The Canadian Art Database

Liz Wylie

Richard Gorman: Pure Painting
The Ottawa Art Gallery, September 19 - November 17 1996

From the catalogue
[ 3,443 words ]

An entirely new art is thus being evolved, an art that will be to painting as painting has hitherto been envisaged, what music is to literature. It will be pure painting just as music is pure literature.

Guillaume Apollinaire, 1912 (1)

In thinking about the title that came to me for this survey exhibition of Richard Gorman's work, I had supposed that the phrase 'pure painting' had probably been invented in the 1960s to describe the work of painters like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler — the so-called second-generation New York School. It is a phrase that was bandied about casually in the 1960s and 1970s to describe paintings that were about the experience of paint — how the artist dealt with that medium, and how the viewer experienced that process. I was surprised to discover that the term was devised by Apollinaire, writing back in 1912, considering that most rarefied style of art, Cubism. The idea of pure painting, however, seems fitting for Richard Gorman in the way his abstract approach to painting spans several decades and generations of Canadian art history, taking into account his enthusiasm for the work of earlier artists, such as Tom Thomson and Paul-Emile Borduas, who could also be considered pure painters.


Gorman came to Toronto from Ottawa in 1954 to study at the Ontario College of Art. Over forty years later he still speaks with respect and gratitude about his instructor Jock MacDonald, and his course of study at OCA. Especially the rigour and discipline with which he was encouraged to approach art, and the long hours devoted to drawing. He still believes in the importance of figure drawing for artists, convinced that it is the best means of developing drawing skills. 'Anyone able to draw the human figure well would have little trouble drawing any other form,' he says, 'and it is also bound up with the subconscious, and has a spiritual side. It takes years to learn to do it well.' (2) Two examples of Gorman's straight figure drawings are included in this survey show, as is his etching suite of lovers embracing for Irving Layton's book of love poems, Dance with Desire, representing this discipline that has formed a silent side-line or hidden background / underground to his painting practice. These works also serve to underline Gorman's approach as an artist of looking and reaching back to the tradition of métier, while maintaining the stance of a radical abstract painter.

Gorman's painting instructor for his last two years at the Ontario Cllege of Art was Jock Macdonald, who had a profound positive personal and artistic influence upon him. (3) After graduating in 1958, Gorman set up a studio in Toronto where Macdonald would periodically visit. The next year, at Macdonald's recommendation, Gorman was accepted into the stable of artists represented by Av Isaacs at his Greenwich Gallery on Bay Street, which became the Isaacs Gallery the following year.

So, in the heyday of the 1960s, when the hip, happening art scene of Toronto was burgeoning, Richard Gorman was part of the group that centred around the Isaacs Gallery and the Artists Jazz Band (Gorman played bass). His artist friends and peers included Gordon Rayner, Robert Markle, Graham Coughtry, John Meredith, and Dennis Burton, all members of the younger generation of Toronto artists following directly on the heels of the Painters Eleven.

Gorman's painting in the 1960s went through several stylistic changes, from brightly coloured oils in the late fifties and 1960 (see Frozen Heat, 1960) to a series painted in 1960-63, largely in black and white (see Form Number Two in Flight, 1960). In the mid-sixties he tried the first commercially available acrylic paints, by Bocour and Liquitex, producing pictures with organic, leaf-like forms painted in single bright colours; but he soon returned to oils, which he continues to use today. He began working with non-traditional artist's implements such as a metal spatula, readily apparent in paintings such as Day of Judgment, 1961, or Nexus, 1962.

All these explorations on canvas by Gorman fit easily within the 'Toronto look' in painting as defined by Barrie Hale and evidenced in William Ronald's work, for example: painterly, with a 'large attack' method and feeling, and fraught with passionate tension. (4) The formal and intellectual underpinning and history of this type of painting have been documented in detail by writers looking at the 1960s in Toronto painting, a time when the writings of Clement Greenberg (we may recall his famed visit to the Painters Eleven studios in 1957 — all except those of the dissenters Harold Town and Walter Yarwood) and the hugely influential work and ideas of Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock were in the air. Certainly Gorman seems to have absorbed and adopted the notions of nature observed and internalized, of the generation from deep within the self of abstract imagery that seemed universally accessible at chthonic levels, of the spiritual content that abstraction could contain (this last surely would have been adopted from Jock Macdonald's ideas as well).

To excavate something of the textural detail of this period in Toronto's art history, one could begin almost anywhere. (5) Pick up, for instance, the Fall 1958 issue of Canadian Art magazine, when Gorman was just out of art school and beginning a career as a professional painter. The magazine was still produced in Ottawa, and it was oriented rather more toward Montreal than Toronto. (Canadian Art would move to Toronto in 1965.) An abstract collage by Harold Town is reproduced on the cover. A film documenting R.York Wilson's Toronto Imperial Oil mural has just been released. In one article, author Hugo McPherson wonders if Toronto could replace Montreal as an art centre. Another article describes the brand-new Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennial. A new book is out — Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson's A Painter's Country. The new dealer Avrom Isaacs is open for business at his Greenwich Gallery at 736 Bay Street. There seems to be a general feeling of acceptance and optimism to everything, as though we had nowhere to go but up.

And up many artists went. Success and accolades began to flow in for Gorman after his first few years out of OCA. He was given a solo exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery every year or two, and he began to show his work in various group exhibitions. In 1961 his Form Number Two in Flight was awarded first prize for oils in the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's 78th Annual Spring Exhibition.

The next year one of his works was accepted into the First Biennial Winnipeg Show. Gorman was also producing monoprints and exhibiting these in group print shows. In 1966, with fellow artist John Meredith, he was selected to represent Canada at the Paris Biennial.

Gorman's critical reception in the 1960s was largely enthusiastic and favourable. His exhibitions were consistently reviewed in the Toronto dailies, and critics like Elizabeth Kilbourn, Harry Malcolmson, and Robert Fulford praised his work. Some writers, including Malcolmson and Andrew Hudson, preferred Gorman's idiosyncratic, spontaneously created monoprints to his paintings. Gorman was also achieving success with his monoprints (several examples are in this exhibition); for instance, in 1962 he received an award for a print in the Seventh International Black-and-White Exhibition in Lugano, Switzerland. These early black and white prints are subtle and textural, with the sensation of layers built up to evolve into the final image.

During these years Gorman also produced aluminium sculptures and experimented with film. He tried printmaking by dragging ball bearings covered in ink over a piece of paper, using a large magnet underneath the table. Gorman's artistic restlessness and openness seemed to pervade his existential life as well. During the spring and summer of 1964, he travelled by freighter from New York to Morocco for a four-month writing and painting trip. He went north through Spain to the island of Ibiza (where Graham Goughtry had a place), where he visited for a while. He was back painting in Toronto that fall, but in December of the following year, at the age of thirty, left again for Europe. Gorman settled in the Sussex countryside outside London, England, and worked as a graphic artist.


When Gorman returned to Canada in 1971 he came to Ottawa, since his family of origin was still there. He first thought he would live in Toronto again, but was offered a teaching position in Ottawa, so stayed on. For a short time he maintained a studio in each city, but he gave up that idea and concentrated on building a career in Ottawa. From 1971 to 1989 he taught painting and drawing part time at both the Ottawa School of Art and the University of Ottawa, and had a positive influence and effect on a generation of young Ottawa artists. He began to exhibit around town — in cafés and small galleries — and also included work in both solo and group shows in Toronto. He was championed by Ottawa art writer Nancy Baele, who published twelve articles and reviews on his work in the Ottawa Citizen in about as many years, from 1981-92.

However, after the five-year break in his career as a painter in Canada, Gorman found it hard to fit in again. 'Pure painting' had become 'mere painting' to many people in an art scene where the focus had shifted to minimalism and political deconstructionism. Nevertheless, he was able to produce a strong body of large abstract paintings in the 1970s. He challenged himself physically as well as aesthetically and formally: most of the paintings were museum scale, and took pounds of oil paint to produce. He began using a large rubber silkscreen squeegee to draw enormous amounts of paint in big swathes across the canvas. Many of the paintings he produced are highly successful. In Cawll, 1974, a collage of newspapers underlies the vigorously painted white surface, a faint grid of opened-up pages. Tiny remnants of colour emerge here and there, like the lips of pink or orange along the edge of a pale sea shell. There is a sense of rainy atmosphere held in check by a hard, geometric black triangle at the lower left corner. Jacks, 1975, has a similar spareness, geometry, and emphasis on white. Pentimenti of colour emerge here as well: pale yellow along the top, some yellowish green on the right.

While living in England, Gorman had taken the opportunity to look at art in London, particularly at the Tate and National Galleries. Paintings by J.M.W. Turner, Stanley Spencer, William Blake, and a big Picasso show were of particular interest. His 1970s work is far more mature and considered, deeper and more satisfying, than his 1960s paintings. It reflects a curious amalgam of sources: Quebec painting (especially in the hands of Borduas, with his paint scraped with knives and cardboard and laid on with his expressive tache), Toronto painting, and the twentieth-century European stress on the canvas surface and sense of deliberate placement of compositional elements.

There is no pink at all in Pinks, 1976, but the title may refer to seventeenth-century terms for a pigment made with white and vegetable matter and called Dutch Pink, Italian Pink, Brown Pink,Yellow Lake. Part of our response to this painting is physical — we feel with our own bodies the reach and grasp of Gorman's as he swipes over his scraped areas, adding an active element to the area of repose created underneath.

Twenty First Century Gothic, 1979, was shown in Toronto in 1979 at the Jerrold Morris Gallery. It is mostly black, highly elegant and very powerful. Gamma Cygni Region, 1980, is lighter and more lyrical, in this case mostly green, also dragged on with a squeegee. Gorman's paintings from this period, usually luscious, depend on a kind of transformation of materials on his part. We experience their physical nature, but also react to the allusiveness of their application: to the body that produced the picture, and by extension to the human spirit behind it. Gorman's work is very much informed by his own spirituality, something he has pursued and developed, especially through reading, all his adult life.


Gorman recalls that in the late 1970s he began to feel disenchanted with the abstract painting he saw being exhibited by other artists. It seemed often to lack direction, vitality, and discipline. He decided he needed to create more of a framework and rigour for his own practice. 'I thought I should start with the beginning of plein air painting,' he says, 'back with Courbet and the Barbizon painters, and then come forward through time, hitting the Group of Seven here. I thought I could push forward and create a fresh form of landscape statement. It was a kind of painter's project and I figured it would take me a couple of years. Now here I am, still at it!' (6)

In 'going back' to landscape Gorman was also going back to his own history and roots, at both a superficial level and a profound and serious one. As a teenager in Ottawa, Gorman admired van Gogh and Tom Thomson. He worked as a summer camp counsellor in Algonquin Park, one lake over from Canoe Lake, where Thomson had drowned, and spent his spare time paddling a canoe and drawing. There is some personal history, then, for Gorman's creation of a fictional artist-persona, perhaps something of his own alter ego, called Jack Pine (after Tom Thomson's famous painting in the National Gallery of Canada). Jack Pine couldn't get his paintings shown in galleries so he placed them in what he called the Natural Gallery of Canada, along roadsides — we've all seen them, black arrows on yellow lozenges, for example, and black-and-yellow checkerboards at the end of dead-end roads (where we have to slow down and therefore can take a longer look). (A full-colour catalogue raisonné of Jack Pine's works can be seen in the Ontario Ministry of Transportation's driver's handbook.) It was Gorman's doppelgänger Jack Pine, I am sure, who painted his canoe with black-and-yellow checks. Both artists admire Jack Pine's Minimalist mentor, O.K. Zero (who painted the lines on the middle of all the roads), so named because he thought nothing was O.K.

Gorman has always been prone to creative diversion. In the 1980s he produced events and even a film using these characters. In fact, he has had a whole side production, which he terms Folk Forms. These included masks, dadaesque cigar box constructions, and forays into humorous colour photocopy art, some of which have from time to time been shown along with his paintings. Some of these photocopy works pay jocular homage to Gorman's favourite poets — Rilke, Rimbaud, Joyce, Pound, and Emily Dickinson. These activities, stemming from his love of the absurd, formed a creative outlet for him between canvases, sometimes even a springboard back in. With his return to the landscape in his painting, however, he could integrate them a little, incorporating his early experiences and enthusiasms for the northern landscape, and representational, expressive, textural painting, into a new personal form of serious, large-scale landscape painting.

Living in Ottawa, it was easy for Gorman to get out into rugged landscape for painting. He also could spend time at his brother's rustic cabin on Limerick Lake, near Bancroft. As though trying to mesh the abstract ideas he produced throughout his whole career with the ideas of his favourite landscape painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Gorman had to come up against the Precambrian Shield and wrest a subject from it, and also wrest a new form of painting from within himself. In much of the work he has produced, I think he has succeeded. In 1983 he produced 'what became for Gorman an undeliberate trilogy,' (7) three huge paintings titled Before the Fall, The Fall (Homage to Tom Thomson), and Real Life (After the Fall). The Fall in his title is, of course, a pun, referring to the season of autumn, but also to the Biblical fall from grace, before which we all lived in naked bliss in nature. The notion of an ancient time when humans could communicate with animals and life was happier and easier is a cross-cultural archetype found in myths and legends all over the world. Many of Gorman's paintings nudge us to consider such a state. It exists, for instance, in the metaphor for oneness between his medium and the natural world it represents: a tache of paint becomes a bough of leaves, the canvas surface reads like the reflecting surface of a lake or pond, a horizontal strip like a bit of far shore.

In 1986 Gorman won a commission to produce a mural for the new Ottawa Provincial Court House. Before the Law was unveiled in January 1987. Here also he created a double-entendre with his title, referring to those people being brought to justice, or 'before the law', in the building, and also once again to that Arcadian epoch before humanity had the need for laws. This three-panelled painting depicts a spot on the Ottawa River near the Chaudiere Falls, imagined as it may have looked before European settlement. We are looking at a primeval, primordial landscape, full of Northern brooding and mysticism. The landforms are built up in Gorman's signature impasto from the areas representing water, so that they extend palpably into three-dimensional space, emphasizing the work's topographic references.

In 1989 Gorman decided to relocate to Toronto and concentrated solely on his painting. By1994 he had produced about one hundred paintings in oil, mostly on a modest scale. In the last two years he has produced some oils, but has been painting mainly in watercolour. All his watercolours are landscape-based, and many are done on site, at locales like Parry Sound on Georgian Bay, the Severn River, or in the Caledon Hills. He likes to work with various properties of the medium, including the opposing qualities of opaque and transparent colour. He will often mix combinations of opaque and transparent pigments on his palette and work with them, wet-on-wet, so that later little flecks of pigment appear imbedded in the washes. These little pictures are tough, strong, and balanced, not delicate or lyrical, as is so often the case with this medium and this subject. They are quite alive and vital, and each is very different from the next.


Richard Gorman's critical reception was good in the early years of his career, but not a great deal of serious attention has been paid to his work in the last two decades. This could be due partly to his living in Ottawa (not considered a major art centre) and partly to painting's not being usually considered the medium of choice for critically relevant art since the 1970s (the blip of Neo-Expressionist painting in the 1970s and 80s and the controversies over the attention / validation it received notwithstanding). But some writers and curators have been quietly supportive of Gorman's production. Joan Murray produced a book and travelling exhibition of his work in 1990. John Bentley Mays wrote in 1991 of Gorman's Gamma Cygni Region, 1980: 'It is the best thing here by a senior Toronto abstractionist — a green, open invitation of anxious energies, and an act of combat with them.' (8) Gorman's work has been included in group exhibitions like Dennis Reid's Toronto Painting 1953-1965, organized for the National Gallery in 1972, and more recently in the National Gallery's Crisis of Abstraction: the 1950s, organized by Denise Leclerc in 1993. But the Art Gallery of Ontario does not include his 1961 Day of Judgment in its permanent installation of Toronto painting of the period. We hope that this current exhibition, which brings together major examples of Gorman's oeuvre over a thirty-five-year period, will help to correct this critical and curatorial neglect by drawing attention to his considerable artistic achievement.

Artist Karen Hibbard wrote in 1991: 'Gorman's painting is open to interpretation. For me, it's an invitation to travel with him on a spiritual path.' (9)

From the catalogue Richard Gorman: Pure Painting

Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.

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