New Abstract Art
A survey of trends across Canada
Ken Carpenter. Arts Magazine. March/April (1978): pages 24-27 & 57
New Abstract Art at the Edmonton Art Gallery (July 15 to Aug. 26) was an important survey exhibition bringing together the work of over sixty artists from Canada and the eastern United States. Most of the artists were rather young, although a few, such as Jack Bush, William Perehudoff, and Stanley Boxer, were on view as influences on and touchstones for the younger artists. The original conception for the exhibition was not so comprehensive, but it evolved as the Gallery's curatorial staff put it together; pieces by some of the senior artists were in fact added after the official opening. In its final form the exhibition offered a unique opportunity to assess a wide range of new abstract art.
The majority of the younger artists on view take as their basic reference point the masters of the 1960s, especially Bush, Hofmann, Louis. Noland, and Olitski. Such a choice of artistic "fathers" attests to a fine sense of quality in art, but it by no means itself guarantees quality. As Gallery Director Terry Fenton so rightly points out in his catalogue introduction, many artists become inhibited by their notion of what a modernist painting should be or how modernist painting might be expected to develop. Fenton does not give instances, as he easily could. Modernist reductivism can only too readily be reduced to a parody of itself: colour theory can be reduced to an exercise; and so en. A particularly academic example of both of these failings is the pair of monochromatic paintings in the exhibition by Jeffrey Spalding of Halifax, who has demonstrated that he can mix a rich near-black from three other colours (these are visible on the unframed sides c' pictures), but who seems uninterested in doing anything more.
A general problem that younger artists tend to have with influence is that they can be too much impressed with both the tremendous facility in paint-handling tech piques and the structure! lucidity of the previous generation. As a result, the personal stamp of the younger artist ma be subordinated to what Fenton call "period taste". That artist who knows how to be influenced might experience the attraction of period taste, but he nonetheless remains himself. A cogent exempt is offered by Jack Bush, who once surd "Every time I showed a painting at one a: those [group] shows, there it was: not like everybody else's. The difference was Bush, and I couldn't get rid of it . . . fortunately". Another is Miro, whose Standing Nude (1918) is not nearly the finished work that Nude with Mirror (1919) is, but which had far more to offer to Miro's subsequent development.
A number of young artists in the Edmonton exhibition strike me as striving for the premature finish that momentarily tempted Miro in 1919. The paintings by Sherron Francis (New York), Luc Béland (Montreal), Terry Keller (Edmonton), and even Wanda London's (Winnipeg) and Dan Solomon's (Toronto) more successful works all seemed to me likely to benefit were they a little less tasteful. Alex Cameron (Toronto) seems neither so facile nor ingratiating, although I think he could profit by reducing the figure-ground distinction, as could Philip Darrah.
None of this serves, however, to argue that influence is to be avoided, or even could be. Rather, the issue is how best to be influenced and how indirect influence can be. The sources of the younger generation include some instructive examples in Noland and Bush.
Noland's relation to the generation preceding him, and particularly to Pollock, was especially insightful. Noland's targets and centred chevrons were conceived as or- , ganic, "one-shot" images. As such they had some of the essence of Pollock's all-over masterpieces, but hardly any of the look of him or of his paint application. Those ware aspects that Noland reacted against in his own creative way.
Jack Bush was able to maintain his own voice not just because of his strength of character, but also because of his continued involvement with subject matter. A primary instance is his use of an ovoid shape around 1969 in an attempt to "give his personal feelings objective equivalents in his paintings".3 This particular shape was in fact suggested to him by a blip in his electrocardiogram. In the end, Bush's image transcends the painful feeling from which it emerged.4 1n this regard. Bush is like his artistic father, Matisse who seems to have been stimulated to creative work by tension in his own life. As Jack Flan pits it. "This desire to regain equilibrium in the face of tension seems to have been one of the most important psychological impulses behind his art".
Of these, I will dwell on only five: Carol Sutton (Toronto). Darryl Hughto (Syracuse, N.Y.), Doug Haynes (Edmonton) Graham Peacock (Edmonton), and Joseph Drapell (Toronto).
Carol Sutton's exhibition at the A.C.T. Gallery in Toronto last January revealed her as one of our most promising younger artists. She is exemplary of Mr. Fenton's argument that 1970s painting is typified by great variety in paint handling. Her use of spray gun, sponge, and so on, shows a good awareness of Olitski, Bush, and her contemporary, Darryl Hughto. At present, hers is still somewhat young and rather eclectic painting. She has, however, a sense of structure already her own, whereby the depicted shapes of her pictures are levered and counter-levered against one another. This personal layout goes back to the floor pieces Sutton did around 1969-70 and is especially apparent in several excellent paintings by her in a group show at Gallery One (Toronto) this past fall.
Darryl Hughto's interest in Kenneth Noland, like Noland's interest in Pollock, is by no means obvious.6 Around 1973-4, Hughto was doing work with a strong central axis, something which always concerned Noland but which that artist usually kept implicit. Hughto's work at Edmonton, Sissy's Right Thumb (1976), is concerned less with axiality than, it is with the center. Within that center, Hughto engages in some rather quirky drawing that suggests but does not result in figuration, something he has been doing for some time now. Unfortunately, Sissy's Right Thumb would not seem up to the standard of the very best paintings Hughto showed at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City last year; in particular, one or two of the triangular divisions within the canvas seem to separate out from the rest of the picture. Hence, his standing as one of the most important artists yet to appear in the younger generation was not as apparent in Edmonton as it should have been.
Douglas Haynes seems to have made something of a major breakthrough within the last year or so. Just before that, Haynes was doing squarish "black" paintings - in my opinion rather too insistently incised. At the suggestion of Otto Rogers, he decided not to do this but rather to stretch them so as to retain not only a considerable amount of raw canvas but also the lines sketched in for cropping.' He there after progressed to-his current work in which he "breaks up the square" that had struck him as too rigid and confining in the black paintings, but nonetheless brings it somewhat together again. In such works as Diamond Split, (1977) Haynes has broken tree from the tendency to an over-focussed vision that troubled much of his earlier work. He demonstrates as well a gift for colour that was not so apparent before. The simultaneous fragmentation and reparation of the central image is touching, although in some instances the central bridging element could be emphasized less. Haynes' new work shows traces of his respect for Jack Bush (whose retrospective appeared in Edmonton last January), especially in a certain refusal to dissemble the paintings' underlying basis in drawing. Occasionally one also notices a Bush pink or feathered edge. More important than this is the way that Haynes' accomplishment profits from Bush's working attitude, his utter lack of Havnes has done some excellent painting that should result is an artist who has learned to trust his hand.
Graham Peacock is an artist who has already evolved through a number of quite different modes of work. The Striation paintings of 1971-72 that he showed on the Atlantic Provinces Art Circuit in 1973 were striped pictures that owed to Noland but did not yet have a fully developed sense of proportion. As a result, the varying width of the stripes can seem arbitrary and the work is generally lacking in tension. His small scale paintings of circles around 1974 might also seem to relate to Noland, but in fact they do so only secondarily. in the best of them he modulates from thick to thin paint with remarkable assurance to produce richly filled work that is convincing if still young painting. His 1975 and early 1976 pictures showed him looking more closely at Louis, Olitski, and Poons, although by the summer of 1976 Peacock had moved away from high-chroma colour such as they would use so as not to allow it to get in the way of drawing. Some of the best work Peacock has done to date followed: the Memorial Suite paintings, each of which is inscribed. "to my father." has be seen in Toronto and Montreal.
These paintings ring true in a way that not all of Peacock's work does, perhaps because they have something of the intensity of Peacock's reaction to the death of his father shortly before the paintings were done. The Memorial Suite paintings can serve as a reminder of how often the best modernist art of the past, no matter how abstract, was richly grounded not only in the formal necessities of the picture plane but also in profoundly meaningful personal experience.
Unfortunately, Peacock is not represented at Edmonton by such an excellent Memorial Suite painting as Blenheim Deaf, but rather by a more recent work, Apple Silver of 1977. This painting, like a number of others Peacock has done recently, shows a tendency towards excessive concern with the mere physical act of pushing paint around on the canvas. The paint too readily falls into colour zones which in turn have shape qualities that are basically gratuitous. Since doing Apple Silver, Peacock has avoided defining zones of colour, working instead with the transition from impasto to stain, from the palpable to something more ethereal.9 The result has been some work that is a good deal better than Apple Silver such as Patricia (1977).
Peacock and Hughto are by no means alone in being represented by less than their best work. The same is true of Bryan Nemish (Edmonton), Paul Sloggett (Toronto), Otto Rogers (Saskatoon) and William Perehudoff (Saskatoon). This last instance is particularly unfortunate since Perehudoff has been moving to new and greater strengths in the last year or so. His grounds are now done in perhaps ten layers of paint so that his stripes, which now tend somewhat to fall into arcs and fragments such as were found in his work over a decade ago, relate to the ground more richly than before. Perehudoff says that he is trying to do laterally what Hans Hofmann old in and out through space. 10 Tile results is some of the best work being done in Canada. Still another artist not represented at Edmonton by his best work is Joseph Drapell.
Drapell's first few one-man shows at the Dunkelman Gallery in Toronto and the Robert Elkon Gallery in New York were noteworthy for his creative reaction, against Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Rather than adopt their clean, open, and Apollonian mode, he preferred to work in a more energetic and thoroughly painterly way. It was as if Drapell's artistic fathers, Louis and Noland, had their own antidote in the grandfather generation of Still, Hofmann, and Kline. "
In 1973, his work took an important turn when he produced Green Mountain. That painting had not been intended as a landscape, but it unquestionably evoked the landscape. As a result, Drapeil engaged in a substantial reconsideration of the relation of his work to the subject. For a time around 1974 he even attempted to paint landscapes. Those experimental works always seemed finished to him, however, much before they took on any explicit landscape features. In a way, he had recapitulated the experience of the original abstractionists such as Mondrian and Kandinsky. That for him abstraction is something necessary and rediscovered by himself, rather than anything simply received from the tradition, is vital to his accomplishment. It is regrettable that his Edmonton painting did not reflect this.
Other artists in the exhibition should be noted as well. David Bolduc and K.M. Graham (both of Toronto) were represented by very good canvases, as were Bruce O'Neil (Calgary) and Susan Roth (Syracuse). Otto Rogers (Saskatoon) and Claude Breeze (Toronto) are artists of importance who stand out from the rest in their low-chroma palette and their continuing struggle with illusion. The two sculptures in the exhibition are among the very best done in this country Both Douglas Bentham (Dundurn, Sask.) and Andre Fauteux work in the Cubist-Constructivist tradition. I was especially impressed with how subtly Fautaux, whose sculpture had previously been rather rigidly frontal through the inspiration of Noland's painting. can modulate away from frontality, and hereby make of it something vital for his mere observers. Hound in Field indicates the same boldness in Colville's newer works. The hound of 1958 breaks his stride before the picture plane. He turns back into his staged world and the extension is not established with our reality as art audience. In this case, we are observers of a reality, but a somewhat separate reality.
Colville's realism of this decade is progressing to a more potent and threatening series of situations. Where once Colville was labeled a magic realist, he may now be termed an active realist. He has intensified his interest in mystery and the supernatural to involve the viewer directly in the dramatic moment of crisis. Colville's magic has turned to terror. Similarly, he approaches the later development of Friedrich's art where, in works such as The Polar Sea, 1824, jagged slabs of ice becomes "malevolent forces".8 Colville is
1. See Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. Harper 8 Row, New York. 1975.
4. Linda Nochlin, Realism, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, p. 14.
5. Nochlin, p.15.
6.Helen J. Dow, The Art of Alex Colville.
7. McGraw?Hill Ryerson, Toronto. 1972, p.103.Quoted in "The Enigmatic Visions of Rene Magritte", Life Magazine, vol. 60, no. 16. April 22, 1966.
Alex Colville is presently working and living in Sackville, New Brunswick. The exhibit Alex Colville's Art of the Seventies travelled to the following places in 1977: Arnheim, Holland; Kuntshalle, Dusseldorf, West Germany; Fischer Fine Art, London, England; Galerie Royale,Vancouver, British Columbia.
Service to art in Canada, which the artists themselves are the first to recognize. Which of the artists shown will have staying power is necessarily uncertain, but the prospects for staying power are entranced by such an ambitious undertaking as this.
Footnotes: 1. AS quoted by Barrie Hale in "Still Knocking Them Out of the Park. Jack Bush at 66: a fully original master", The Canadian. December 27. 1975. 2. The two paintings appear in colour on pp. 79 and 93 of Joân Miro Life and Work by Jacques Dupin (New York, 1962). Miro's tempting influence was, of course, Picasso and the other Cubists. 3. As interpreted by Charles Millard in "Jack Bush", The Hudson Review, XXVI:1 (Spring, 1971). The ovoid shape under discussion can be seen in Onslaught. Sudden, and others. 4. For further discussion, see my extensive article, "The Inspiration of Jack Bush",Art International XX1:4 (July-Aug.. 1977). 5. Matisse on Art (London and New York, 1973), p. 57, 6. For a survey of Hughto's career, see my article. "Third Generation Abstraction: Darryl Hughto", arts magazine, Vol. 49. No. 6 (Feb. 1975) 7. Conversation with the artist July 22 and 23. 1977. B. Conversation with the artist. July 22, 1977 9. Conversation with the artist. Aug. 1 1, 19'7. 10. Conversation with the artist. July 1 S. 1577. 11. The "grandfather" idea owes to Walter Freidlaender, Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting (New York, 1957'.
Ken Carpenter, who teaches art criticism at York University, was guest critic at the Emma Lake Artists' Workshop last summer.