Image: Andy Patton
Arguments within the Toronto Avant-Garde
Whether originally given as lectures or appearing directly in print, these articles and essays were an attempt to institute, where it was lacking, a public discourse on the nature, and problems, of Toronto art.
There is no continuity to art writing or discourse on art in Canada, no tradition to speak of, therefore, no history. But there have been brief moments of efflorescence. I participated in one of those moments of collective discourse when I was a free-lance writer in the Toronto art community from 1977 to the end of 1984, when I became a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario at the very beginning of 1985. There were conditions that made it ripe, aside from the fact that it was cheaper to live then only working part-time, with the availability eventually of grants for art writing, first from the Canada Council, then the Ontario Arts Council. Magazines paid a pittance, if they did pay at all, so one could not make a living from publishing, only supplement it. Intellectual conditions were ripe too, with the crescendo of translations of French Theory (and the not yet translated, through which I learned to read French) and the Frankfurt School, etc. coinciding with the new phenomenon called postmodernism. Discourse, in part, defined the period. This was the period of Toronto talk.
Another important factor was the number of art magazines nationally but also artist magazines locally. Parachute published out of Montreal (starting out of Véhicule in 1975), Vanguard in Vancouver (starting as the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Criteria), then C Magazine (1983-present) started up in Toronto. There is no need to mention artscanada. Occasionally, one could write—that is, I did write—for Canadian Forum, even Maclean’s magazine. But if one was inventive one could also write for the artist magazines, and Toronto had an abundance: FILE (1972-1989), Impulse (1970-1990), Only Paper Today, previously Proof Only (1974-1980), Artists Review (1977-1980), and Parallelogramme, the magazine of the artist-run system (1976-1995). Not a typical art magazine per se, Centerfold then changing its name to FUSE, was another option (Centerfold moved to Toronto from Calgary, where it started in 1976, and published its first edition here in 1978 to become FUSE in 1980.) I should also mention Image Nation (1970-1984) and Impressions (1970-1983) in this context although both were photography magazines, not journals of writing or combination of the two. Art Communication Edition/Strike published for just over a year (late 1976 to late 1978). There was a practice of handing artist magazines on, or at least their granting structure: Impulse became briefly M5V then Work. Image Nation briefly became Incite. Impressions became C Magazine.
As for discourse, this was conducted in public through lecture series, panels, and conferences, of which there were many in Toronto in the first half of the 1980s. Discussion began with conferences in Montreal in the early 1980s organized by Parachute, but in late 1982 both YYZ and A Space organized lecture series for the back room of the Rivoli, where much of the organized discussion in the Toronto art community took place. 1982, 1983, 1984: this was the high period of discourse on art in Toronto, which has not been matched since. It helped institute the art community—but, at the same time, when that discourse ended, coincidentally the art community did, too. Not that there was an absolute correlation but it was one factor in the art community’s dissolution.
Jennifer Oille organized the “A Critical Structure(ing)” lecture series for YYZ in 1982 and I delivered my lecture/critique on General Idea, “Sentences on Art,” that November. It was published as “Editorials: General Idea and the Myth of Inhabitation” in Parachute, no 33 [link here]. Christina Ritchie organized the “Talking, A Habit,” lecture series for A Space in 1982-1983 and I delivered my lecture, “Arguments within the Toronto ‘Avant-Garde’,” on January 19, 1983, which was subsequently published by Parallelogramme April-May 1983 [link above].
I should also mention the day of lectures and panels I organized at the Rivoli in February 1984, “The Practice of Pictures,” at which I delivered my infamous lecture, “Axes of Difference,” published in Vanguard May 1984 [link here], which divided the art community. (For some responses, see Letters to the Editor [click here].) When I delivered my 1991 paper,"Thinking Through Curating," an artist in the crowd accused me of singlehandedly having destroyed the Toronto art community—which is a large task for one person!