Abstraction West: Emma Lake and After

Terry Fenton. The National Gallery of Canada: Journal. March (1976)

"Colour field" was not good in itself any more than Cubism was good in itself, but it was smart to be influenced by it in the mid-sixties, just as it would have been smart to have been influenced by Cubism a half century earlier. Like Cubism, it offered a new way of conceiving pictures that enabled artists to develop with more freedom, just as Van Gogh had been able to develop after his contact with Impressionism. In retrospect, it seems the sin Saskatchewan artists committed was that of adopting these influences too early. In 1963, Louis, Noland, and Olitski were just beginning to win acceptance in New York, let alone in Canada. When their influence was felt more quickly in the Canadian West than in the East, it was regarded with suspicion by many critics who felt that true Canadian originality must have its roots at least in Abstract Expressionism and preferably in the School of Paris. What made colour abstraction appear such a unique phenomenon in the West was its peculiar tenacity. During the 1960s western Canadian artists did not respond to art movements concerned with life styles (especially to Pop Art) despite access to them through workshops, exhibitions, and magazines. Pop Art, like most movements concerned with illustrating a sensibility, requires a social scene, however modest, to flourish, and the cities in Saskatchewan were unable to supply this. Artists in Saskatchewan couldn't live in their studios except when the studios were attached to their middle-class homes. As a result they couldn't easily live Bohemian lives or succumb to aestheticism.

1969-1975: Michael Steiner at Emma Lake and Edmonton

The Emma Lake workshops languished between 1965 and 1969, partly because no new group of artists emerged in the province and partly because no workshop leader inspired those who did attend. They became more and more like summer art camps. However a 1969 workshop led by Michael Steiner brought together a group of young artists from Regina, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg that constituted a third wave of abstract artists, among them Clifford Enright and Don Chester from Regina, and Bob Christie and sculptor Douglas Bentham from Saskatoon. The painters involved began to turn away from stain painting towards a more painterly kind of abstraction suggested by the recent work of Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. Bentham emerged as a serious, contemporary sculptor, working in an idiom influenced by Anthony Caro and Steiner (fig. 10). Chester and Bentham turned into dogged, productive artists of considerable originality. Christie has developed more slowly, but has recently turned the influence of Perehudoff and Jack Bush to real advantage.

During much of the 1960s, artists in Alberta seemed insular and out of touch with the rest of Canada and the rest of the world, perhaps because they lacked public galleries (both Regina and Saskatoon had new galleries before Edmonton or Calgary). In the late 1960s, the revitalization of the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta in Edmonton under R.A. Davey, and the construction of a new Edmonton Art Gallery, opened up the Edmonton art scene, bringing in new artists and new art. Two artists' workshops, modelled on Emma Lake, held at the Edmonton Art Gallery in 1972 and 1973 brought about the kind of dramatic development that Emma Lake had produced in Saskatchewan. In 1973, Michael Steiner repeated his success at Emma Lake (he is one of those rare individuals capable of helping other artists discover potential in themselves) and influenced a number of artists from Calgary and Edmonton. Of these, Dennis Elliot and Harold Feist have since left Calgary; Ann Clarke Darrah, Graham Peacock, and Douglas Haynes work in Edmonton (fig. 11). All of them have been influenced in one way or another by Poons and Olitski, although Darrah was the only one to break abruptly with her previous manner (fig. 13). Haynes is something of a senior artist in Edmonton and, like Rogers in Saskatoon, has come to Olitski via Gottlieb and Motherwell, two artists whose figure-ground concerns seem close to his own. The sculptor Alan Reynolds emerged as one of the most original artists in the country and has continued to develop, producing upright, wood-constructed sculptures that come to grips with volume in a new, entirely abstract way (fig. 12). Bruce ONeil, a young painter from Calgary, attended neither the 1972 nor 1973 workshop but benefited from association with those who did. He is an original, figure-ground painter who has the ability to conceive entirely unique abstract images (fig. 14). His work, like Reynolds's, has improved steadily during the past two years. This is not the entire story of art - not even of abstract art - in western Canada during the past two decades. I have concentrated upon one thread of development - one that I have been very close to - and I write, if not with prejudice, with at least a distinct point of view. Because of this, 1 have decided to concentrate almost exclusively upon the area I know best. If I have been less than just to Winnipeg and Calgary, I can only plead that I have lived in Regina, Saskatoon, and Edmonton during the years covered by these events, and it seemed unwise to mix first-hand knowledge with knowledge aquired at second and third remove. I do think that the development of art in western Canada during the past two decades has been remarkable, but it has been largely overlooked by curators, Leaders of Emma Lake Artists' Workshops critics, and historians elsewhere in this country. If I sound as though I think the best art produced in Canada during the past two decades came from the West, it is simply because, by and large, I believe it to be true - and as true today as it was ten years ago. If any mystery surrounds the Emma Lake and Edmonton Art Gallery workshops it is that they were not copied in other places in Canada. The principle behind them was simple. Anyone could organize one. Perhaps artists elsewhere felt they had too much to lose by submitting to the psychological discipline of a structured workshop: in Saskatchewan during the 1960s and in Alberta today a few artists felt it was and is worth the gamble.

1955     Jack Shadbolt b. 1909, Shoeburyness, Essex, England
1956     Joseph Plaskett b. 1918, New Westminster, B. C.
1957     Will Barnet b. 1911, Beverly, Mass.
1959     Barnett Newman 1915, New York NY.'

Artists in the Exhibition William Perehudoff b. 1919, Langham, Sask. Ronald L. Bloore b. 1925, Brampton, Ont. Roy Kiyooka b. 1926, Moose Jaw, Sask. Kenneth Lochhead b. 1926, Ottawa, Ont. Arthur F. McKay b. 1926, Nipawin, Sask.