Autumn marks the return of Art Toronto, an annual show of contemporary and modern art at the Convention Centre. During Oct 28-31, over one hundred galleries from Canada and worldwide setup as best they could in the limited space provided. Although a bit overwhelming, opportunities for viewing like this must be seized upon. The presence of Painters Eleven (at least some of them) demonstrates their continued relevance to the art market and offers viewers a chance to look at these culturally significant abstract works created in Ontario in the 1950s and beyond.
One of the most influential members of P11, Oscar Cahén, is being celebrated in a big way by The Beaverbrook Art Gallery located in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The Beaverbrook is not only organizing a retrospective exhibition, they are publishing a monograph to celebrate the artist’s centennial. This text promises to be hugely important – a great cultural artifact that will collect scholarly writings and offer a collection of reproductions like none before it. We are looking forward to the 2017 publication and are in high hopes that the exhibition travels to Ontario galleries. Cahén’s impact on the development of abstract art in Ontario specifically, and Canada as a whole, is undeniable, and his influence can be witnessed firsthand at Art T.O. in the work of other members of P11.
It was a unique pleasure to meet and speak with Oscar’s son, Michael Cahén. Michael told us that he met several art enthusiasts who, despite collecting for over 30 years in some cases, had never heard of Oscar Cahén; but, they were excited by the discovery. Beginning with the Cahén display was a perfect and promising start to our visit.
Roberts Gallery – where P11 held their first exhibit in 1954 – had a few pre-abstract pieces by Jack Bush. Representingworks from Bush’s early figurative career, the gallery will be holding an exhibition entitled Color and Rhythm, November 10-26, featuring these pieces along with work by fellow Canadian John Lennard. Bush’s colour choices utilized in the 1951 oil on masonite work The Angel gives an indication of his influences and where the artist would go.The blues, pink, and red are reminiscent of Cahén’s palette, and the floating geometrical shapes foreshadow Bush’s famous abstract colour-field style. Bush also appears to be applying Hofmann’s theories to create a feeling of “push and pull” through contrasting colours and shape
Caviar 20 has their finger on the pulse of contemporary and historical artwork. There was a stunning watercolour by William Ronald from 1954, which the plaque described as the most desirable decade for Ronald collectors. The work demonstrates strong restraint, utilizing negative space and diluted colour with strong black lines reminiscent of Kandinsky. It is complimented by the minute detail of splatters and bleeding colour trails.
Their second Ronald watercolour was brought out by request, and it did not disappoint. From 1967, it was minimal in palette: navy blue and magenta leaked together for maximum impact. The gallery also had a beautiful Single Autographic Print by Harold Town from 1955 entitled In and Out. While most SAPs are densely packed with many layers, this one was simple in colour and form. A fascinating variation from Town’s never ending bag of tricks.
Miriam Shiell Fine Art had the most powerful pieces by Bush. A monumental work from 1971,giant mostly tan, covered almost the entire back wall of the booth. Also present were smaller, but no less impressive, Bush pieces; Bush at his best some might say. Bush was the most predominantly featured member of P11, which is perhaps a testament to his growing popularity. He is the only member of P11 to be on stamps, scarves, socks, and have a major retrospective at the National Art Gallery.
In the back room of the Shiell space, there was a small Town from the Vale Variation series. Executed between 1972 and 1977, this piece is one of 400 based on a pen and ink work by fellow Toronto artist Florence Vale (1990-2003). It showed four playful figures, like Matisse cut-outs,dancing black ink on white paper, striking in its simplicity.
Christopher Cutts Gallery has long been a champion of P11, handling pieces from the estates of many of the members, and the pieces selected for this year were spectacular. It was also here we saw the highlights of the day: two paintings by Kazou Nakamura.
The first piece was a small oil on Masonite that was painted in 1956, Construction Interior View.This painting is intense in its minimalism – scratches in a pale green surface. Is it a bridge? A building? It’s a strange structure. Nakamura is arguably the most avant-garde of the P11. His work does not clearly fall within the realm of abstract expressionism. One can’t help but to think of Dubuffet when facing the physicality of Nakamura’s textured surfaces.
The second, larger Nakamura work, Spatial Concept from 1965, is almost all white oil and features pencil markings. A unique collection of circles (white on white) fill the canvas with a dark square in the top left, a 1/4 circle in the top right, and the bottom right has a strange straight-edged solid shape. Circles on the left have been dissected into triangles in graphite. This geometric exploration and use of pencil on painted ground makes Nakamura akin to another Canadian-born artist –Agnes Martin. This is one of the most impressive Nakamura’s we have seen.
Cutt’s Gallery also had works by Town, Ronald, and Tom Hodgson. Town’s messy oil and lucite, Dark Forest from 1957 is a dark tangle of colours and could be in homage to Tom Thomson’s Unfinished Sketch. Town once cited the Thompson piece as the “the first completely abstract work in Canadian art.”
The Ronald was a very fine combination of two of his signature styles: a circular centre image and thick impasto blends of color. There are chunky squirts of white upon the surface that is already physically dense with paint.
The aptly titled Non-Objective Painting by Hodgson from 1952 features geometric shapes of solid colour on a scratchy beige surface. It was much different than work we have previously seen by Hodgson.
A great late work by Ray Mead that is predominantly black acrylic was minimal in composition. A bright red circle hangs above a fluctuating white line (horizon?) with only a few flecks of colour and a thin white corner patch featuring four red blobs. Mead never ceases to wonder.
The importance of P11 cannot be denied. Each member contributed massively to the development of abstract art in Canada during the 1950s and 1960s. Although it would have been nice to see all of the artists represented at Art T.O., 7 out of 11 isn’t bad.