PRINT December 1968

Canada’s Arthur McKay

ONE OF THE AXIOMS OF our time is that provincial art must inevitably be minor. While it does not follow that every artist in New York or Paris must therefore produce major art, it does imply that a large, internationally oriented super-city is a necessary milieu for aspiring artists.

The provincial artist does operate under difficult conditions: because of his isolation he is only partially informed; he is unable to see new works of art as they are produced and must therefore resort to translated information—reproductions and art writing—and finally to conjecture. In addition to this, his intentions are complicated by his isolation; artists in provincial situations tend to be educators and come to place greater stress upon their roles as cultural spokesmen than upon what might be construed as a responsibility to produce significant art.

There are, of course, solutions to provincial situations, the most common being a pilgrimage to the artistic Mecca of the moment. Provincial artists frequently embark upon such journeys, yet tend to return with a “manner” rather than with a new ideal of making art. A second solution is to bring the mountain to Mohammed, usually in the form of exhibitions with critical commentary; while a third and related solution is to import artists from the Mecca in the hope that some of its magic will rub off.

Until 1959, Arthur McKay was, in many ways, a typical provincial artist, working in, as he expressed it “an abstract version of English landscape painting.” However a year in the New York area in 1956–57—where he attended classes at Columbia University and the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania—introduced him to the painting of Jackson Pollock.1 Then, in 1959, his intentions were completely altered by contact with Barnett Newman at the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop.2

Newman’s work was, at that time, unfamiliar to Saskatchewan artists except in reproduction. The fact that he was able to inspire them as he did can only be attributed to his strength of character and to his ideals as an artist. It was in terms of these ideals, in terms of his conception of the role of an artist, that Newman impressed McKay, reaffirming McKay’s faith in what great art was and could be and challenging him to radically alter his own intentions. Newman left McKay with the notion that there was a distinct difference in quality between major and minor works of art, that the former were uncompromising and profound and that they were not undermined by the idiosyncrasies of their creators.

As a result of the workshop McKay stopped making oil paintings. Purchasing a quantity of white paper, he resolved to “make marks,” to “let things happen,” in order to discover what painting could be for him. Allowing his predilection for simplicity to dictate a deliberately restricted format, he chose to work on standard 20 by 26 inch sheets of paper, scraping liquid flat black paint (blackboard paint, occasionally augmented by flat white, stove enamel and silver paint) onto paper with a palette knife. These works proceeded rapidly from landscape drawings to Pollock-derived abstract paintings in which contoured black shapes overlaid a layer of paler silver or grey shapes. As the series progressed, the second layer was discarded in favor of an allover arrangement of black shapes against a white ground. In the final works of the series, the shapes began to hover between figure and line, causing the white paper to “surface” and act as a positive pictorial element between, rather than behind, the black areas. This surface tended to warp back into space, a characteristic of figuration in McKay’s art since that time.

When, in late 1959, the paintings on paper had run their course, McKay was faced with the problem of translating them onto a larger format. His immediate need was for a surface which would be firm enough to permit working thin paint with scraping tools rather than brushes. At the suggestion of R. L. Bloore.3, who had been working with the medium since 1958, McKay began to pour and scrape enamel paint onto tempered masonite sheets. Initially he attempted to work in the manner of his earlier paintings, producing a series of works beginning with Descending Whites and concluding with Epic Theme. However, he soon found that the larger scale and the necessity of introducing flat white to duplicate the white paper complicated the procedure, forcing him to return to the system of overlapping areas which had characterized his earlier paintings on paper. While a debt to Pollock is everywhere evident in these paintings, Epic Theme is the most significant painting McKay produced to that time, and is doubly significant as it marks his discovery (which he subsequently painted out in that painting) of the technique that was to become the basis for his mature style—the tendency of dark enamel to act as a transparent glaze when scraped thinly over white underpainting, magnifying its surface irregularities by filling the hollows with dark paint and leaving ridges and flat areas a light brown. In subsequent paintings he found that by manipulating the white undercoat and then glazing over it he could produce the illusion of heavy impasto on a surface that was thinly painted and virtually flat. This resulted in a kind of chiaroscuro that was unique in modern painting, a disembodied chiaroscuro that, instead of evoking sculptural objects in illusionistic space, revealed the surface of the painting itself. Thus, by reversing the terms of modernist painting’s denial of illusionism, affirming that reality and illusion were one and the same, he rendered chiaroscuro more exclusively visual than it had ever been. (The tendency on the part of viewers of McKay’s paintings to touch their surfaces only confirms this. The experience is curiously baffling, forcing one to reassess the painting in terms of eyesight rather than touch.)

This discovery did not produce successful paintings overnight; a number of paintings following Epic Theme attempted to organize a surface, particularly in terms of the imagery of other painters. A group of paintings concluding with The Edge attempted a Newman-like solution by dividing the painting vertically into two areas, one of them broken by a vertical channel. While this painting was successful in terms of embedding figuration in its surface (producing a conflicting sense of imminence and distance), its division into two distinct areas was arbitrary and the relationship of the illusionistic surface to the painting’s perimeter—where it simply terminated—was unresolved. Where The Edge sought to establish a polarity between an area of the painting and a single vertical channel, Darkness replaced the channel with a dark, hovering ring. In Image of Time the ring was expanded into a larger textured disc and the polarized area reduced to a vertical rectangular tablet. McKay painted out a portion of the background of that painting with black paint, creating a partially neutral backdrop which framed the two elements and unified the surface by reducing the conflict of the textured surface and edge. The problem of resolving surface and edge was solved with complete authority in The Void and Effulgent Image, executed simultaneously in 1961. In both paintings, the disc motif from Image of Time is situated within a square field, while in Effulgent Image the solution to the background area of Image of Time is carried a step further by entirely surrounding the disc with black enamel, providing an arena for the surface illusion.

While the relationship of these paintings to the circle paintings of Kenneth Noland, Jasper Johns and R. L. Bloore is immediately apparent (McKay admits that the circle was “in the air as well as the area” at the time),4 McKay’s was, in reality, a formal solution to the Gottlieb-like polarity that had characterized paintings like Image of Time. In effect he telescoped Image of Time, superimposing the disc motif onto the area or rectangle that had counterbalanced it. The resulting image was less concerned with establishing a pictorial center à la Noland than with equalizing the pressure from the edge of the painting. In effect, the boundary of the circle internalized the painting’s edge, creating an illusory frame to contain an illusory surface. While the black space around a McKay circle functions to some extent like the raw canvas in a Noland, it differs in that it is added; its color and extent are a final pictorial decision, akin, if not to framing, to establishing an edge.

In 1962 the circle paintings were augmented by a series of paintings in which the dominant image was a tablet-like square with rounded corners that roughly echoed the shape of the painting itself. These proceeded from the vertically striated Dense Form through a series of paintings including Serene Image and Mandala No. 1 in which the perimeter of the tablet is repeated inwardly to a plane-like center. (There is a strong inward pull in these and many of the circle paintings which is denied by the emphatic “surface” of their centers.) A subsequent painting, Void No. 2, reduced the tablet shape to a wide, frame-like band, enclosing a uniformly textured, mottled field. The mottled center of Void No. 2 rejects any illusion of figuration and reaffirms, with new authority, the reality of illusion as surface, achieving, in the process, the purely visual, optical space of color painting without in fact using color. The painting extends one of the formal implications of the circle paintings, that a surface which is inexpressive in itself can be raised to eloquence by inspired “framing.” In 1963 McKay carried this format into 4 by 6 foot masonite panels, producing a series of somber masterpieces ranging from Statement of Paradox through Enigma and Dark Enigma. The latter painting, created in 1964, is stripped down to the point where the only pictorial event is a narrow, light band surrounding the dark field.

McKay’s best work from the years 1961–64 is extraordinary for a “self-awareness” which is emphatically unprovincial despite the isolation of its origin. McKay has always operated under the burden of isolation and while it has served to protect him from the irrelevancies of the New York art world, it has done so at a price. The fact that he was able to produce works of exceptional authority testifies to the determining importance of an artist’s intentions in the creation of works of art; to an attitude which combines disinterestedness with complete involvement and which involves a surrender of imagination to the exclusively visual in the process of making paintings. In 1961 McKay wrote:

Communication is a flow between two points, both of which must be open. A painting’s communication is as dependent upon the receptivity of the viewer as it is upon the presence of meaning in the work viewed. Nothing happens unless the work has something to give, and the viewer has the experience, sensitivity and insight . . . (to) receive that something.5

McKay discovered, in 1959, that if his paintings were to succeed they must first achieve autonomy; that creating paintings, like viewing them, was a communication process; and that his responsibility as an artist was akin to that of an active spectator to that process, provoking the painting’s communication to eloquence. While this way of working may be “creative” in its highest sense, it is unlike our accepted notion of creation as “self-expression.” McKay’s paintings, like few paintings of our time seem “revealed” rather than “made.” This is inherent in his method of painting itself, which involves the stripping of paint away from a surface to “discover” an image. Thus the act of painting for McKay involves his faculty of perception as much, if not more, than that of expression.

However, perception, if it is to retain its authority, must be constantly tested against art other than one’s own, and McKay has suffered, in the past few years. from his isolation, from his lack of exposure to the most demanding art of our time. I am not implying that his art has run its course, but that it has slowed down. Paintings exist from 1966 that are equal to all but the best of his earliest works, and a new series of paintings, begun in 1967, displays a firmer grip upon color than had been evident previously. Moreover, McKay’s integrity is of a rare order and while it may commit him to periods of relative inactivity, it will not relinquish itself to self-deception. In denying himself that comfort he has kept alive the potential not only of his art, but of the lifetime ahead of him.

––Terry Fenton



1. McKay presumably saw the Jackson Pollock Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, December 19, 1956 to February 3, 1957.

2. “The Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop and Critics’ Symposium was organized by the School of Art in the University of Saskatchewan at Regina and supported alternately by the Saskatchewan Arts board and the Canada Council, as well as the University of Saskatchewan. It was created nine years ago (1955) by artists, for artists, in the belief that a dialogue with remarkable individuals is necessary for creative growth. It takes place in August of each year.” A. F. McKay, “Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop: An Appreciation,” Canadian Art, Vol. XXI No. 5, September/October, 1964.

The Workshop was actually conceived by Kenneth Lochhead, then director of the School of Fine Art, Regina College, and made use of the studio facilities and accommodations at the University of Saskatchewan’s Summer School at Emma Lake in Northern Saskatchewan. Workshop leaders have included: Jack Shadbolt (1955), Joe Plaskett (1956), Will Barnett (1957), Barnett Newman (1959), John Ferren (1960), Herman Cherry (1961), Clement Greenberg (1962), Kenneth Noland (1963), Jules Olitski (1964), Lawrence Alloway (1965), Harold Cohen (1966), Frank Stella (1967), and Don Judd (1968). In 1964 and 1965 the Workshop was augmented by a composer’s workshop, organized by the Conservatory of Music, University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus, which was attended successively by Stephan Wolpe and John Cage. The choice of Newman to lead the 1959 workshop was at least partially accidental. The artists in Regina who made the decision—Ronald Bloore, Roy Kiyooka and McKay—had seen his work in reproductions accompanying an article devoted to Newman by E. C. Goossen in Art News. However their willingness to choose an artist whose work was certainly unfamiliar and possibly baffling was certainly a deciding factor.

3. Ronald Bloore was appointed director of the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery at what was then Regina College during the summer of 1958. Following his arrival he revealed himself to be the most mature artist then in Regina and became the intellectual leader of the group that was to become the “Regina Five.” At that time he was working on tempered masonite with enamel paints, scraping cell-like lattices away from tinted underpainting. Although Bloore subsequently destroyed many of these works, McKay was admittedly influenced by them and has a surviving painting from the series in his personal collection.

4. As early as 1960 Bloore was making paintings on square masonite panels in which long, spoke-like lines were incised into thick, white paint to create circular configurations.

5. Catalog statement, McKay 61, circulated by the Western Canada Art Circuit during 1961.