PRINT September 1968

Looking at Canadian Art

IF THERE IS A SINGLE reason why provincial painting is derivative, it probably lies with the nature of painting itself—more specifically with its resistance to conveying its quality in reproduction. As a result, young painters in the provinces too often paint in terms of what they imagine to be essential only to find that their imaginations are distracted by secondary rather than primary pictorial issues. Perhaps, however, the present situation in Canadian art can be rephrased in terms of a current cliché: that since the late ’50s Canadian artists have looked to New York for inspiration. New York is a fact in the existence of young artists today: it can be neither ignored nor defeated; it is there, like Everest. On the one hand this is gratifying to Canadian artists because it is handier than Paris and because of Canada’s affinity with the United States, yet to affirm this is to evade the issue posed by the cliché. New York probably contains more bad art than any city in the world and, in its midst, a small body of inspired art. If one can find inspiration in New York, it can only be in terms of its inspired art and only insofar as art can inspire other art. However, New York’s bad art is probably the most important bad art in the world, and it too can be found out only at first hand. For this reason New York is of special importance to the provinces as a center of information and as a clearing house in the fullest sense of the word. When it is not seen for what it is, a country cousin suspiciousness or self-conscious city slickerism can develop, both of which give rise to the egotism that can subvert real talent.

The foregoing is possibly no more than a restatement of Greenberg’s theory of modernism in geographical terms, for modernism is, at least to my mind, a theory of the imagination, the kind of challenge a contemporary artist must face in order to move into an area where his imagination can operate in freedom and innocence, where inspiration can become manifest. This sounds like some kind of state of grace and perhaps it is—a state which needs a special set of conditions in which to flourish. However the conditions can vary: Canada has produced painters of real stature in the sixties—but their example serves to confirm rather than contradict the theory of modernism as an imaginative discipline.

Needless to say, the majority of art being produced in Canada is of a different and lesser variety. I shall attempt to describe some of it from a stylistic point of view and then from a more contained regional point of view, with some attempt to account for the significantly different quality of Jack Bush and Art McKay.

One of the most obvious, communicable and unenduring aspects of any age is its life style, its sensibility. For the most part, the art produced in this life style is a kind of sensibility art, an art which illustrates a group of temporal cultural attitudes and which fails to outlast its time. Greenberg’s terms “novelty art” and “impact art” represent attempts to describe the nature of sensibility art in the sixties, though sensibility art has probably existed for centuries and has general characteristics which span decades. In this century the Duchamp-Dada tradition has continued for fifty years, culminating in the Pop art and minimal art of the present. A similar movement, beginning in Italian Futurism and Russian Constructivism has continued into Op, Kinetic Art, Structurism and Mr. Kepes’ famous books. However, to limit the inroads of a going life style to the work of obviously minor artists is to falsify its power; too often it worries the work of better artists as well.

Because of its adherence to a life style, sensibility art is perilously close to entertainment. Like entertainment it is temporal and its quality lies in its adherence to the temper of the times, but unlike entertainment, its intentions are muddled. It attempts to disguise itself by concealing its content within “formal issues” which are often patently theatrical. Because of its core of contemporary content, sensibility art is eminently translatable and can be carried by the media without significant distortion. As a result, provincial artists can suffer from it in spite of themselves. Perhaps the imagination can become confused in a situation where one must deal with art at a conceptual rather than actual level.

The intention of much of the sensibility art of this century, especially in the Dada tradition, has been to create an awareness of the environment by posing a dramatic confrontation between the environment and art. In Canada, its major practitioners are Les Levine and Michael Snow, both of whom show in Toronto and New York, Greg Curnoe in London (Ontario) and Iain Baxter in Vancouver, British Columbia. All four are, to some extent, mixed media and environmental artists. Of the four I prefer Curnoe and Baxter, perhaps because their sensibilities are nourished by regionalism and by a sincere desire to create and sustain an avant-garde community. Baxter, under the nom de plume of N. E. Thing Co., produces vacuum formed plastic prints and inflated vinyl sculptures which parody the preoccupations of contemporary art talk, which he pushes to extreme and frequently witty conclusions. His strength lies in his ability to ask delightful, if not searching questions; his weakness is his seeming unwillingness to commit himself to anything deeper than his manner. He seems content to pose questions rather than risk solutions.

Curnoe is an active member of a Dada-inspired avant-garde in London, Ontario, and is seemingly more literary and Pop-oriented than Baxter, producing paintings which catalog his Pop sensibility by means of a rubber stamp set. At their most extreme, these paintings consist of no more than printed descriptions and while they may briefly raise a formal issue (the picture as a surface), they fail ultimately as both art and literature because they are essentially illustrations of his sensibility rather than self-contained works of art. However Curnoe’s wit and nerve are put to better use in his collages which, despite an obvious debt to Cubism, are spontaneous, shrewdly organized, and contain real feeling.

In comparison to Baxter and Curnoe, Snow and Levine appear rather tired and doctrinaire. Perhaps because of their connection with New York they have a big attack look that too often conceals a paucity of imagination. Snow’s walking woman motif was fraught with danger from the beginning: it possessed too many associations to be neutral and too few to be provocative. In the past few years it has spawned a host of paintings, sculptures and environments which look visually predigested, the motif receiving variations which are seldom more than interesting. Levine has taken the multiple into a far more neutral area than has Snow—producing vacuum formed plastic units that can be arranged by the spectator, thereby involving him in the creative process. The Clean Machine, shown recently at the Fischbach Gallery in New York, presented a rectangular corridor of white modular units and gave one the impression of walking between rows of refrigerators. Levine has also made disposable sculptures (small vacuum formed multiples) which lead one to question his intentions (not his integrity). Works of art which are not intended to endure are unlikely to achieve quality, and when enduring quality is not an issue in an artist’s work his achievement is more than likely compromised.

Probably the most famous artist as entertainer in Canada is Harold Town who is one of the most adroit (although not the most prolific) T.V. personalities and journalists in the land. Like our most famous home-grown poet, Leonard Cohen, he seems torn between being a matinee idol and an artist (Cohen, like Town is gifted with wit). Unfortunately, Town’s talent as an artist is essentially illustrative. He works in a number of manners and tends, especially in his ambitious works, to support decorative playfulness with a stiff, unnecessary and illustrative structure inherited from Cubism. Town’s failure to succeed in terms of his ambition is, finally, a failure to discover an essential pictorial method; he tends to fall, especially in his big paintings, into Cubism.

This is, of course, the generally conceded failure of the minor art of our time. In Canada it troubles the work of a host of painters, some of them better than Town. For example, Kenneth Lochhead of Winnipeg and Ron Bloore of Toronto tend to succeed in terms of small works. When he was living in Regina in the late fifties, Bloore was possibly the best artist in Canada. Working with enamel paint on masonite he scraped out a series of cell-like ridges that uniformly covered the entire surface of the panels. The best of these paintings were square panels which hung from their points posing a confrontation of surface configuration and shape that was compelling and, in the best paintings, deeply moving. Since that time Bloore has favored a white-on-white impasto style which deploys heraldic motifs in shallow relief about the picture surface. While these paintings are undoubtedly elegant and immaculately executed, they lack power and tend to look padded out when they become large. His best recent works tend to be small paintings in which minute fluctuations of hue and very shallow relief and depression create a delicate late Cubist surface tension.

Kenneth Lochhead’s problem seems to be that of carrying the spontaneity of his watercolors into large paintings. Lochhead is essentially a color painter betrayed by his gifts: on the one hand he loves to draw and on the other he seems, even in his drawings, to have a predilection for sculpture. His best recent works (at least until this year) have been small watercolors which tend to attach themselves to the bottom of the picture. These have an abstract, gestural grace and a relaxed, seeming disregard for the picture format that mark them as some of the best works of art done in Canada during the sixties. Unfortunately, in his large paintings, Lochhead is betrayed by his wrist which contours large color areas and, in so doing, flattens and restricts their color. Lochhead’s problem at the moment seems to be one of finding a means to match his talent.

If the general tendency in Canadian art is one of the failure of imagination to situate itself within large works, it is particularly heartening to see large works which do succeed. Such was the case with my experience of Yves Gaucher’s three recent paintings in Survey ’68, a revised version of the annual Spring Show at the Montreal Museum. Gaucher deservedly took first prize in the show with works that had confidence and a relaxed grasp of scale. They were surprising, at least to me, in that I had seen no indication of that kind of relaxed manner in his work of the past, which tended to be rigid and inhibited by the picture shape. Gaucher’s new paintings have dispensed with color, which was a side issue in his art in the past, and have modified their composition. In his new paintings a few horizontal ribbons of greyish, closely related hues sit loosely within a large grey-beige field. They are the most impressive paintings he has yet done, despite their apparent retreat from color, perhaps because they seem composed rather than designed. As such they mark a significant advance for Gaucher, albeit into a dangerous area inhabited by artists of subtlety like Robert Irwin and Ad Reinhardt. At the moment, Gaucher’s new paintings are better than Irwin’s, they accomplish more and do it without being showcased. Nevertheless, Gaucher can’t step into refinement without endangering everything he has gained.

As I have mentioned, the pressures placed upon regional artists in Canada are manifold—the more so because of their well-intentioned desire to establish a local culture which is both international and home-grown. For this reason the example of recent American painting rests heavily upon them and with it the dilemma of producing original art that is recognized locally and admired internationally; but for the most part it is derivative art.

When Philip Leider failed to discover more than promise, vigor and talent in a recent article in Artscanada1, one sensed a faint aura of dismay elsewhere in the magazine and in Canada. In an ensuing article, Ross Woodman countered Leider by finding a strong international quality in the London, Ontario, regional scene: “Rejecting the reduction of subject matter to style, they reach beyond art into life to construct in their work ambiguous images that belong ultimately to neither.”2 Woodman based his argument on his belief that the New York School is a regional group of painters who are successful in terms of the expression of a uniquely American “psychic landscape.” However his concept is inadequate primarily in its failure to meet the facts: that regionalism in London, Ontario, is simply another instance of provincialism in modern art, that despite its intentions, it fails to match the achievement of the best art shown in New York.

There are as many provincial situations in Canada as there are cities. In the larger centers, particularly Montreal and Toronto, these are sufficiently varied as to cover a large part of the spectrum of contemporary art and cannot be criticized in terms of intention as can be, at least to some extent, the essentially neo-Dada London scene. The situation in Regina, Saskatchewan, with which I am more familiar, presents an equally strong regional situation with better qualifications—at least superficially. The Regina scene developed about ten years back with a small group of painters—Ron Bloore, Art McKay, Kenneth Lochhead, Roy Kiyooka, Ted Godwin and Douglas Morton. These artists were instrumental in initiating a series of summer artists workshops with visiting American artists and critics in attendance at Emma Lake in Northern Saskatchewan. Probably the most important guest artist was Barnett Newman in 1959, both because he was the first major artist to attend and because he had high ideals. Since that time visiting artists and critics have included John Ferren, Herman Cherry, Clement Greenberg, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olikski, Lawrence Alloway, John Cage, Harold Cohen and Frank Stella. For the most part Regina painting in the ’60s has a Post-Painterly Abstraction appearance (McKay and Lochhead were included in the exhibition organized by Clement Greenberg) due in part to the influence of some workshop leaders as well as to the example provided by Bloore and McKay.

Despite its apparent lack of pretension, and, more specifically, despite its relative freedom from the doctrines of sensibility art, painting in Regina remains provincial for the most part, perhaps because of the pressure placed upon artists to be educators in the fullest sense of the word. The presence of the New York avant-garde is both stimulating and limiting and artists too often confuse means and ends. The pressure of working in a community that is suspicious of modern painting and cautious about collecting it is one of the factors that leads painters into roles which are essentially interpretive, into producing paintings which can be explained away, which are produced with one eye on Artforum and the other on Vogue Magazine. The resulting works are too often merely attractive.

Douglas Morton, the oldest of the earlier generation of Regina painters remaining in Regina, works in a large scale hard-edge manner that has its roots in Analytical Cubism. While Morton is probably the most gifted colorist of that generation, his adherence to a Cubist mode of composition, overlapping color shapes in shallow space, tends to make his paintings look thin and cluttered. Morton is a curious instance of integrity: his devotion to Cubism seems to keep him away from some of the fashions of painting, yet his desire to work on a large scale is limited because of it. As a result, one tends to admire his resources as a colorist but must fight to shut out its confused organization. He is at his best with more modestly scaled collages made from cut colored papers, where his end agrees with his means.3

The other member of the Regina Five, Ted Godwin, succumbs too often to illustration, to a tendency to produce abstract paintings which can be explained in terms of social and intellectual relevance. As a result, his paintings too often appear overpainted and subjected to his will. Godwin tends to “set off” his paintings with some kind of flourish—a judicious color note, a tastefully controlled accident—that has the effect of forcing the issue. Nevertheless his instinct is probably correct, although perhaps misapplied. A strong recent painting, Tartan For Me Running, seems to lose some of its power through its very all-overness, through over-adherence to the system of tartan-derived transparent overlays that he has adopted recently. Perhaps the real problem in his art is that his paintings should be set off by elimination at some point rather than addition, which suggests that his problem is a conceptual one.

While Morton and, to a lesser extent, Godwin, must be considered as mature artists who have chosen to remain, if only for the moment, in Regina, a number of young painters who have been strongly affected by the Emma Lake workshops point to another aspect of provincialism, that of providing a working situation in which young artists can mature with some degree of freedom from the harassments of larger centers. As such they should be regarded in terms of the potential suggested by their achievement. For most of them, the question of whether and how long they will remain in Regina is of real importance—at times, I suspect, to the detriment of their art.

Bruce Parsons and Simon deJong are gifted painters who seem to suffer in part because of the apprehension about their roles as artists. Both painters seem to mistrust or fail to follow up their best work. In deJong’s case this is complicated by indecision about whether or not he is a serious artist. Nevertheless he has produced a small number of startlingly good paintings that exist in isolation within his own work and within the artistic milieu of Regina. Parsons has a tendency to nurse his paintings, which too often end up looking like other art. More recently, however, he has turned away from color stain painting and, in one or two paintings, has achieved much less of the modish opacity of color that is unique to him. These paintings are inhibited, but not killed by formats which play with illusionism and picture shape without really engaging the issue. That one Parsons painting, Bridge, was one of the few strong paintings in Survey ’68, testifies to the potential of his art.4

Ken Peters is probably the best painter in Regina, at least of the young artists. His work shows something of the inevitability of influence and of the particular use to which it can be put. For the past three or four years Peters has operated in the shadow of Jules Olitski, although his isolation has made his growth somewhat independent. However, Peters’ painting doesn’t attempt to succeed in terms of manner despite his influence, perhaps because he does not want to educate, but to produce good paintings. While these are often unsuccessful, they fail entirely on their own terms. Peters also has the ability to produce paintings which overpower their faults, a quality he shares with Claude Breeze, a young figurative painter on the West Coast.5

The other aspect of regional painting that does exist in Canada—landscape painting—fares poorly in Regina, perhaps because the prairie landscape there is too abstract in itself. However landscape painting, as a legitimate regional art, does flourish in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, as practiced by a number of artists: Dorothy Knowles, Reta Cowley, Wynona Mulcaster, Ernest Lindner and possibly the symbolic landscapes of Otto Rogers. These are all strong, relatively unrecognized painters working in an idiom that, while it is not popular today, is capable of producing works of real quality that are less affected by fashion than the majority of more ambitious art. The landscape painter has the advantage of working within a relatively immutable environment rather than the kind of mental environment that becomes quickly associated with a life style; landscape painting has a character that is too often undervalued. At its best it has a clarity and humility that is lacking for the most part in the figurative and abstract art of our time, which tends again and again to be merely obsessive or fashionable.

Quality has always been determined by the explicit individual coherence and evocative power of any individual’s work within a style and period . . . There is no fight between the past and present, only a job of discrimination to separate what is art from what is not art.
—Art McKay, Western Canada Art Circuit Exhibition Catalog, 1961.

It’s when one reacts with an inexplicable sense of wonder that the magic begins . . .
—Jack Bush, Statements, 18 Canadian Artists, Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, 1967.

One of the problems facing art discourse is a disagreement about assumptions which is shared by artists and critics alike. If, for example, an artist does not seek to produce works of quality, can he be criticized legitimately for failing to do so? If works that propose to do no more than sharpen the viewer’s response to his immediate environment can be acclaimed successful on their own terms, can works which are successful esthetically be criticized for failing to account for their social milieu? While this is one of the dilemmas facing art writing today, it is equally a reflection of a common bias. If, as Marcel Duchamp has capably illustrated, anything one chooses to call art is art, can one prefer equally the significant and the beautiful. If one prefers the “profundity” of the beautiful to the “relevance” of the significant, one inherits a second dilemma of art writing, that of accounting for the “inexplicable wonder” to which Bush refers. (I realize that this strikes an oddly romantic note in a field that is rapidly acquiring a taste for scholarship, but formalism can be no more than a critical epithet if it does not attempt to account for profundity and beauty in art without confusing the issue with adjectives.)

In this latter sense, McKay and Bush have certainly produced the most important works of art in Canada during the sixties. That they did so only after having radically redirected their art following contact with Americans from New York, serves to confirm rather than deny the issue of provincialism as a problem facing the artistic imagination. Bush’s art changed after meeting Clement Greenberg in Toronto in 1959, McKay’s after meeting Barnett Newman at Emma Lake the same year. In neither case did the artists adopt a current manner as a result of the contact; instead, both re-evaluated the nature of art and their own relationship to their paintings. Both became, in a sense, less personally involved with their work, or at least less concerned with self-expression and more concerned with the revelation of a pictorial order. As a result, despite their obvious differences in approach (Bush evolved into a color painter, McKay into monochromatic paintings) their best paintings have a look of inevitability, as if they had been discovered rather than made. This inevitability is due in part to a remarkable sensitivity to the surfaces, and thereby to the flatness, of their paintings: Bush’s apparently clumsy, thinly brushed color areas seem to enhance the fabric of the canvas itself; McKay actually reveals his images by stripping enamel paint away from a prepared masonite surface, at once acknowledging it and dissolving it.

The relation of these two painters to provincialism in terms of their acceptance is a problematic one: Bush went almost unrecognized in Canada until the past few years and has yet to receive a major critical article in Artscanada. While he is more popular in the United States, his art, for the most part, lacks a big attack look—despite its size it tends to be intimate and superficially hesitant. Apart from the Greenberg Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, McKay has yet to be shown in the United States and has not yet been given his due in Canada. Both artists are in the peculiar position of looking very French in comparison to recent American painting and remarkably American in relation to recent painting from the continent. If there is such a thing as a Canadian national characteristic, perhaps that is it.

Terry Fenton is Assistant to the Director of the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina.



1. Philip Leider, “Vancouver: Scene with no Scene,” Artscanada, nos. 109/110, June/July, 1967.

2. Ross Woodman, “London, (Ont.): A New Regionalism,” Artscanada, nos. 111/112, Aug./Sept. 1967.

3. Why is it that the majority of hard-edge painters in Canada fall back into Cubism because of an attachment to one aspect of their work to the detriment of another? Morton’s color cries out for simpler formats while the majority of simple format painters fall again and again into a schematic use of color.

4. In a series of recent paintings Parsons has moved into a more confident relationship with his influences—particularly Bush and Olitski—and seems now in a position to assert himself with greater authority. These paintings, constructed from stretched canvases appearing to hang from thin, canvas-covered painted strips, proclaim themselves as objects (shallow volumes) and as illusionistic paintings in a unique manner—in a sense taking over some aspects of minimal art for radically different (essentially pictorial) ends. It remains to be seen whether Parsons will allow these paintings to develop according to their own demands or whether he will attempt to contain and cultivate them. This latter tendency, as I have pointed out, can be complicated by the role of artist as educator that is provoked by provincialism.

5. Claude Breeze is a member of a large and varied Vancouver art scene which I have seen too little of to cope with adequately. This, of course, is equally true of a number of art centers in Canada. For the most part I have concentrated on artists whose work I am familiar with and have undoubtedly been forced to neglect a number of equally deserving people in the process. I have not, for example, seen enough work by Michael Morris and Bodo Pfeifer of Vancouver to hazard an assessment. My impression of Breeze is based upon a visit to his studio over a year ago and upon a subsequent exhibition of still earlier work at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina. At that time his paintings, despite their frequently obsessive adherence to avant-garde conventions, had an authenticity that few works by young Canadian artists possess. While his desire, at the moment, seems to be to produce a valid, post-Baconian figurative art with similar hysterical overtones, his pictorial gifts are of another, perhaps higher order.