The Canadian Art Database

TRAFFIC | Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980

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snow   general idea   wieland   steele

carr-harris   conde-beveridge   collyer   curnoe

List of Artists and Works

Introduction                                                  [version française]
Barbara Fischer
Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto

In the early 1960s, young artists would find the Toronto arts scene divided between the British modernism of Henry Moore on the one hand, and the fledgling group of abstractionists, Painters Eleven (whose work leaned heavily towards the influence of American critic Clement Greenberg) on the other. A counter tendency to these influences evolved in the experimental direction of Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland, whose interest in perceptual framing in painting moved towards a focus on structural works in sound, sculpture, film and photo-based pieces from the mid 60s on. If Wieland's peripatetic experimentations increasingly centered on a rising feminist, ecological and patriotic consciousness, Snow's work maintained a strong self-reflective tendency–to explore through the means of a medium, the characteristics particular to it. His work shares with conceptual art the use of the camera as a 'dumb' recording device and the making of a work as per a predetermined course, an interest that would persist in Toronto throughout the 1970s and beyond, from the works of Robin McKenzie through to the photographic portrait sequences of Arnaud Maggs.

By the late 1960s, an ever greater number of artists, including war-resisters and draft-dodgers from the US, flocked to Toronto and its burgeoning, heady mix of countercultural constellations: Coach House Press, a bastion of the Canadian art/literary circuit from 1966 on; the University of Toronto's Rochdale College, an experimental school cum co-op residence cum flophouse, which operated between 1968 and 1975; and most importantly, the buzz around the formation of General Idea and the establishment of its headquarters on Yonge Street in 1970, from which, as AA Bronson put it, "our Burroughsian dream of a transcanada art scene" would find shape in a strategic sequence of concise endeavours: from the Miss General Idea Pageant, to FILE Megazine (1972-1989); the development of the artist-run archive and publishing house, Art Metropole (1973/74); and the conceptual architecture of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant Pavillion (1975) which sketches General Idea's sustained reflection on the concept of art. These endeavours, and Les Levine's Red Tape (1970) and Vera Frenkel's String Games (1974), for instance, exemplified the pervasive desire to link geographically distant places, establish social networks and develop artistic communities throughout the 1960s and 70s, while remarking upon the complexities of technological optimism and the conundrums of administrative realities.

Critically important for Toronto's visual arts community, and its engagement with conceptual art, was the Nightingale Gallery (reconfigured in 1971 into the artist-run centre, A Space), which hosted Concept 70 (one of Toronto's most overt engagements with conceptual art) and the early boundary-challenging, conceptual performance-based videos by Stephen Cruise, John McEwen, Robert Bowers, Lisa Steele, Tom Sherman, and Americans Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci. A Space became, for most of the 1970s, the focus for conceptual and experimental art and its critical exploration in Toronto. It also signalled the beginning of a particular preoccupation of Toronto-based conceptualism; a determined sense of disbelief and fundamental scepticism toward language and representation expressed in a sustained critique of ideologies of transparency. Evidence of this preoccupation can be found in the early video works of John Watt, Colin Campbell and Lisa Steele and, from the early 1970s on, in the photo-text works by Ian Carr-Harris, Robin Collyer, Tom Sherman, Andy Patton, Gordon Lebredt, and others.

The dissatisfaction with the analytical trajectory of conceptual art, as exemplified by American artist Joseph Kosuth (who showed at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery), was declared by Toronto artists Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge who broke off their relationship with the New York Art & Language group of which Kosuth was a prominent member. Their contentious 1975 solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario sought to question and search for a new social and political role for art. It also marked the beginning of a splintering of the Toronto arts community, which became increasingly diversified along multiple and contesting lines of inquiry involving the institutional distinction between media, the body politic, the role of art vis-à-vis its publics and not least of all, cultural diversity. Intent on turning away from conceptual art proper, artists sought 'something revolutionary' in an enduring critical engagement with language and representation, not least of all through the means of narrative and fiction.

London, which in 1961 had a population of less than 170,000, came to be one of the country's most important and thriving artists' communities from the early 1960s on–largely through the efforts of artists Jack Chambers (1931-1978) and Greg Curnoe (1936-1992) and their ever-widening circle of friends and peers.

Jack Chambers' deeply consequential conviction that "there can never be a better spokesman for the artist than the artist himself," led to the 1968 founding of Canadian Artist representation (CAR), which fought to have artists' copyright and labour recognized, but which also informed the underlying ethos of artist-run culture that engendered experimental and 'underground' art across the country.

Distinguished by a fervent regionalism, Curnoe founded Region Magazine in 1961, the cooperative Region Gallery in 1962 and the 20/20 Gallery in 1966, a prototype for artist-run centres and the first to pay artists' exhibition fees. The Board of Directors of the gallery included the minimalist sculptors Royden and David Rabinowitch, conceptual painter Ron Martin, sculptor Murray Favro and performance artist Rae Davis, among others. If Curnoe's regionalism entailed a strong antiAmericanism–close the Canada/US border even to birds, insects and germs–it did not foreclose his interest in artists from elsewhere, including American conceptual artist Bruce Nauman, whom he invited to do a sound project at 20/20 Gallery in 1970.

Curnoe's concerns as an artist were autobiographical and firmly grounded in his experience of the immediate and the local; they also evolved from the anarchistic, antiestablishment, delinquent and anti-bourgeois tendencies of Neo-Dada supported within the artistic circles surrounding Toronto art dealer Avrom Isaacs. By 1962, Curnoe was already making works consisting exclusively of text, creating inventories through impersonal, administrative measures that would come to preoccupy conceptual art, such as utilizing ink stamps or measuring devices to chronicle day-to-day routines. In 1973, the American critic John Chandler claimed that Curnoe had been making conceptual and process art before these terms were coined.

This interest in language and process-oriented work, as well as concerns with mapping and cultural geography, found tremendous resonance in conceptual art globally and continued to be a powerful trajectory in the work of artists associated with the London scene, including Ron Martin, Robert Fones and Becky Singleton and in the political orientation of Ron Benner and Jamelie Hassan's photo-text installations.

A small town in the late 1960s, renowned for a university specializing in environmental, agricultural and life sciences research, Guelph became an unexpected centre of experimental art when British artist Eric Cameron arrived to head up the art department in 1969. Cameron (who relocated to NSCAD in 1976) transformed both curriculum and pedagogy. Influenced by Sol Lewitt's notion of conceptual art–the idea as the machine that makes the art–Cameron's teaching departed from the traditional technical and skill-building foundation of art education, calling instead for collective projects in which teachers and students collaborated on material actions based on an initial set of instructions then watched and debated their unexpected effects.

These experimental projects might involve collectively making a sculpture, drawing lines–suggestive of sections of meat–directly on a model's body (which Cameron described as a pre-ardent feminist undertaking) or undertaking exercises involving perspectival or optical illusion between painting and its physical location in a given room.

Among Cameron's most important initiatives was the introduction of video art into the curriculum. With artist Alan Lite from Detroit, and now-renowned Toronto-based video and installation artist Noel Harding in the role of technician, Cameron taught a video course without ever having held a video camera in his hands. The curriculum was developed by instructions that could be executed by anyone. The video program attracted visiting artists and curators, including Lisa Steele, General Idea and Peggy Gale and in 1974 and 1975 the art department hosted Video Circuits, consecutive exhibitions that included works by Peter Campus, Dan Graham, Nam June Paik, Colin Campbell and others. These exhibitions led to the founding of Ed Video in 1976 by four students: Charlie Fox, Brad Brace, Marlene Hoff and Greg Hill. As Noel Harding pointed out, the direction of video then moved more toward narrative than conceptual structure.