foremost artists. One of Sam's contributions is a discarded illuminated Coke sign, further distressed and with a crushed Coke can dangling from a chain.
Doris arrives a few hours before the opening. Sam recalls that she has a minor fit and lets loose a verbal barrage, 'Get that out of the window, you will ruin my reputation, people will think we sell Cokes in here, etc. etc.' Sam prevails upon her to let the work stay for the opening evening without precipitating the issue of who was, in fact, paying for the privilege.
The brevity of the exhibition, January 7 to 15, 1964 (but typical for commercial exhibitions at the time), underscores the fairy tale overtones. Sam and Jack invite everyone they know to the January 6th preview, but when people they don't know show up — in evening wear — they realize something is amiss. A forthright question, 'How did you happen to hear about this private opening,' brought the answer: word of a better party had spread downtown to the Art Gallery of Toronto, hosting a reception for the Picasso and Man exhibition that night. And, some that evening would say, a more interesting show.
Much of what was shown could be described as Kurt Schwitters meets Robert Raushenberg — not the aestheticization of popular culture, but something of its less glamorous condition — broken field running, forays into broken words and signs. Doris reacts positively to the unexpected — the attendance and sales. Since the Brothers Markle know nothing about selling art, they have no reason to believe that they cannot sell art. The Coke sign work stays in the window but is not sold.
Pearl McCarthy reviews the exhibition for the Globe and Mail and drops all-too-rare and perceptive comments: 'There is just one thing wrong .... It should not be described as pop art, for it is anything but that; it is an unpretentious, but nonetheless gifted, challenge to aesthetic appreciation.' She concludes with, 'Sam and Jack Markle ... lose nothing by assuring the public that they do not presume to prove some aesthetic truth; they contribute without presumption.'
Although McCarthy is astute, understanding the difference between Pop and Sign, Pop Art is still something of a foreigner on Canadian shores, and highly suspect. Andy Warhol's first Toronto show at the Jerrold Morris Gallery of International Art was in March 1965. To mark the occasion, Charles Comfort, director of the National Gallery of Canada, denies certification for the importation of Warhol's Brillo Boxes and Campbell's Soup Cans as sculpture. The show goes on. Sam Markle attends the opening and purchases a Liz Taylor silkscreen print for ten dollars — about the same price as a Creative Signs showcard.
Who said the Medium is the Message?
Other events would lead the Brothers Markle into a new area of the public domain. On April 1, 1966, they make a grand leap into the past and acquire a small neon company, Apex Neon, knowing little about the medium, save for its history and message. The commercial use of neon was first demonstrated in Paris in 1910, but not manufactured in Canada until 1929. Thirty-five years later, neon use is fading, but in short order the Brothers Markle crusade for its revival and one of their first undertakings is a lift-off of grand proportions.
Sam Markle receives a call from Sam Sniderman (Sam the Record Man) who asks for a sign design for his Yonge Street store. At the time, his storefront is covered with signs of every type and description added over the years. A bit of blank wall was available and promotion abhors a vacuum. An alternative solution comes from Jack Derraugh, a Markle associate and 'advertising man'. (He first appears at the opening of the Pascal show and in the late 1970s partnered with the Markles in another 'thought' agency.)
Derraugh suggests scrapping all the signs and covering the front with a twenty-five-foot diameter record in flashing neon to simulate a revolving motion. Expecting to see a modest sign for a few hundred dollars, Sniderman is presented with a spectacle of Vegas proportions estimated at $16,000. After telling Sam Markle in no uncertain terms that he is nuts, Sniderman calls the major record companies offering each the opportunity to have their name on the sign for a buy-in price. They all agree and the extravagance is financed. Sam Markle walks out with the order but has no idea how to simulate the animation, as if the practical really mattered at that stage, because the idea is everything.
A small neon prototype is built and problems resolved by experiment. A public landmark and urban icon emerges — Pop Art is re-devoured and discharged through the culture of business and Pop Music.
There would be more urban audacity in a short span of time, though not cut from the same eye-popping cloth or scale. In 1966, a neon illuminated cross is designed for the steeple of St. Paul's Avenue Road United Church, a sign of higher spiritual order hovering above the city. Faced with the problem of installation, a helicopter is considered, but does not meet government approval. Finally, a 130-foot crane is hired and the cross is carried up by steeplejack George Huntley. In 1968, the owners of the Brown Derby Tavern on Yonge Street approach architect Sheldon Rosen to 'modernize' their building. The design solution, built by Creative Signs, was to do the opposite - a new façade which was 90 percent signage, back-lit plastic-faced graphics of silent movie comedians wearing derbies. While the application of Pop scale and image loses its impact in the subsequent proliferation of monumental faces, the unexpected is added. Incorporated into the sign / façade are the street intersection names, Yonge and Dundas, overwhelming and co-opting the city street signs. For more than a decade, the intersection IS the Brown Derby.
The Brothers Markle would continue to 'sign' Yonge Street (and the city), in radical and unexpected ways: the Imperial Six multiplex theatre designed by architect Mandel Sprachman in 1972; and the illuminated and kinetic signs for the exterior and interior of the Eaton Centre. The Brothers Markle work at various times with artists Nobuo Kubota, Martin Hirschberg, Robert Savoie, Michael Hayden, and Don Jean-Louis.
Their promotion and personal interest in neon (in 1967 Jack wins first prize at an arts festival for his neon sculpture), lead them to opening The Electric Gallery in 1970, housed initially on the ground floor of the historic Flatiron building at Front and Church streets. After the close of New York's Howard Wise Gallery in 1972, The Electric Gallery would be the only gallery in the world exclusively presenting international art and technology. The program would continue for nearly a decade. In addition to the Toronto gallery program, they would organize exhibitions across Canada, in the United States and Europe, and direct numerous electro-kinetic public commissions for artists in Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver.
A New Bull
While continuing his art / less work following the Pascal exhibition, in 1974 Sam makes another leap into linguistic plays and object-as-sign. His BULLSHIT stamp and 'affection' for neon becomes an on-going series of 'shit' sculptures. Not the scatology of bodily wastes, but the word in neon script attached to a host of objects; Shit on a black box, Shit in a traditional frame, Shit in a Mirror, Shit in a TV, Shit in a Tea Tin, Shit in a Cremation Urn. Shit emblazoned and ennobled, finding its credibility in proliferation, not thoughtless repetition. (Continuing the trail of cited Baxter-isms, there is a tangible link to Baxter's plush animals in preserving jars). He briefly considers changing his name to Sam Shit, to speak in unison of a higher purpose. But it's just a thought.
The objective here is not merely to lionize and thereby ossify more than forty years of work as life, as too often happens in the visual arts. To borrow from Umberto Eco, the Markle epigram 'is mobile and elastic, as if ... living on an immense piece of chewed chewing gum, (2) and operating with a 'cosmic shamelessness. (3) It is somehow fitting that Sam and Jack were honoured by the site-less Museum of Promotional Arts. The founder, the late Frances E. M. Johnston, was a regular visitor and patron to The Electric Gallery. The evening celebration was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario in May 1991, as if the circle of irony had not closed many times before.
The Brown Derby closed and its shell awaits imminent renewal or destruction. The Imperial Six was restored in 1986 as the Pantages Theatre. The Eaton Centre signs are long gone. St. Paul's Avenue Road United Church burned down in April 1995. Sam's record has now become two spinning disks and is no longer an Apex Neon original. Its future, too, hangs in the balance. But no one expects a city to remain constant, and certainly not the Brothers Markle. It's an idea to be chewed because mythologies are of a higher order. Sam often speaks of creative misunderstanding as the great generator.
In February 1999, a Mix 99.9 campaign appears on the TTC. One poster reads, 'The Clash. Aerosmith. It Doesn't Matter, We Play Them Both' There is a difference and it does matter. Creative misunderstanding demands thought above all else.
Lola #4, Spring/Summer 1999
Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.