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Andrew Hudson

A Critic from Saskatchewan Looks at Toronto Painting [1963]
[Graham Coughtry, Harold Town, Richard Gorman, William Ronald, Gordon Rayner, Joyce Wieland, Jack Bush, Louis de Niverville and Tony Urquhart
Canadian Art #88, Nov. - Dec. 1963.
[ 1,746 words ]


My first experience of Toronto painting on my present travels was at Winnipeg, where I saw two early still lifes by Graham Coughtry and Tony Urquhart hanging side by side in a display of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's permanent collection. Coughtry's still life, first-prize winner in the 1957 Winnipeg Show, is a square-sized painting entitled Interior Twilight, in which a fragmentary caricature of a chair provides a highlighted structure in the midst of an atmospheric play of luminous, flickering blues and purples. Coughtry's loose application of his paint, somewhat in the manner of Monet's broken impressionist impasto, creates the sensation of a space that is densely filled with colour and light.

None of these qualities — the paint-texture, the atmosphere, the space, the colour — are to be found in Coughtry's recent figure paintings. Coughtry's present concern is to make his semi-abstract, rather clumsy, boneless figures as ultra-expressive as possible and yet still credible as figures. To do this he has limited their colour and form to a range of bright flesh tones heaped up in cakes of paint that struggle within a restless complex of curves and diagonals. To further accentuate his figures he subdues or obliterates his background colour with a uniform trickle of muddy paint. To my eye, the abrupt juxtaposition of the writhing, unresolved contortions of his figures against these large areas of inert canvas not only sets up a serious dichotomy in these paintings but also results in an overall feeling that the format is being cramped by its frame. I suspect that Coughtry's present theme of rape, as in some of Cézanne's early paintings, is the expression of an inner artistic struggle — in Coughtry's case, a struggle between realism and abstraction. I would venture to suggest that Coughtry would be happier away from the figure, with a motif that lent itself to a more abstract treatment. Another early interior, of 1958, at the Jerrold Morris International Gallery in Toronto, in which the chair-structure has become more formalized and compact and is floated high up to give a larger airiness to the surrounding space, and a flatter, yet still spacious abstract of 1959 at the Isaacs Gallery, both of which still have a resonance of colour, an alignment of the drawing with the format, and a unifying all-over dry scribble paint texture, point to a direction that Coughtry might have taken and that he might yet take.

Tony Urquhart's still-life at Winnipeg seemed to me superior to Coughtry's: it had a nice dry touch and some distinguished drawing. This painting, entitled Nocturnal Still-Life, and his Object in Blue of 1960 which I saw at the Isaacs Gallery, revealed that Urquhart had borrowed more profitably, if more directly, than Coughtry from the English painter Francis Bacon. Urquhart's cool touch seems to derive largely from Bacon, and his use of Bacon's boxed perspective is responsible for the actively felt space of the Nocturnal Still-Life.

I would say that where Coughtry might benefit from increased abstraction, Urquhart desperately needs to get closer to the object. I am supported here by the fact that the few of his watercolours that really come off owe their vitality to their direct inspiration from the motif. What happens in his recent oils, where he is attempting a kind of dreamy surrealism, is that his touch and his drawing wander vaguely about in empty space in ever more thin and attenuated fashion. No amount of creaming and varnishing is going to give that touch and that drawing the conviction that they need, and that they are only likely to get from a closer, more factual involvement with motif.

Also at Winnipeg I saw a largish painting in which random, undulating lines had been gouged into a sheet of masonite. The areas between these lines had been painted in various colours, chiefly, as I remember, in black, yellow and grey, or had been partly pasted over with coloured tissue paper, or scratched, or decorated along their edges with minute scraps of white paper, like fishbones. This painting had so little unity or coherence about it that I assumed it was local student work, bought to encourage the student. However, on turning to leave the exhibition, a sudden curiosity prompted me to look for the artist's name. It was Harold Town.

I have since come to the conclusion that the mistake I made in my ignorance was in fact a very good diagnosis, and that Town does, essentially, paint like a student, with his endless experiments in different textures and materials — a student who is busy all the time catching up with the latest styles, the latest fashions and the latest gimmicks, but who hasn't yet discovered what it is of his own that he has to say.

This is not to deny Town's brilliance, or his remarkable cleverness and wit. I saw some of his early prints of the middle 1950s in the Department of Prints and Drawings at The National Gallery in Ottawa, and thought that in these his vitality of invention and his inexhaustible fecundity of ornament and decoration came out very strongly. Here, jumping from one idea to another doesn't matter so much, as the fact that every detail is printed gives the work a certain minimal unity of texture. And here, of course, the smallness and intimacy of the scale helps to make the stunts and the performances more intriguing — you begin to wonder how he managed to print this colour on top of the other, or to bring out this second shape from behind the first. Nevertheless, even though he sometimes arrives at a strikingly clever image, as in The First Aeroplane of 1956, his prints remain, like his paintings, a series of experiments in how to fill up the area of the format. Like his paintings, they do not contain a final, personal statement; nothing is followed through, no one idea is fully explored; there is no commitment and consequently no growth on the part of the artist.

(Richard Gorman is, I think, another artist who comes off better in his prints than in his paintings. It seems to me that the greater success of his monoscreens is due to the flatness of his surface and his necessary involvement with shape.)

William Ronald's large painting at the Art Gallery of Toronto is very obviously inspired by the great cut-out collages of hand-painted paper that were the last, famous swan song of Matisse. I think that the way in which Ronald has altered Matisse is a good illustration of the limitations inherent in his type of hard-edge painting. Where Matisse's botanical shapes are freely curvacious, asymmetrical and bounding with energy, and this energy flows over into the way in which these shapes and their background rectangles overlap loosely and intuitively all over the format, Ronald's flower shapes are tidy and trim, neatly fitted into rectangles that are regular, precise divisions of the format. This tidying up and the consequent cautiousness of the actual execution of the painting result, I think, in a lessening of his composition's potential effect.

It seems to me that if there is one important lesson to be learned from the successes and failures of the New York school, it is that inspiration and the refinement of inspiration are everything, and that an over-concentration on method or execution or technique — what I would call the wrong kind of carefulness — is deadly.

This lesson is borne out by Ronald's watercolours, which are a completely different thing from his oils. Whereas the hard-edge oils are carefully altered and over-painted, as though Ronald is not quite sure until very late on in the painting as to what exactly it is that he wants to put down, his watercolours, where loose, vibrant colours flood spaciously and richly across the page, bespeak a powerful, unflagging and completely assured inspiration. In my opinion his watercolours put Ronald very close to the front line of present-day abstract painting. I hope that he eventually realizes their merit and what it is that they have over his oils, if he doesn't already.

Another painter, younger than Ronald and not yet as well known, who may also not know his own strength, is Gordon Rayner. His 1962 painting, entitled Aquarium, of overlapping loops stepped-up against a green background on a trapezium grid, and a similar untitled painting of this year, both at the Isaacs Gallery, show an excellent feeling for his format, an easy, intuitive handling of the space he is working in, which is also present in some of his earlier paintings. In the two recent paintings the boldness of Rayner's drawing, delimiting space in the manner of Gottlieb's and Motherwell's paintings of the late 1940s, survives and even vindicates the vulgarity of his surface. In the face of this strength, I don't see the point of his various painted constructions or of his use of off-beat formats. I should have thought that Michael Snow's series of ready-made silhouettes would be a good warning to anyone as to how gimmicks of construction and collage get an artist absolutely nowhere.

I find Joyce Wieland's paintings even more exciting and promising than Rayner's, but, like Rayner, she is spreading herself too thin in too many different mediums and directions, and almost losing sight of the single strength that she has. Her collages, even though they have something of the spaciousness of her paintings, are running dangerously close to being merely pretty. Two recent small oil paintings of Wieland's were, with Ronald's watercolours, the best things I saw at the Isaacs Gallery: one, entitled Numbers Game, had numbered areas jostling together; in the other, a central purple area was surrounded by a meandering flower-like halo of blue. The shapes and, indeed, the dry, cool paint quality of these two small pictures have a refreshing openness — an excellent follow-through from the free spaciousness already there in her Summer Days and Summer Nights of 1960 and even in a self-portrait of 1958.

It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that this strange game that is abstract art today does, in fact, have rules, and that success — real success — is tougher and more difficult and makes more demands than is usually supposed. It requires the utmost courage and probity, the daring to put down a personal statement, however simplified or offensive, and to stand by that statement, and the self-discipline to follow one line and yet always be questioning and testing the result.

Back in Winnipeg I saw how a small Borduas watercolour of 1954, in which the familiar leaf-shapes have settled in puddles of bold, unconcerned colour on a flimsy scrap of paper, put to shame the Coughtry and the Urquhart and a couple of elegant paintings by Tonnancour and Varvarande. It did this simply by cocking a snook at their concept of good painting and good picture-making, and having the daring and confidence to be true to its own childlike inspiration and the forceful newness and originality and freedom of its feeling.

The only Toronto painter who seems to me to have a similar courage and unity of purpose is Jack Bush. A painting of his, based on the colours of the Spanish flag, that I saw at Gallery Moos, had a boldness in the brushing on of the paint that was quite disarming and that made it quite unlike any other painting I had seen. We have painters in Saskatchewan who are working in a similar direction as Jack Bush, and we have seen similar work by New York artists exhibited at Regina, but Bush's painting has a different quality from any of these. It is not just because his brush gives a slightly different texture to his surface; it also stems from the individual flair and economy of his composition. The odd, slanting divisions of his format, coupled with his particular choice of colours and the easy exuberance of his occasional ovals and flower-bursts, give his work a strong and distinct personality that at its best stands head and shoulders above the rest of the Canadian art world.

I think that the biggest problem confronting Canadian art today is its provincialism, and that this problem of provincialism is quite as acute in Toronto as it is in Calgary or Vancouver. Toronto has a certain chic, a certain air in the way its people dress and the way its people walk, as if to say: 'We are Toronto!,' which, I must say, I find very attractive, and which I am sure is very excellent and healthy for this city's morale. But such an attitude would be fatal for any local artist of ambition. The truth remains that being a big-shot artist in Toronto or even in Canada doesn't, at the moment, mean anything. Real, final importance in art is only won by measuring up favourably to the best work being produced in one's time. In my view, the present emigration of Toronto artists to New York, whether physically or through exhibitions of their work, is a step in the right direction.

I'd like to add that I also enjoyed the work of another Toronto artist, who is very obstinately himself: Louis de Niverville. His painting, Mary Ann, I saw at the Dorothy Cameron Gallery, had a rhythmic style of its own and some unexpected, unusual colour effects. I should also like to add that an oil painting by William Ronald that I have since seen at the Art Institute of Chicago, with a ragged edge that is somewhat contrived, but an airiness in its layout that approaches that of his watercolours, confirms my impression that Ronald is, or could be, one of the most important Canadian painters today.


Canadian Art #88, Nov. - Dec. 1963.


Text: © Andrew Hudson. All rights reserved.

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