Big Bangs: abstract works from the U of L Art Collection

Main Gallery January 25 – February 29
Helen Christou Gallery January 18 – March 14

Reception: 4 – 6 pm, January 25

Big Bangs is an exhibition of works of art from the University of Lethbridge Art Collection that looks to the origins of abstraction in Canada. Each of the artists included acted as powerful catalysts sparking new directions in non-objective art and forever changing the face of painting. Through rigorous explorations of space, colour, form, line and composition, these artists challenged the conventions of painting, liberating art from representation or narrative in search of truth, purity and unmediated connections. From the urban centers of Montreal and Toronto to the quiet isolation of the prairies, groups like the Automatistes, Painters Eleven or the Regina Five refused to fall victim to provincialism or be excluded from international dialogues. Helped along the way by teachers like Hans Hofmann, critics like Clement Greenberg, the occasional exhibition and dog-eared art magazines that found their way from studio to studio, these artists were painting in response to the latest work of New York and Europe, learning what they could before resolutely striking out into uncharted realms.

Pioneers
There were a number of lone renegades eager to try for themselves the advancements made outside of Canada in Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism, and a paralleling interest in mysticism and theosophy. Lowrie Warrener, though remaining a persistently obscure figure in Canadian history, was among the earliest pioneers of abstract painting. In 1924, his exposure to Post-Impressionism and avant-garde European art led to a distinct shift from a national “Group of Seven” style to the radically simplified, stylized and rhythmic landscapes of Rapids, Upper French (1926).

Immigrating to Canada in 1929, Fritz Brandtner introduced the works and ideas of Kandinsky, Kirchner and other German Expressionists to the arts communities of Winnipeg and Montreal whereas in Saskatchewan, Stanley Brunst and Bartley Pragnell began to apply elements of Cubism and Constructivism. No one was more vital to the advancement of painting in Canada than J.W.G. “Jock” Macdonald who had a profound presence across the country; in Vancouver investigating Symbolism and Surrealism; in Banff and Calgary sharing Automatism with Alexandra Luke and Marion Nicoll; and, finally, in Toronto where his forays into Abstract Expressionism would help to bring modern art into the spotlight in Canada.

Les Automatistes
Though many individuals dabbled with abstraction in the decades prior, it was not until 1942 and exhibitions like Les Oeuvres Surréalistes de Paul-Emile Borduas that non-objective painting in Canada would truly begin to flourish. Borduas’ adoption of Surrealism and the writing of André Breton drew the attention of Jean-Paul Mousseau, Pierre Gauvreau, Jean-Paul Riopelle and others who would become known as “Les Automatistes” – artists who denounced traditional painting in favour of spontaneity and a connection with our emotionally driven, intuitive unconscious. This artistic directive led to the 1948 manifesto Refus Global, an incendiary document that sought to wrest “faith, knowledge, truth and our national heritage” from the hands of an out-of-touch conservative society.

Borduas’ student Riopelle developed an international presence with works such as this exhibition’s untitled watercolour of 1953, its infestation of quick, black strokes appearing like sunspots against a billowing nebula of rich, luminous colours. Like other automatic efforts, it was less a process of studying and “abstracting” the world than of “creating” new worlds that defied convention. Eventually, as in Borduas’ Or et Bronze (1953), automatic methods and surrealist space would be reconsidered as space and paint became interchangeable, signifying only itself.

Les Plasticiens
In 1955 a group of young painters stifled by the dominating presence of the Automatistes offered the Manifeste des Plasticiens, a rejection of the random spontaneity and pictorial space of Borduas and Riopelle. Citing Mondrian as their key influence, Les Plasticiens (Jauran, Louis Belzile, Jean-Paul Jérôme, Fernand Toupin) worked in search of an objective, universal order and equilibrium through the relationship of the plastic elements of line, colour, surface and form. After only a few short years, a second wave of Plasticiens, led by Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant, went even farther, with investigations into flatness, surface, colour, seriality and optical dynamics. Molinari’s Mutation Tertiaire #2 (1965) features rhythmic relations across the picture surface that offers itself not as an “image,” but as an “event” constructed by the viewer through the dynamics of active perception.

Painters Eleven
Working in the shadow of the Group of Seven, Toronto artists delving into abstraction were faced with a disinterested public coupled with minimal exposure to the work of modern artists from New York and Europe. Still, pioneers such as J.W.G. Macdonald had begun teaching at the Ontario College of Art, while rare books and magazines, periodic exhibitions, and trips to New York introduced the “hot licks” of the Abstract Expressionists. The influence of British abstract painters such as Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron was also vital to Toronto painters, much of their work having been on view in local collections.

Among those Toronto artists striving to bring abstraction to the general public were the “Painters Eleven” – Hortense Gordon, J.W.G. Macdonald, Alexandra Luke, Jack Bush, Oscar Cahen, Walter Yarwood, Ray Mead, Harold Town, Tom Hodgson, William Ronald and Kazuo Nakamura. Not guided by any political or aesthetic manifesto, the Painters Eleven exhibited highly individual styles sharing a dynamic lyricism and fearlessness that pushed the boundaries of painting. Their unruly attitude generated an energy paralleled only by the group’s “social reputation” for lavish openings and wild parties. William Ronald, in particular, was an enormous presence and his bold, explosive paintings soon took him to New York and a startling, albeit brief, rise to international prominence. The Image (1957) reveals Ronald’s consciousness of surface and colour while presenting a “bird-like” form that hovers over the canvas casting shadows that confuse figure/ground relationships. Like many of the Painters Eleven, Ronald’s bravura paint handling often served to explore figurative possibilities.

Regina Five
If abstract painters were feeling suppressed in1950s Toronto, one can only imagine the insularity and provincialism that was plaguing artists working in the Canadian prairies. Even so, a small group of artists working in Regina found themselves at the forefront of an international modern art scene working side by side with the major players of New York. The “Regina Five” – Kenneth Lochhead, Arthur McKay, Ronald Bloore, Douglas Morton, and Ted Godwin – were the outcome of the progressive exhibitions of the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery and an extraordinary faculty at Regina College who initiated the now legendary Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops. These workshops featured artists and arts professionals from outside the province, among them Barnett Newman (1959), Clement Greenberg (1962) and Jules Olitski (1964), who would become instrumental in transforming what was primarily derivative abstraction into something that resembled neither the geometric studies of Montreal nor the lyrical figurative abstractions of Toronto. Instead, the Regina Five worked towards a purity of material applied with an essential, internal logic found outside of personal expression and gesture that seemed an “embodiment” of the symbolic rather than its “depiction”. For many of the group, a sense of mysticism was nurtured in their work reflecting the earlier investigations of J.W.G. Macdonald, Marion Nicoll and others, although, as in McKay’s “mandala” paintings, more akin to Zen Buddhism than theosophy.Influences/Educators (Helen Christou Gallery)

Much of Canada’s relationship with abstraction stems from America and the direct influence of Hans Hofmann and Clement Greenberg. Hans Hofmann was, as Greenberg himself declared, with “all probability the most important art teacher of our time.” His understanding of pictorial relationships and colour theory influenced generations of artists and was instrumental in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Illingworth Kerr, Jock Macdonald, William Ronald, Alexandra Luke, and many other Canadian artists studied with Hofmann exploring volume not by rendering or modelling but through contrasts of colour, shape and surface.

Clement Greenberg’s role in shaping the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and Post Painterly Abstraction cannot be understated. As one of the most influential critics in America, Greenberg’s favorites were routinely propelled to international acclaim. Upon the invitation of William Ronald, Greenberg was brought to Toronto in 1957 to visit the studios of the Painters Eleven and, though not everyone valued his opinion, his candid criticism and persuasive philosophies had a decisive impact. Similarly, Greenberg was encouraged by Barnett Newman to participate in the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop of 1962 where he expounded his views on abandoning the now mannerist results of painterly abstraction and moving “towards a physical openness of design, or towards linear clarity, or towards both.” His follow-up article for Canadian Art celebrated the efforts of the Regina Five and his landmark travelling exhibition of 1964 – Post Painterly Abstraction – included the work of Lochhead, McKay and Bush alongside Americans such as Louis, Noland, and Olitski.

Ryan Doherty,
Guest Curator

Category: Helen Christou Gallery, Main Gallery

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