| Dennis Reid
The Meeting Place (1988)
The following text was written for the publication Toronto Suite,
by the photographer and printer Michael Torosian, issued in a limited edition
in 1988. The Isaacs Gallery closed in 1992 and the Isaacs Innuit Gallery
In 1986, when the Isaacs Gallery moved to new premises, after twenty-five years in their Yonge Street location, it was naturally an occasion that elicited appraisal and celebration for one of the most enduring galleries in Canada. A tribute of particular significance came from Robert Fulford, a supporter and monitor of the scene from the very beginning: 'In time Isaacs became the leading dealer in Canada, the one who did more than anyone else to shape critical taste and develop an audience for new art!' Fulford enunciated the fact that the gallery was not simply an entrepreneurial venture, but a social phenomenon.
Half of the story of this phenomenon can he found in the works of the artists, conspicuous among contemporary art in galleries across the country. The other half of the story is in the individuals, the cast of characters who aligned themselves with one gallery and the individual whose gallery showcased their work. Any analysis of temperaments and personalities would demonstrate the diversity of this group of people. From a historical viewpoint it is the gallery that is their point of intersection and public identity, and that which forges them into a community.
The photographs in this book are an exploration of personal identity within a communal context, and like the essay are a chronicle and celebration of a seminal period in Canadian art. In this brief history of a Toronto gallery and its artists, adapted from an original essay by Dennis Reid, Av Isaacs is both guiding force and witness. His reminiscences, culled from interviews with Michael Torosian, speak of the idealism and pragmatism of the man who established a gallery over three decades ago.
Avrom Isaacs was born in North Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1926. He moved with his family to Toronto in 1941 when his father relocated in pursuit of new business interests. While a student at the University of Toronto, he and a friend started a picture framing business.
Perhaps this is a sample of my inclinations. I wonder if I'm not a wanderer, just going in directions that present themselves. I had a cousin who lived in a community house on Bathurst Street full of postgraduate students most of whom were in political science and economics. When it came time to go to university I saw Polysci and Ec, and because I had some minimal familiarity with the words I took it. Then I went into the framing business with Al Latner - maybe Al pushed me into it. We called ourselves University Framers and we did very well on a part-time basis, so like fools we thought it would be a good thing to go into. After a year Al got married and I bought him out for fifteen hundred bucks in war bonds. So I have a feeling I was just wandering around without any obvious goals. One thing leads to another.
By the summer of 1950 Isaacs was the sole proprietor of the Greenwich Art Shop, located at 77 Hayter Street, in Toronto's bohemian 'village'. Resourcefulness was perhaps his chief asset.
In the beginning I had to make a buck any way I could so I did framing, I had art supplies and I sold reproductions. I remember a guy wandered in one day, a jolly looking fellow, tall, slim, good looking, and he says, "I've got an idea. I'm a good door-to-door salesman and I think we can make some money selling religious art. You buy a bunch of pictures of Jesus and Mary and I'll sell them." He walked the whole city of Toronto and we split the take. We even had a rubber stamp that said "Gospel Art". But finally we ended that and he disappeared.
Toronto's old 'Greenwich Village', centered around Gerrard Street west of Yonge, was a nucleus of artistic activity. That, and Isaacs' stock of art supplies soon turned the shop into a gathering place for artists and students from the Ontario College of Art.
Bill Ronald was the first artist I befriended. Then right after that, Graham Coughtry and Mike Snow. A lot of these kids used to hang around my place. The CBC had just started and they picked up work there - Graham and Denny Burton worked for the graphic department, and Tom Gibson and Murray Laufer worked in the paint department. Bob Markle, who painted the sign for my Bay Street gallery, made his living painting advertising signs saying things like, "Lettuce 10 cents a bunch!" for grocery stores on College Street. So this is where my social relations with these people began. When Graham graduated from the Ontario College of Art he invited me to share an apartment with him, which I did for two years, and which I now refer to as my postgraduate degree in the arts.
Graham was a very precocious person, very aware of literature and poetry and contemporary music and he was a very gifted artist, as he is today. I learned a lot through him. There were always parties, people coming around, so I guess by absorption I picked up a lot and developed a sensibility.
I lived with Graham from 1953 to 1955, then I closed down the framing shop for two months and went to Europe. This was another of my postgraduate courses. I went over by myself, I have a tendency to do a lot of things by myself, and just wandered through England, Scotland, France, Holland and Italy, looking at galleries.
During the years of the framing shop Isaacs had been hanging and even sometimes selling the work of this group of young artists, but there were no formal exhibitions. Upon his return from Europe he decided to establish a gallery, and late in the year opened a new space, the Greenwich Gallery, at 736 Bay Street, just around the corner from his old location. The framing shop, the financial mainstay, was now in the back room.
Graham and Mike tell me they decided there was no place to show pictures so they talked me into opening my first gallery. The artists in my gallery, like the members of Painters Eleven, were a group of people who got together for some kind of mutual comfort because they were in such an isolated situation. If you don't have a showcase you don't have anything. Toronto in those days was just a series of interconnected villages. It was a peculiar city, the Orangemen still paraded down University Avenue every year and there seemed to be more churches than houses.
The artists in my first show were a very diverse group. There was nothing in common except the fact that I chose them; they were people I was sensitive to. I picked them out of instinct. I was totally insecure for perhaps the first five or ten years. I didn't know whether I knew anything or not. I went with what I felt was good, but I didn't know if I was on the right track. I had certain sensitivities and you can trace these through the artists in the show.
The painters Isaacs chose to launch his gallery did not share any particular theories or ideologies. Robert Varvarande presented figurative works of an abstract nature. The pictures of Michael Snow and Graham Coughtry indicated a sense of the particular spatial and atmospheric character of postwar European art, while also revealing an interest in the gestural concerns of the New York School. William Ronald, a member of Painters Eleven, displayed works that were brilliantly vital responses to Abstract Expressionism. Gerald Scott, the most traditional of the five, exhibited intense, painterly portraits.
The debut of the Greenwich Gallery was part of what veteran art dealer Blair Lang has called, '... the beginning of the golden years of art dealing in both North America and Europe.' Critic Robert Fulford, delighted with this dramatic burgeoning, described it as '... a spectacular city-wide show, the first of its kind we have ever seen!' By 'show' Fulford meant the entire artistic scene, where new galleries '... are born and they die ... they blossom gloriously with triumphant new talents.'
'When I came along,' Isaacs recalled, 'it was a means for artists to expose their work. What other dealers were around? Blair Lang? Coolings? Neither of them showed contemporary work. Douglas Duncan's Picture Loan Society was the only gallery committed to showing contemporary art.
Douglas Duncan was a wonderful guy who I looked up to. He was of an older generation and showed artists like Borduas, Jack Nichols, Harold Town, and one of the greatest artists this country has produced, David Milne. I was always grateful to Duncan because he came to see me, to look at my artists and patronize the gallery. We had something in common - we both showed contemporary artists who were working on new ideas. So it was nice for me to think I had done something similar to him.
There were other places like the Roberts Gallery, which was for the most part traditional. I remember I would have a show of Snow paintings and Roberts would have a show of William Winter, who painted kids on skating rinks, and he would sell forty-two paintings and I wouldn't sell one and I'd get ulcers.
A steady stream of new artists exhibited over the next three or four years. Outstanding among them were the painter Tony Urquhart and the sculptors Gerald Gladstone and Anne Kahane.
At the end of the fifties a significant wave of young artists was engaged - individuals who, along with Coughtry and Snow, have in most cases remained with the gallery, a core group whose work has by its force and the nature of its concerns established an ethos and 'look' that has been identified with Av Isaacs' gallery ever since. All were deeply involved with New York abstraction, turning it to an examination of fundamental drives and emotions. They conveyed in their work a high regard for the physical properties of paint and an expressive brashness.
All of these artists were drawn from the growing cultural scene in Toronto, from the coffee houses and jazz clubs that appeared on the fringes of the old village. As diverse in certain aspects as Isaacs' original five had been, the members of this group were more closely related 'on the scene'. They frequented the same anti-establishment bars and clubs, as well as one another's studios, talked about books, and shared a deep involvement with music. Richard Gorman, Gordon Rayner, Joyce Wieland, John Meredith, Dennis Burton, Robert Markle - this new and youthful Isaacs group, confidently innovative, soon represented the leading edge of avant-garde art in the country. Isaacs's sensitive response to the integrity of his artists was probably the most effective support he could give them.
I started off showing Canadian artists and to this day I show Canadian artists. Initially it was because I felt this was a young country and we had to do a lot of self-exploration before we could go anywhere. Then I continued showing only Canadian artists, for a reason that may be outdated today, because of the cultural monster to the south of us. I felt that unless we kept stressing our own we were going to be overwhelmed.
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. I was able to sense that a person may have something going for him.
At an early stage I realized that there were a lot of creative people around but it's the ability one has to persevere that is crucial. I believe in developed instinct because when you take on a young artist, and that is what a lot of the artists I've taken on are, five years down the road you don't know where they're going to be. They change and develop so rapidly.
When it came time to hang a show I always let the artist make the final decisions on the selection of paintings. I considered them mature enough creatures that they knew what was best for them, what their goals were. I learned a lot from them.
His artists were rapidly gaining prominence both at home and abroad. Graham Coughtry and Tony Urquhart were chosen for the Guggenheim International exhibition in New York, and joined Michael Snow and Gerald Gladstone at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
By the end of the decade, Isaacs' gallery had secured its place in the vital creative life of the city. The Greenwich Gallery Poetry Nights were organized in the spring of 1958 by Raymond Souster and Ken McRobbie and a small committee that included Robert Fulford. By the fall, this series, then billed as the Contact Press Poetry Readings, had become an important part of the local literary scene. The culmination would come in April 1960 with a reading by the American master Charles Olson.
In September of 1959, Isaacs changed the name of the Greenwich Gallery to the Isaacs Gallery. 'I found it very embarrassing to name a gallery after myself,' he recalls, 'but the boys finally convinced me.'
He established his own imprint, Gallery Editions, to publish books in which the work of local poets was illustrated by his artists, an ambition he candidly acknowledges was in emulation of his 'patron saint' Ambroise Vollard, the Parisian impresario. Although only two such volumes were produced in 1961-62 they are among the most elegant Canadian books of their day: Eyes Without a Face, by Ken McRobbie, with a cover and etching by Graham Coughtry, and A Place of Meeting, by Raymond Souster, with a cover and drawings by Michael Snow.
Beginning in 1956 Isaacs introduced exhibitions of European graphic art. He presented at least one large show a year, and in 1958 also introduced contemporary Japanese woodblock prints.
These exhibitions, though staged for pragmatic reasons, also complemented the general ambience of the gallery.
I had to find things to sell and I was trying to figure out where I was. There was a new industry in lithographs in France after the war and suddenly this whole exploitation of prints by artists like Chagall and Picasso began. I bought some prints from a friend of mine living in Paris and sold them for $75 to $125 apiece. Today they would be worth $10,000. I had a show of Japanese woodblock prints because some guy who'd been with the Canadian embassy and had connections came in one day. So you had this and that. I was new at the game.
We also developed quite a framing business. Bill Kurelek came to work for me about 1958. He had apprenticed for two years as a master framer in London. He brought in some of his own paintings to show me the calibre of his framing and I was immediately impressed by his capacity as an artist. A little later I hired an English cabinetmaker to be the foreman. We worked in the old tradition of framing - you start with a raw piece of wood and you shape it and finish it. It was astonishing. Bill had golden hands as my mother would say. The framing was just wonderful. We've got frames in the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hart House, the Art Gallery of Ontario, all over. Half the framers in Toronto apprenticed with me.
By January of 1960 the framing business employed three fulltime staff, one more than the gallery itself. It was the success of this venture that allowed Isaacs to maintain his uncompromising exhibition policy - a policy that, in less than five years, had placed him at the centre of the most creative artists in the country.
In March 1961 Isaacs moved his gallery into custom-designed quarters at 832 Yonge Street, just north of Bloor. The new gallery, designed by architect Irv Grossman, was one of the best environments anywhere for the viewing of contemporary art. The clearly-lit, expansive white spaces were easily adaptable. A striking cedar ceiling ran out through a glass front wall and up the fašade of the building, declaring the bold modernity of the largest private gallery in Toronto.
The new Isaacs Gallery opened with two shows. One featured a major new piece by each of Isaacs' artists; the other was consciously historical, consisting of earlier works that he had sold to some of the city's most prominent collectors.
In the pamphlet issued to mark the opening, Hugo McPherson concluded a short essay with the declaration that the Isaacs Gallery had become 'a major institution in the artistic life of the Canadian community!'
For the opening show I chose works as the best of what I had sold to show the calibre of what I was having. My taste was evolving. I was gradually picking up a bigger and bigger stable and these artists had evolved rapidly too. When I was on Bay Street there wasn't an artist who was thirty, it was still a young group.
Sometimes the artist can get ahead of you. What I mean by that is sometimes an artist will have a show and it may be six months or a year later until you finally develop your full appreciation of it. I've become more tolerant. If I look at the work and don't get it, I know sometime later I'll decide whether it's really good and I didn't get it or it's not up to scratch and I did get it. I always believe in the theory that there is some kind of time clock working in the back of your head which will eventually help you to resolve whether something works or not. You take an artist on because you think he's got something and you always give him the benefit of the doubt.
An exhibition, the following December 1961, provided evidence of Isaacs's openness to the unorthodox. This seminal show featured new works by Burton, Gorman, Rayner, Snow, Wieland, Coughtry's brother Arthur, and a young artist named Greg Curnoe. Robert Fulford called it 'Anarchy' in the headline of his approving review, accurately describing it as Neo-Dadaist. University of Toronto professor Michel Sanouillet, a historian of the original Dada movement of 1916-24, noted in Canadian Art magazine that the show was the first manifestation in the city of the renewed interest in Dadaism that had been growing in New York and Paris.
Toronto had started to move at a very rapid pace. There was a fantastic feeling of confidence and optimism. The younger generation believed in their ability to do well. For all sorts of economic and historical reasons, Toronto was meant to be the city it is today. I was swept along in the explosion, I was completely immersed in it.
The Isaacs Gallery in fact was the principal focus of this activity. Michael Snow's first Walking Woman show at the gallery, in March 1962, was a foretaste of the radical rethinking that painting and sculpture would undergo. Another landmark in the development of cross-media tendencies was a four evening festival of Canadian experimental film presented in February 1964. Organized by Isaacs in response to what he called '... the growing bond between painters and sculptors and artists in the medium of film,' the show featured cinematic works and animation, plus a display of drawings by Norman McLaren. In December of the same year the Artists Jazz Band played at the Isaacs Gallery for the first time.
The most ambitious program, however, was the series of five Mixed Media Concerts staged at the gallery through November 1965 to the following April. Arranged by Isaacs and the composer Udo Kasemets, the series coalesced Toronto's earliest interest in what would ultimately develop into performance art. The first concert, called Music for the Eye and Ear, featured the Isaacs Gallery Ensemble, a group of musicians and 'painter-performers' that included Burton, Rayner and Coughtry. They performed works by Kasemets and leading American exponents like John Cage. Michael Snow presented both a performance piece, White Leader, and a film, New York Eye and Ear Control. The concerts attracted a great number of young people, especially from Yorkville, the centre of the counter-culture.
The Mixed Media Concerts were seminal events in the cultural life of Toronto. They were formidable, energetic and central to an understanding of the art scene in general and the Isaacs artists in particular.
One of the things I'm most proud of is that so many avant-garde people were associated with the Isaacs Gallery in performance pieces. This was a great experience for me. Here were these wonderful concerts and I hadn't even heard of half the people. To participate to the extent of having promoted them and listened to them was tremendous - I learned a great deal. We brought in some of the most avant-garde musicians in the world. Stockhausen came and performed. I think we brought something to Toronto that Toronto had never seen before.
I don't think I was the great initiator of many things. People approached me with ideas and if I liked the idea I bought it. I had a gallery that was commodious enough to handle events. The Artists Jazz Band put on concerts, Eskimo throat singers put on a show - it was a good space.
Sculpture was actively promoted at the Isaacs Gallery. Exhibitions included figurative work by Anne Kahane and John Ivor Smith, large-scale forms by ceramicist Arthur Handy, and the more idiosyncratic pieces of Walter Redinger. A show in March 1965 entitled Polychrome Construction, which included the work of Donald Judd, provided an important early glimpse of new minimalist influences. That November marked the gallery debut of Les Levine, an artist who pioneered the expansion of sculpture into environmental spaces and made radical use of industrial processes and electronics. John MacGregor and Reg Holmes, more traditional in their approach, also exhibited, as did the architect-sculptor Nobuo Kubota.
Photographer Michel Lambeth had long been a presence on the art scene and an intimate friend of the Isaacs artists. His work, of the 'documentary humanist' school, concerned with personal reflection and social commentary, was a pioneering force in Canadian photography. Selections from his portrait of Toronto were presented in 1965, in what could well be the first one-man show accorded a photographer in a Toronto commercial gallery. In addition to future exhibitions by Lambeth, photography had an intermittent presence in the gallery, with shows by Morley Markson, Ralph Greenhill and Arnaud Maggs.
Isaacs' core group remained in the vanguard throughout the decade, but there were notable additions. Jack Chambers showed his highly crafted, intensely personal figurative pictures from 1962 to 1967. Greg Curnoe, with his often controversial paintings and constructions, joined the gallery in 1966. Christiane Pflug, who is now something of an underground figure (a consequence of her limited output and her early death), exhibited her engrossingly realistic work in 1962 and 1964.
The first one-man exhibition by William Kurelek was presented in 1960. His paintings, often didactically Christian, are, as often, obsessive in a manner that resembles the work of primitive artists.
He's an exception to the rule, whatever the hell the rule is. Kurelek was a deceptive artist. People call him a naive artist. In fact he was no such thing. There was a peculiar twist to his work. If you have it hanging in your house, after a while it starts to magnify itself and bear down on you. If you met him you'd think he was lethargic, but he was a driven, possessed man.
One day he attended an opening for Gordon Rayner with his wife. I said, "It's nice to see you Bill, what are you doing here" and he said, "My wife wanted to see what an artist looked like."
The other artists felt very strange about his work. I don't believe they felt disrespectful - I think they were very intrigued. They just thought he was totally out of context!
Kurelek was one of the gallery's most prolific and popular artists. His paintings, along with those of Snow and Rayner, have been among the most frequently exhibited.
Isaacs's diverse interests were demonstrated throughout the sixties. His gallery hosted regular showings of Eastern and tribal art, including antique Oriental paintings and African carvings, part of a growing interest in art outside the Western tradition that was often reflected in the work of some of his own artists.
It was always clear that my primary direction was contemporary Canadian art but I also have very eclectic tastes and I like finding strange things that interest me. Without a doubt the great majority of my shows were Canadian, but running through them was a trail of this and that. Perhaps it was a bit of showmanship - I realized it would be nice to mix it up.
One day a good looking woman with a Georgian accent came in and said she had a collection of wedding jackets. She showed me these beautiful things and I asked her where they came from and she said, "Baluchistan." I asked her where the hell Baluchistan was and she told me somewhere around India. I ended up buying all thirty of them. Then she wired this prince she knew in Baluchistan to tell him she had sold all her wedding jackets and wanted some more. He got on his camel and started looking around and found another four, only to discover that was all there was left in Baluchistan - I had the largest collection of Baluchistan wedding jackets in the world!
I showed African sculpture a couple of times, New Guinea sculpture, and as I became involved in antiquities I became curious about Native art. I remember the first time I went to the Museum of the North American Indian in New York. I saw all these deerskin dresses with beautiful beadwork and thought, what is this all about? It's funny how you arrive with these preconditioned premises but it slowly came to me that anything can be an art form. These people were itinerant so their art work was on their clothing for the most part.
By 1961 I was handling Eskimo art and in both 1968 and 1969 I mounted formal shows. I believed it was an important art form, but I realized I couldn't do the job it deserved through the Isaacs Gallery, so I opened my second gallery. My motives were really quite altruistic. I know my accountant told me I was crazy. Well the strangest thing happened - it was an immediate success.
I was making money with the Isaacs Gallery, a very modest amount. With the Innuit Gallery I was making a comfortable living. I run it the same way I run the Isaacs Gallery, it's not a 'shoppe', it's a gallery with formal exhibitions.
The Innuit Gallery opened at 30 Avenue Road in the spring of 1970, the first gallery in the world devoted solely to Inuit art.
The establishment of the Innuit Gallery clarified Isaacs' role in the avant-garde scene and also aided in the development of a market for Native art. The gallery continued to hold exhibitions of tribal paintings and sculptures throughout the seventies. In July 1976 Isaacs staged a show of Indian artifacts from the Pacific northwest, marking a new interest that gradually superseded his pursuit of other non-European art. His reputation in this specialized area would eventually grow to international proportions, abetted by the expertise of Martha Black, his assistant of twenty years.
The Isaacs Gallery, reflecting its owner's commitment to fresh ideas, took on several new artists. Gar Smith's first show, in March 1970, consisted of a large slide-projection piece. Two months later, John Greer was introduced to Toronto audiences with a show of visual puns and perceptual tricks made of huge elastic bands. In February 1972, Mark Prent exhibited the first of his lifelike sculptural tableaux depicting grotesque deformity and carnage. Angus Trudeau, introduced in 1973, was an Odawa from Manitoulin Island and a retired ship's cook; he made wonderful models and vivid paintings of Great Lakes steamboats, a presage of work that in coming years would be embraced within the definition of a now popular genre, 'folk art'. A series of group shows, held throughout the decade, would lead to the debuts of Mark Gomes in 1978 and Brian Burnett in 1979.
The core group of the gallery, however, remained the same: Coughtry, Snow, Rayner, Wieland, Burton, Markle and Meredith. Their commitment to painting, whatever the trends in the art marketplace, maintained it as a viable activity in Toronto.
In the sixties I almost had a monopoly, or at least a vital part of the scene. In the seventies there were a lot more galleries, Toronto was expanding and the action spread out. I still had a terrific gallery but there were a lot of other galleries doing terrific work too.
The parallel galleries [artist-run centres] were a welcome addition that made the scene richer and added a new kind of statement. In a way they outshone us because they were into a newer area, an area the commercial galleries didn't go in because often that kind of art wasn't practical commercially. But they were a great showplace and one constantly talent scouted.
I think my political science and economics education helped me in an indirect manner. I always had a historical perspective. I knew that time would go by and sooner or later someone else would be the big gun. The way I look at it, I was the hotshot of the sixties, Carmen Lamanna was the hotshot of the seventies and Ydessa [Hendeles] was the hotshot of the eighties. I don't know that I ever felt I was the centre of it all, even though at times I was.
It was in I972 that the Isaacs Gallery faced its most significant crisis. A series of incidents arising from the first of two exhibitions by Mark Prent brought unprecedented publicity and controversy.
John Ivor Smith kept telling me about this young artist in his class, so I went to see Mark, who lived with his father in a two-bedroom apartment in Montreal. These disturbing sculptures were all over the place. I walked away from that apartment and for three days I vibrated. I could not assess it. It was completely emotional. I thought if it's hitting me this hard it can't be pure sensationalism - he must have something. On that basis I took him on. I didn't know what I was letting myself in for.
Following a visit from the police during the course of the first show, in February, Isaacs was charged under an obscure and hitherto unused section of the criminal code, one that prohibited the public display of a so-called 'disgusting object'.
From the day we opened the vibrations set in. Within no time at all we went from having fifty people a day to five hundred and on Saturdays we'd have a thousand. He was young and the stuff was very raw. People did strange things, we had to hire security guards. Suddenly I was a potential criminal.
He contested the charge, and as events unfolded, a right-wing political extremist was revealed to have made the complaint. The case was dismissed on a technicality when it came to trial in October, but Isaacs remained uneasy. He knew the law, now highly publicized, had not been tested in court.
His concern was well-founded. Part way through Prent's second show in January 1974, the same charge was laid again. Isaacs and his lawyer forestalled a judgment in the case while they challenged the section of the criminal code in the Supreme Court of Canada. They lost, but in December 1975 a grand jury ruled that the case should not have been brought to trial. Ultimately, the offensive section was removed from the criminal code. The charges had carried a heavy symbolic weight, and the harassing manner in which they had been applied was deeply disturbing.
If you want to run a gallery with a degree of integrity you want to show people who are good. Being an optimist you say if it's good it's going to sell, which isn't necessarily the case. On the other hand, you feel a certain amount of pride when you have a show and you know it's damn good.
It's amazing the number of times artists have admitted to me that it gave them a great deal of confidence to walk into the gallery and see their works on the wall. It was like the time I went to India. Bombay scared the hell out of me and every afternoon I'd have to go sit in the Taj Mahal Hotel lobby because it was a kind of American setup and I would get my security back. Then I'd venture out into the streets again.
A decade after the first legal confrontation, a crisis of a different sort came with the economic recession that settled on the nation. Yet even during this difficult period the Isaacs Gallery took on new artists. Stephen Cruise, Gathie Falk and Ed Radford all had their first exhibitions in 1982. Oddly enough, it was the dramatic economic recovery, more specifically the boom in Toronto, that caused even greater difficulty. The rent on the gallery had soared, causing Isaacs to leave his Yonge Street location.
When I opened on Yonge Street in 1961 it was one of the highlights of my career. The night before the gallery opened I went across the street and looked into the gallery and thought, that's my gallery. I was so impressed by it. It was a major commitment. I had the same feeling when Mike Snow had his first retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was very proud to be associated with him. There is always a fair degree of pride when something happens for one of your artists and you can share in it.
I was forced to leave Yonge Street because they increased my rent by 250 percent. In retrospect, it was a good move because I had a chance to take new attitudes.
In late 1986 the Isaacs Gallery opened at its new location at 179 John Street, just north of Queen West, a region favoured by the current generation of artists. As always, the gallery would remain in the heart of the artistic community.
I had an opening which was one of the events of the year in Toronto. The place was jammed. All kinds of people I've never seen before or since. It was a great occasion. There were television cameras, gifts were given to me, I was on a receiving line all night long. I wasn't swept off my feet. In the back of my mind I knew the next morning it was back to work.
Today, the core group of artists from the fifties continues to dominate the scene, their remarkable work still a feature of the Isaacs Gallery. The artists who developed out of the great ferment of the late sixties, and who sought alternatives to traditional painting and sculpture with their conceptual art and installation work - Prent, Greer, Smith, Gomes and Cruise - now also carry the authority that only time, talent and perseverance can bring. The so-called 'new figurative' painters who blossomed at the beginning of the current decade, marking the resurrection of a much-maligned medium, found a particularly sympathetic environment in the Isaacs Gallery, where faith in painting had never been lost. Responding to talent, not fashion, Isaacs found in Gathie Falk, Ed Radford, Brian Burnett and Lorne Wagman distinct personalities rather than representatives of a style.
This dynamic stratification - three generations of artists, all vitally contemporary yet each rooted in a distinct historical moment - is an unprecedented phenomenon in a commercial gallery. A microcosm of the major currents in Canadian art co-exists in the Isaacs Gallery. The exhibitions continue in their remarkable diversity, just as they had begun three decades earlier.
I think it's a great time, there is a tremendous amount of richness and vitality. The good thing Toronto has going for it is that it's the centre of Canada and a centre. There is a constant coming and going with a constant freshness of ideas. How much there is of a nature that might be important twenty or thirty years from now I can't assess, nor can anyone ever assess.
When Barry Hale died we had his wake at the gallery. A few of us talked about things and Bob Markle, who has a great mind, got up and said, "Our era is a very important era. Maybe none of us will be known fifty years from now, but I think it's a seminal period. Certain things happened in this city at this time among this group of artists that will have a lasting effect." Something was established, an attitude, a direction. The scene was creative.
The original publication of the T0R0NT0 SUITE was composed in Linotype Electra and handprinted on mould-made Frankfurt paper. Duotone production at The Porcupine's Quill.
Design, composition, presswork and binding by Michael Torosian.
The frontispiece photograph, Av Isaacs, 1988, is a gelatin-silver print made from the original negative by the photographer.
Printed in a numbered edition of 150 and a special edition lettered A to E accompanied by a portfolio of original prints.
Text: © Dennis Reid. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.