PRINT October 1967

Sculpture in Canada

CANADA’S IS NOT A LOGICAL shape; the country exists in contradiction to, not in response to, geographic and economic conditions. The country’s history is an attempt to impose a horizontal shape on the vertical rivers, watersheds and mountain ranges. It’s always a struggle to hold Canada’s 20 million people together. A glance at a map indicates the states of the United States are locked together, but Canada is open-ended, its centrifugal parts must be constantly pressed together.

Culture, and most of all art, has always been an important device to bind the country together. Art is expected to have social utility not exactly in the Marxist sense, but not completely different either. A common art tradition is expected to make the great people of British Columbia have a higher regard for the great people of Ontario.

If artists help bind the country together, then every artist has a right to be heard; the more remote his location, the stronger the imperative. There exists a kind of noblesse oblige to the less sophisticated parts of the country. In the United States, a sculptor in Des Moines is on his own. If he has the initiative, he will manage to get his work or himself to New York. In Canada, an artist has the right to remain in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, if he wishes and it is the duty of the culture establishment to seek him out and give his work whatever exposure it merits.

Sculpture ’67, the National Gallery of Canada’s Centennial Sculpture Exhibition, wasn’t just an art exhibition. It was, in a sense, an inventory, but an inventory of the unknown rather than the known. The opening of the exhibition (on June 1, 1967) by Miss Judy LaMarsh, the Secretary of State for Canada, was a kind of sleight-of-hand by the exhibition co-ordinator, Dorothy Cameron. The decision to hold Sculpture ’67 was based on a suspicion an outdoor sculpture show would pan out, rather than the knowledge that it would. Artists in Canada, as in other countries, have turned to sculpture in recent years. In 1965, Miss Cameron had changed the format of the private art gallery she then operated from one of painting and sculpture to sculpture alone. Her Canadian Sculpture Today exhibition of that year was confined to indoor and small scale work, yet it indicated the ferment in sculptural thinking.

For eleven months, from April, 1966 to February, 1967, Miss Cameron crossed and re-crossed Canada inspecting sculpture, maquettes and models, until the selection had been completed and fifty-four invitations to participate issued. Some sculptors not surprisingly found fabrication costs beyond their means. At this point, the closely co-ordinated Canadian cultural support apparatus went into action. The Canada Council approved fabrication assistance grants to seven artists. The National Gallery offered financial support, or at least I think it did. (It recently issued a press release saying it had been encouraged by the exhibition to buy the works of eight artists it named. That is a wonderfully bureaucratic way of saying something and I imagine that something is that it had assisted the artists and would take other work at a later time.) Finally, the Canada Council brought a number of sculptors to Toronto to install their pieces.

Michael Cooke of Toronto is a classic example of Canadian cultural activity. His sculpture, Bright Suns, is a stunningly realized work. It was certainly one of the strongest pieces in the exhibition and was purchased by the National Gallery for $8,200. Yet Cooke is not represented by a private dealer; in fact he has never had a one-man exhibition. Prior to producing Bright Suns he had never produced a large scale piece of sculpture. Bright Suns may be a fluke, but I doubt it. Guido Molinari made the first sculpture he has attempted for the exhibition.

Seventy-five per cent of the pieces in the show were made explicitly for it. Sculpture ’67 was an inventory, but it was an inventory of art that probably wouldn’t have come into existence if there hadn’t been an exhibition. It not only caused the pieces it encompassed to be created, but created a tradition, if that’s the right word, of Canadian outdoor sculpture from which new pieces will flow. The next major sculpture exhibition will either be international, or confined to a number of works by a small group of sculptors, but that show could not have been held until Sculpture ’67 had been completed.

I don’t mean to imply good sculptors wandered out from the muskeg. Inevitably the strongest pieces were produced by the most sophisticated sculptors. The Canadian-Americans provided much of the bite of the exhibition. Robert Murray, Les Levine, Michael Snow and Ron Bladen, despite their U.S. residence, are regarded as Canadian artists. (Canadian nationality is like a tattoo, once applied it’s almost impossible to rub off.)

The site of the show was the late Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall, one of the great contemporary designs. By this date, the beauties of the two semicircular office towers cradling a clam-shaped City Council Chamber are familiar. But too much has been made of the building he designed and not enough of the space he left open. Revell did not fill the site with architecture. He included a great plaza in front of his buildings for purposes the citizens might deem appropriate, including sculpture exhibitions. The City Hall gathers in people and the entire site never looked more breathtaking than when it was swarming with curious spectators at the show, often until two and three o’clock in the morning.

Revell’s space is endlessly malleable; it never imposed itself on the sculptures. The smaller pieces were placed in a garden-type area, while the larger pieces had the opportunity to organize as much space as their merit could command. There may not be a better outdoor sculpture exhibition site in the world.

The quality of the exhibition per se is another matter. Rather than reflecting a general level of competence, there were several excellent pieces and a large number of inferior ones. The American residents, Levine, Murray, Bladen and Snow were more “advanced” than the Canadian residents. Of course, not all Canadian sculpture arose overnight; the tradition of organic abstraction flowing from the English ideas of Moore, Hepworth and Dalworth were present in Walter Yarwood’s Tower D and Robert Hedricks’s Horned Figure. Both works have considerable grace and elegance.

Two sculptors, Fred Willar of New Brunswick and Tom Burrows of Vancouver contributed pieces which suggest strong work to come. Willar gives crumbling edges and hollowed out shapes to his pleasantly tilted simple structures. Burrows is not only capable of stronger work than that included in this exhibition, but has in fact exhibited a much more impressive subsequently completed piece in a Vancouver exhibition.

One of the strongest aspects of the Toronto scene is multi-media sculpture. Zbigniew Blazeje and Michael Hayden have worked in this area successfully for some time. Blazeje, in particular, has created light absorbing and reflecting sculptures, animated by sound, which have been exhibited across Canada and at Expo.

Each of the sculptures appeal to more than one sense, perform in response to spectator activity, and perform in a non-recurring, variable cycle. Blazeje’s sculpture was more formal, its exterior structure a rectangular grid, while the neon tubing changed color and became audible when a spectator passed through an electric eye. The Hayden piece was activated by depositing a twenty-five cent piece in a coin box. Three pneumatic systems, two hydraulic systems, three light systems and two tape playback systems controlled the activity of liquids of different viscosities in five internal containers. The liquids were also fluorescent so that the night-time cycles were different from the daytime ones. This isn’t the place to discuss the pieces at length except to add that the Hayden is more properly attributed to Inter-systems Company, a group of resource persons who combine to produce presentations rather than sculptures. Also that the Toronto public was mesmerized by both pieces.

Sorel Etrog is a Canadian by osmosis. He spent seventeen years in Rumania, eight in Israel, two in the United States and the other seven years of his life in Canada. His work in Canada brings a sense of discipline, continuity and permanence to a situation which has little of these qualities. Etrog’s heraldic, symbolic statues communicate to people. Characteristically, Etrog’s sculpture deals with a supporting or base area of Freudian symbolism and an upper area of agitated, highly linear activity produced by rapidly turning volumes and a virtuoso continuous line.

One of the strongest sculptures was Arthur Handy’s Aphrodite Yawns, a fiberglass sphere ten feet in diameter. The piece is a logical culmination of ten years of ceramic sculpture of similar configuration but obviously on a much smaller scale. Whether read as a primary structure or thought of as a fertility symbol, the piece has tremendous élan. It was a National Gallery purchase.

Robert Murray’s Cumbria, 30 feet in length, 14 feet high and 15 feet wide, is the largest sculpture Murray has completed. Cumbria is essentially a study in planes. It is not a sculpture in the usual sense, that is, it isn’t primarily about mass, texture or enclosed space. Cumbria, in fact, has many of the characteristics of painting, in that surface, color and image are critical. Its yellow color is a painting color, and thus tends to keep the spectator at a “distance” from the piece. The twin planes move away from the ground with the exhilaration of a jet leaving a runway. It is a piece of great flow; the eye never rests, but, assisted by the single color, travels rapidly over and about the surfaces. The space of the piece appears unorganized, but it is carefully and successfully calculated.

Homage to Samuel Beckett, is, as I mentioned, Guido Molinari’s first sculpture. Molinari’s paintings are of vertical parallel color-bands. The sculpture is clearly the painting components turned into an environment. The columns stand next to each other in the same kind of silence in which the tall buildings behind them rest. Although each column is painted a single primary color, the color of each is reflected in the surface of the other so that polychromatic echoes are apparent.

It seemed to me that the strongest and most penetrating form of inquiry in the exhibition was not in form, but in space. Michael Cooke’s Bright Suns is a dialogue between volume space and organized but open space, that is between the space shut inside the slabs by their physical contours and the space defined but not contained between the slabs and in the cut out section in each slab.

Les Levine’s All Star Cast was a spatial statement of a haptic nature. Once inside a chamber, the spectator was unable to define his space visually because of the ambiguity of plastic walls, nor by touch as the plastic sides bubbled away from him. The result was that he stared at the walls, reached out his arms and raised his voice, thus determining his space by visual, tactile and acoustic means simultaneously. All Star Cast was also Levine’s most strongly realized theater piece. In his earlier environment, Slipcover, presented first at the Art Gallery of Ontario at Toronto and then at the Architectural League in New York, he produced a theatrically charged environment by an elaborate transformation of the setting. In All Star Cast, Levine produces an equal disorientation with a minimum of material. (Disorientation is the wrong word. The spectator is not so much disoriented as exhilarated, as if he were in a meaningful place, like an empty theater stage.)

Levine is a generous artist. He provides his spectators with more than contemplative enjoyment and more than the entertainment plus token participation afforded by Blazeje and Hayden; he brings them out of themselves. His spectators laugh and shout and are completely themselves, delighted with this simple magic thing in which they frolic.

Harry Malcolmson