The Canadian Art Database

TRAFFIC | Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980

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installation view        installation view        installation view

List of Artists and Works

Introduction                                                  [version française]
Catherine Crowston
Art Gallery of Alberta

On September 24, 1969, The Edmonton Art Gallery (EAG) opened its first exhibition of conceptual art, Place and Process. Under the directorship of William (Bill) Kirby, the gallery, which had moved to its new building earlier that year, was eager to engage the city with innovative, non-material, process-based art. With Place and Process it succeeded.

The exhibition took place in six outdoor sites around the city and included performances by Les Levine, Hans Haacke and the N.E. Thing Co. among others. Concurrent with Place and Process, the exhibition AIR ART (September 4-28) showed inflatable works by Canadian and international artists including the Architectural Association Group, Hans Haacke, Akira Kanayama, Les Levine, Robert Morris and Andy Warhol. AIR ART traveled throughout the US but The Edmonton Art Gallery was its only Canadian venue.

These two projects were the first of their kind in Canada. In an article published in the Edmonton Journal on September 5, 1969, Virgil G. Hammock wrote "this exhibition is not only a first for Edmonton but a first for Canada. Because of our gallery's daring, Edmonton is becoming known throughout Canada as a centre for Avant Garde (sic) art exhibitions." This thought was echoed in Studio International magazine which stated in its November 1969 issue that The Edmonton Art Gallery was "rapidly becoming a major international art institution."

The EAG also participated in Vancouver artist Bill Vazan's Cross Canada Tapeline (January 1970) and hosted a second solo exhibition of the N.E. Thing Co. (January 1971). Together, these exhibitions, presented in the short span between 1969 and 1971, marked a unique time in the history of the gallery – a time when it was at the defining edge of the international art world.

In July 1971, Bill Kirby left The EAG and the institution underwent significant staff changes over the next year. Under the new leadership the gallery realigned its exhibition mandate to focus on abstract painting and sculpture produced by American and Western-Canadian artists working within the tenets of formalism as defined by the influential American art critic, Clement Greenberg. This shift had a profound and lasting impact on the visual art community in Edmonton over the next two decades.

Under the auspices of The EAG, artists Harry Savage, N.E. Thing Co., and Lawrence Weiner, accompanied by Virgil G. Hammock, Bill Kirby and American critic Lucy Lippard, flew to Inuvik after the opening of Place and Process. Over the course of three days the artists made a number of works, among them: This statement will be is being has been sent from inside to outside the Arctic Circle (N.E. Thing Co.) and Exposed Light Silhouette (Savage).

In 1971, the University of Calgary and the Alberta College of Art began hiring young American and British artists who embraced the ideas and values of a growing counterculture. Among those who migrated to the city that year were John Will, Paul Woodrow, Jeff Funnell and Don Mabie. Of equal significance was the arrival of Clive Robertson in late 1971.

The work produced by these artists often took the form of performances, events and projects that were a confluence of happenings influenced by the Fluxus movement and experiments in new media. Many of the works were informed by an interdisciplinarity that emphasized process over product and examined the interstitial space between art and daily life. In June 1972, and December 1973, Robertson and Woodrow organized the World Festival of W.O.R.K.S. (an anagram for "we ourselves roughly know something") and sent out a call for proposals to which artists from around the world responded with instructions for performances, happenings, and actions. Calgary artists placed considerable emphasis on embodying and manipulating mass communication systems, using television, radio and magazine platforms to reach a wider, more dispersed audience. Radio Cora, an independent, artist-fueled program that featured live performances, alternative music, interviews with artists and an openforum, began broadcasting in 1972. In 1974, robertson founded Voicepondence, an audio magazine distributed on cassette tape.

The following year, Robertson, Woodrow, Mabie and Marcella Bienvenue, a filmmaker and performance artist, founded the Parachute Center for Cultural Affairs with a national video festival and the publication of Centerfold, edited by Robertson and Bienvenue. Similar parodic enactmentsof corporate culture can be seen in Brian Dyson's SPacific company and Don Mabie's Chuck Stake Enterprizes. Clouds 'n' Water Gallery, which would later become Off Centre Centre, was also founded in 1975. In 1977, the Parachute Center was renamed Arton's (which referenced Eatons, much as General Idea's FILE played off LIFE magazine) and expanded its visiting artists program. Ron Moppett and Brian Dyson also ran a successful visiting artists program at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery as did Jeffrey Spalding and Peter White at the Glenbow Museum.

1978 marked a year of transition for the Calgary art community; Arton's relocated to Toronto and an influx of new people from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) began arriving. Jeffrey Spalding moved to the city that year followed by Mary Scott and Rita McKeough in 1980. These artists brought with them conceptually driven art-making strategies and helped to further define the Calgary art community as it exists today.

Conceptual art in Winnipeg grew from a distinctive mix of local art histories and the influence of international art movements such as Minimalism and Situationism. Given Winnipeg's relative geographical autonomy and the absence of an overriding economic or ideological imperative or 'style,' a dynamic, heterogeneous community constituted the art scene. Winnipeg was a crossroads allowing artists investigating the possibilities of conceptualism to take risks with supportive institutions and audiences.

Under the directorship of Suzanne Gillies and Doug Sigurdson, Plug In, established in 1972, supported experimental and process-based approaches to art-making, presenting exhibitions in video, performance, music, installation, sound and mail art by local, national and international artists. Many of the works shown at Plug In, including Gordon Lebredt's Loci (1977) and Jeff Funnell's Sistine Tons (1980), addressed issues of architecture and employed decidedly elemental building materials like lumber, drywall, shingles, glass, wire mesh and concrete.

The University of Manitoba's Gallery 1.1.1., where Kenneth Coutts-Smith was director throughout much of the 1970s, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) expanded upon the aesthetic, social and political discourses of conceptual art through exhibitions featuring artists' books and multiples, image/text works, installations and performances by local, national and international artists. Gallery exhibitions and publications such as Artists' Prints and Multiples (1977), and Form & Performance (1978), took up issues of authorial and institutional critique, presenting works that balanced aesthetics of negation with language play and performativity. In 1977 Max Dean performed Drawing Event: FineLine (with Dennis Evans) and A Work and created a number of important works for Sculpture on the Prairies, curated by William (Bill) Kirby. The following year, Gordon Lebredt installed Fence for The Winnipeg Perspective followed by Weakness/Support: (and the retreat into form) in 1979.

The arrival of WAG curators Millie McKibbon and Bill Kirby in the 1970s was critical to the growth of conceptual art in the city. Kirby's receptivity to works by Dean, Lebredt and other conceptual artists (including Americans Dan Graham and Sol Lewitt), and McKibbon's inclusion of both Dean and Lebredt in Form & Performance, sent a clear signal that conceptual art was no longer to be confined to alternative spaces or relegated to the fuzzy borders of mainstream curatorial practice.

Throughout the 70s, conceptual artists whose practice included printmaking (John Greer, Michael de Courcy, Gordon Lebredt), pulled prints at The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop. The oversized prints that hung on the shop's walls were evidence not only of owner William (Bill) Lobchuk's unconventional approach to printmaking–concepts were encouraged–but to the connectivity of the Winnipeg art community and its engagement with the wider art world.