A Proposal for a book on Contemporary Canadian Art (1992)
I was asked by Oxford University Press Canada to make a proposal for a book on contemporary Canadian art to supplement their older and out-of-date publication by Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting. My proposal was rejected. My remarks on its review and rejection are included below my proposal.
Contemporary Art in Canada: A History of its Development
Contemporary Art in Canada will be an occasion to rethink the nature of contemporary art and the history of its development in Canada. To picture anew our history means to break with the pattern of concise histories as they have been written. The traditional concise history, with its reliance on simple chronological ordering and individual biographies, cannot account for the complexity of the art of the past thirty to forty years, nor can the manner of its recounting withstand the scrutiny of the most basic historical-critical methodology. Despite these complexities, both subject and procedure can be rendered comprehensible for a general audience and this still may be accomplished in a concise manner.
Rather than a chronology from past to present, Contemporary Art in Canada will be a history and evaluation viewed from the present. To think back from the present in order to discover a point where we begin to recognize ourselves, and then write from that perspective, differs fundamentally from compiling information forward from an arbitrary point in time. Patterns of significance are revealed that were obscured by working additively from past to present without periodic re-evaluation. To trace back the origins of the vocabularies of contemporary Canadian art is to discover genealogical lines of development that set an historical narrative in motion.
Methodological issues must be considered in constructing a revised history of Canadian art. This, then, will be a history of the development of contemporary Canadian art commencing in 1960, not a history of the visual arts since 1945. The very notion of periodization affects the manner by which a history is written. Why should 1945, after all, be taken as a starting point? That it has been used for other national histories—postwar abstraction coinciding with the predominance of American Abstract Expressionism—does not mean it makes sense for Canada, especially when these other, already established, histories are written from a centralist point of view (where New York stands for all American art, for example). In Canada, the year 1945 would only be useful in a discussion of Borduas and the Automatistes, artists who did not generate a guiding perspective for Canadian art as a whole, but only for Quebec (and only partially so there, it could be argued).
I propose to write a history that addresses the developments in Canadian art from 1960 on, acknowledging the groundwork laid by this preceding generation. The year 1960 marks a crucial juncture for Montreal and Toronto, the two art centres in the country at that time: Borduas dies and Painters 11 disbands. What we have come to term contemporary Canadian art really began from this moment on.
No conventional chronology can adequately serve a country with the number of art centres—Montreal, Toronto, London, the Prairies, the East, Vancouver—that originated at different moments, driven by diverse rhythms and emphases of institutions, media, etc. (A division by decades, however, seems adequate to the broader aesthetic issues in the actual development of Canadian art of this period.) The specificity of each community must be detailed according to its own dynamic of development, the timing of its contributions, and its unique relationship to influence and reception. Each community’s diachronic movement thus will be balanced by synchronic relations to other communities. Painting, for example, will be seen to be more conducive to a discussion of continuity across the country rather than a discontinuity between communities each with its own unbroken history.) Within each milieu, the individuals responsible for its inauguration and sustenance will have to be acknowledged. In most cases, they were individual teachers, such as Borduas in Montreal, Jock Macdonald in Toronto, Jack Shadbolt and Roy Kiyooka in Vancouver, also acting through group affiliations such as the Montreal Automatistes, Painters 11 in Toronto, and the Regina Five.
As pioneers of abstraction in Canada and as prelude to the origins of the practice of contemporary art, these artists still retain something of the past about them. From our perspective, they are of historical relevance, and, although necessary to the development of contemporary art (and in some cases active to this day), they are not of its narrative. This will be argued in the first chapter which constructs a background to the 1960s, addressing the early formation of art communities during the late 1940s through the 1950s.
The early 1960s were marked by hesitation, no doubt engendered by the conservative nature of Canada and its negative reception of contemporary art. Younger artists, successors to Painters 11 and the Automatistes, continued an easel tradition. Ever increasing options in painting, however, were being pursued, with Montreal consolidating its abstract tradition and Toronto returning to its representational orientation. (The recovery of an alternate tradition for Montreal from that of abstract painting represented by the lineage from Borduas to Molinari will be one of the functions of the book.) The flirtation with dada and assemblage introduced practices that coincided with the media-shattering transformations (even extending to formats and places of presentation) occurring in the international art world. (These trends initially were mixed up with the look of Pop art but began to separate quickly into their formal consequences.) Nevertheless, for the most part the painting of the 1960s was uninfected by these other practices.
Expo 67 served as a catalyst for Canadian art and culture as a whole. The mid to late 1960s produced many “revolutions” (often under the sign of “McLuhanism”) in materials, processes and aesthetics transforming art in general, and, introducing new vocabularies that continue to today. Iain Baxter and Les Levine were only two examplars of a new conceptualism and environmentalism brought to art. So too were Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland, whose conceptual and material art practice was inflected by their involvement in experimental film. Not only were the introduction of new materials and processes to challenge the traditional dominance of painting. For, by the late 1960s, sculpture began to emerge from the background helping to overturn this hierarchy. From 1962-1967, sculpture slowly had found a new prominence, but its aesthetic betrayed a backwards glance to concerns more appropriate to Abstract Expressionism and Painters 11. Exhibitions in 1968 marked the entry on the scene of a number of important young sculptors whose work fully integrated itself into the dialogue of international art. Into whatever forms sculpture would devolve, it began to set the agenda for the art of the 1970s.
The 1960s also witnessed the inauguration of a whole new art community in London under the influence of Greg Curnoe and Jack Chambers, soon to be joined by the younger artists Ron Martin, Murray Favro, David Rabinowitch and Royden Rabinowitch, and later by Paterson Ewen. Although working in London, these artists fed into Toronto’s exhibition history from the late 1960s on. The story of London will raise issues of regionalism in Canadian art, to be picked up once again for Vancouver during the 1980s. The late 1960s also saw Halifax, under the influence of the hothouse environment of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, join the stream toward a contemporary practice.
If the overriding theme of the 1960s was a broadening of the scope of art through the introduction of new materials, processes and aesthetics, that of the 1970s was the consolidation of a series of art communities across Canada. Here we pass from the individual to the institutional character of Canadian art. Of course, individuals were still the producers and initiators, but Canadian art during the 1970s became increasingly defined by the influence of a cross-country network of artist-directed projects and centres. This decade can no longer be portrayed primarily by individuals, images and objects, it must also be seen as a record of networks, narratives, personas and events. The phenomenal growth, maturity and international recognition of Canadian art during this period is directly a result of this new character. (This is not to deny the role that commercial galleries played; in fact, they were more active than before. The Carmen Lamanna Gallery of Toronto in particular played a key role during the 1970s, as the Isaacs Gallery of Toronto had for the 1960s.) This fundamentally determining character, however, has been overlooked by other histories in their continuing concentration on individual artists and by their classification of art into separate media usually extending no further than painting and sculpture. Painting, obviously, continued its course, and while different “schools” gathered—that in Toronto, for instance, loosely affiliated under the influence of colour field painting and Jack Bush, on one hand, and a minimalist orientation, on the other—it had a minor existence outside already established careers.
The lack of a market driven aesthetic provided Canadian art of this period with certain distinguishing features. Art adopted a conceptual bias, influenced by the incursion of language and photography into its domain. The new institutions of art provided a vehicle for experiments in non-traditional electronic art forms such as video, which was to develop a different profile in each part of the country where there were major equipment access centres, such as in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax. Artist-run centres also provided a venue for the rebirth of performance art.
The connections of the period were more complex than ever before. For instance, the trio of artists from Toronto, General Idea, exhibited commercially at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery. Yet they were one node in a far-flung network—extending throughout Canada and abroad—centralized in their own corporation, Art Metropole, from which they published FILE Megazine. A corresponding node in the network, Michael Morris, played a similar role in Vancouver with his Image Bank affiliated to the Western Front. This network lent art a transindividual framework while at the same time allowing individual careers to develop within the normal artworld contexts. ANNPAC—the Association of National Non-Profit Artists’ Centres—formalized this network with its establishment under the auspices of the Canada Council in 1976. Toronto’s A Space and Centre for Art and Communication (CEAC), Vancouver’s Western Front and the defunct Intermedia (1966-71), and Montreal’s Véhicule were all vital links in this network.
The 1980s registered significant changes in art reflective of those in the larger international art world, a world toward which Canadian artists increasingly turned their attention. These changes were manifested in various returns to representation—in painting or in a more critically informed photo-based art. The 1980s also saw a new generation of artists coming to prominence, many of whom were to gain international recognition. These artists would stimulate the reorganization of art communities, many of which had lost their direction or vitality in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Under the tutelage of a new generation, Vancouver and Montreal began to usurp the dominance of Toronto, re-focussing attention away from the main art centre of the 1970s and early 1980s. A particular “school” of photographic-based works emerged in Vancouver organized around the influence of Jeff Wall, while in Montreal the tradition of painting was to be submerged by a handful of predominately female installation artists exploring issues beyond the ken of male abstraction. The period was driven by highly theoretical debates (in part derived from French theory, Marxism, and feminism) charged with the wide-ranging political and art-political issues that split the international art world but that, for Canadian artists, grounded themselves squarely in a real desire for local communities. Some of these debates were framed around a dichotomy between painting and a critical photography, and around issues of representation, appropriation and expressionism. We are still very close to the 1980s and any delineation of broad historical consequences is bound to be more sketchy and provisional than those of the 1960 and 1970s.
The above narrative provides a précis of the main directions of the book, highlighted in the attached table of contents, without giving an indication by name of the full range of artists considered. The final chapter on nationalism, regionalism and internationalism will draw together issues expressed in their historical development throughout the book, questioning whether we can answer what is Canadian about Canadian art. The epilogue will address the problems of bringing a history of contemporary art up to date. The evidence of previous books shows this to be the most difficult aspect of histories touching upon contemporary art. Any statement made here certainly must be regarded as provisional. This may be the place to enter into a discussion of some of the widening issues that will clarify themselves in upcoming years: the integration of First Nations and “cross-cultural” artists into the context of the contemporary art community. The two pertinent Canadian examples take different approaches in their conclusions. In a desire to be most up-to-date, David Burnett and Marilyn Schiff’s Contemporary Canadian Art (1983) suffers from the choice of artists by which they chose to end their book, artists who were of dubious inclusion then, as time has demonstrated. Dennis Reid, in the second edition of his A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1988), chose to conclude in 1980, almost a decade before publication. While a safer bet, at the same time he avoids discussion of the reinvigoration of the painting scene that took place in every community in Canada from about 1979 on, corresponding to broad changes in the art field.
The two closest competing texts are those mentioned, Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1973, 2nd ed. 1988) and David Burnett and Marilyn Schiff, Contemporary Canadian Art (1983). By its very title, Dennis Reid’s book demonstrates its interest in painting alone and the book’s scope is much broader, intending as it does to be a history of the last 300 years. Contemporary Canadian Art is much closer in its intent and thus merits our critical scrutiny.
Burnett and Schiff’s book, unfortunately, is a missed opportunity. It is compromised, offering neither a full-blown narrative nor the concise handbook that Dennis Reid’s text provides. The book is impossible to read through. There is no overarching narrative and hence one has the feeling of no commitment on the authors’ part to the story of art. Often the comments are banal and frequently there are long descriptions of single works of art that merely seem to “cover” an artist and to fill space while having no function within the overall narrative or relevance within the historical and community context of that work. Arbitrary inclusions sampled from an artist’s body of work are in no way emblematic of a career or a context. As well, the book’s continuity is confused by the constant need to dispense with the artist by discussing the latest work in the context of the earlier. The reader is confronted with an historical discussion of paintings from the 1950s, for instance, only to be interrupted by a report on that artist’s work from twenty-five years later. This lack of adherence to a coherent narrative is exaggerated by the organizational shift from schools of art (actually, cities and regions) in the first half of the book, to genres of art in the second half, the book as a whole, meanwhile, following a chronological path. Furthermore, the lack of evaluation shown in the inclusion of all types of work without criteria points to a fundamental failure in that it does not pose for itself or the reader any of the crucial questions raised by the presentation of a history or, for that matter, what constitutes a national history.
To a degree, Dennis Reid’s book suffers from similar self-imposed limits, adhering as it does to a series of individual biographies set in chronological order without connection to a broader historical narrative. In effect, his text is a handbook ordered chronologically rather than alphabetically. By asserting itself as a history of Canadian painting, it distorts through reinforcement the notion that the history of Canadian art is one of painting alone. (Reid acknowledges such in the preface to his second edition.) This representation has been one of the handicaps to an understanding of contemporary Canadian art. A writing of history by reference to painting alone might have been appropriate for J. Russell Harper’s Painting in Canada: a History, published in 1967, but by the end of the 1960s the transformations within art would demonstrate painting to be only one of the discourses of art, perhaps a minor one at that. (Painting did not continue its history uninterrupted: that of the mid 1970s, for example, can only be seen as a response, after being called into question during the 1960s, to the conditions instituted by minimalism and conceptual art.
Solely on the evidence of its art, Canada has to stand up to other national art histories; and it does. This must be demonstrated, however, in a book whose measure is judged by the interest it elicits elsewhere and by the manner it relates to other national contemporary art histories. (This may, in part, be accomplished by the methodological issues posed and not just by the art represented.) Dennis Reid’s book, I believe, has a legitimate function in the achievement of its broad aims. Burnett and Schiff’s book, frankly, is an embarrassment to Canadian art.
Contemporary Art in Canada departs from these books insofar as its narrative attempts to question how one seeks to define a history. The book differs (1) in being evaluative and not merely chronological and (2) constitutive of a history and not merely conventionally representative. It thus (3) sets out different chronological series, establishing new lines of development from the 1960s on that are, as well, more inclusive of media: painting, sculpture, installation, photo-works, video, performance. (4) It presents a broader and more up-to-date history by picturing the consolidation of Canadian art during the 1970s, with the attendant institutional impacts continuing to this day. (Reid’s second edition stops at the late 1970s; Burnett and Schiff stop in 1983 after a cursory examination of the early 1980s. This whole decade, the 1980s, along with that of the 1970s, is key to a history of Canadian art.) Thus (5), the book is more explorative in the contexts of the social settings and institutional effects it investigates and the methodologies it presents. (6) It sets Canadian art in relation to dominant practices elsewhere. The traditional weakness of Canadian art history, which we see again in Reid and Burnett and Schiff, has been the failure to set Canadian art in a truthful context in its dialogue with, and reception of, international art. For a book directed to students and a general audience this contextualization is necessary for a proper discussion to take place. What Jack Bush said about the Group of Seven is applicable not only to Canadian art but to most writing about it: “This was something that the Group of Seven, our seniors by a decade, had never mentioned to us. They had all been to Europe, to London and to France. They knew all about the Impressionists and so on and about the good American painters.... They never once told us where their influences had come from. Suddenly they were indigenous to Canadian soil through self-toil and all that nonsense. Yet they picked it all up and never said a word about it.”
Establishing context is no mere exercise in tracing influences, but part of the national/regional-international dialectic that has informed Canadian art. When, for their 1957 exhibition, Painters 11 wrote “What might seem novel here in Ontario is an accepted fact everywhere else. Painting is now a universal language; what in us is provincial will provide the colour and accent; the grammar, however, is part of the world,” it was only partially true. In retrospect, we can show it to be the reverse: the universal provides the accent, the provincial the unconscious grammar. Such judgements on our part are necessary in order to establish and trace this unconscious grammar that makes art Canadian, even though it might have the look of art from elsewhere. Given the fact that this has never been attempted in a country whose identity remains in flux, and whose cultural histories have been so inadequately addressed, the book necessarily will entail judgements that call into question, not just past interpretations of works, but their evaluation as well. This re-evaluation will not bear only on individual works or artists; it will establish other historical contexts for works that we can see from our perspective but which have been obscured by the traditional means of establishing chronologies. Once established in this chronology, rarely is a re-evaluation of an artist made. The geniality of past judgements, re-confirmed in unconscious repetition by others, will be replaced in the book by a genealogical method that instead uses these past judgements as part of its source materials and presentation. (Ideally, the book should have an annotated bibliography.)
Canada differs from most other Western countries in its continuing lack of consensus on what defines our art history. Any attempt to formulate—indeed, constitute—a history will have wide interest. The book, however, is directed specifically towards students and a general audience. Although not of prime concern or even notice to the general reader, the ordering of the material of this history, the methodological questions posed, and the very fact of re-evaluation will be of keen interest to a more specialized art audience as well as cultural and general historians.
14 June 1992
Table of Contents
1. Methodology: Questions of a History
2. Impediments to a History
I. Origins of Communities: The Background to Contemporary Art
1. Montreal - Borduas and the Automatistes
2. Toronto - Jock Macdonald and Painters ll
3. Prairies - Regina Five and Prairie Painting
4. Vancouver - Shadbolt, Kiyooka
1. Early 1960s
A. Options in Painting
B. Montreal: The Consolidation of Abstraction
C. Toronto: the Beginning of a Scene
2. Mid 1960s
A. A Classical Moment in Painting
B. New Materials and Processes: Vancouver and Toronto
3. Late 1960s
B. New Media and Collaboration
C. Schools and School of
III. The Semiotic Seventies
2. Concepts, Language and Photography
3. Sculpture and Installation
4. Video and Performance
5. Painting: Challenges and Response
IV. 1980s: The Return of Representation
1. 70s Politics/80s Debates
A. Representation, Appropriation and Expressionism
B. Painting versus Photography
2. Renewed Communities: A Third Generation
B. Vancouver and Victoria
D. Places Between
V. Regionalism, Nationalism, Internationalism: What is Canadian about Canadian Art
Here is my first response (19 October 1992) to the publisher on the reviewers' remarks:
Any attempt to write such a history as I propose encounters impossible demands. The very scope of the book, with its fifty years of diverse media from a number of differing regions, challenges a coherent narrative. Moreover, given the current cultural-political climate, any attempt at this representation will be met by questions by what right or authority the author speaks: How can one individual claim to represent these differing regions, genders, and races, etc.? Either one gives up in a belief that this type of project is flawed from the start, or, one writes a book that has a force and clarity of vision and that will have lasting effect, initially come what may. Any historical statement has to be provisional, of course. My aim in reevaluating our history and articulating a new one is to set something in place that has lasting resonance. The opportunity exists for what, hopefully, may become a classic in its field. No classic is written that does not have its origins in controversy.
In my response I will first reply to the questions your board raised, namely the issues of period and style, and then reply to those of the three reviewers.
To write a book on Canadian art history, one has to start at the beginning. The first evidence of artistic activity is the beginning of the history. To write a book on the development of contemporary Canadian art, one confronts a more difficult question: What constitutes the beginning of something called contemporary? What links the art of the present to something that could be called its origin? These questions have never really been asked and it is the novelty—and innovation—of the book to use them to set up its structure and to direct its narrative.
The conscious attempt, then, to argue for a beginning to contemporary art means starting at that determined point. I agree with one of the reviewers of my prospectus that logically the beginning could be 1967. For the purposes of the book, however, I think it makes more sense to begin with 1960. This does not mean, though, that the conventional commencement in 1945 will be ignored. Indeed, the Table of Contents shows that one-quarter of the chapters detailing the chronological outline of this history is devoted to the period 1945-1960. Only, a different thematic stress is put on these artists’ position in Canadian art in order to give this history a new coherence. I think that a willingness to argue these points and to dare to create new narratives will be one of the attractive—if provocative—qualities of the book. (To begin at any earlier point in the aftermath of the landscape legacy of the Group of Seven would not make any sense and would skew the conceptual coherence of the book. It already will be a fifty year survey by the time of publication.)
The issue of style is just as problematic because I do not believe that style is natural to the man. Style is something that is imagined and constructed over time according to the needs of the material and the audience of the book. In a book that is to accomplish so much, the demands on writing are at an extreme. I once wrote 125 word reviews for an American magazine in which I learned that syntax and even punctuation consciously had to be pulled into service for the conveyance of the intended critical effect. In this book, where vast material has to be comprehensively presented, where the expectations will be so great and the critical response so sharp, the general audience will attend only to the surface of the narrative. Much else—that can be understood as critical and methodological—has to be accomplished by the author in the structure of the writing. Narrative foreground must be meshed with the structural background to make the book satisfy all that will be demanded of it—from the author no less. These conditions will determine what the style of the book shall be. Having written in styles from the academic to the esoteric, from the experimental to the journalistic, I am confident that I will find one appropriate to the nature of the book. What is appropriate can only be realized by the needs of the narrative as it attempts to engage its audience. And that has still to be discovered.
I intend to discuss the responses as a whole since queries and criticisms overlap but I will initially outline the main issues each raises. The first respondent questions the position of marginal practices in the book, the audience it is directed to and whether an anthology might be more effective. Respondent number two criticizes the lack of contemporary analysis, the continuing marginalization of non-traditional communities, the failure of actual reevaluation and questions whether seeking a definition of Canadian art is important. The third respondent questions the ability and means for anyone to encompass such diverse material and the voice by which it is to be expressed.
The more writing there is on Canadian art the better, so that those isolated statements that are made are not taken to be the only ones permitted. Anthologies, while welcome, are not the answer because, although viewpoints are varied, a wider synthesis is lacking. Someone must make the effort and take the risk of creating a larger picture. The picture, however, must be comprehensive and methodologically sophisticated and presented with compelling and authoritative force if it is to have lasting effect. That this picture is open to criticism is only proper and necessary for the provocation of other points of view—whether they are confirmative or critical.
Any picture that is put together is a representation, as objective as it may appear or present itself. That the writer’s subjectivity has to be revealed should not be an issue in a book of this general nature if its evaluative procedures are made clear from the beginning. Reevaluation is one of the guiding concepts of the book and these concepts, and therefore the author’s position, will be evident in the Introduction (“Methodology: Questions of a History”).
Inclusions and omissions are implicit evaluations. I feel perhaps that the names cited in my prospectus and the provisionality of the Epilogue misled the reviewers into thinking that feminist practices were being excluded. This is far from my intention as my past writing and work at the Art Gallery of Ontario show (which, of course, the reviewers could not know) and my discussion of the 1980s in the prospectus suggests. I do not intend to treat any important contribution to Canadian art as “an after-thought in the concluding chapter.” When the contribution is made and how it is integrated in the context of contemporary Canadian art will determine “the treatment of natives, women and non-european artists” in a book that is, after all, a chronological narrative. I am familiar with the recent analyses of colonial and post-colonial art; however, most of the theory has been produced elsewhere and usually for the needs of literary criticism. We need to find our own analyses—one of the features of this book—and not reproduce general cultural theories which are just as much still subject to evaluation themselves. While the book will be of its period, hopefully it will not be marred by what merely is political in its moment. What is Canadian about Canadian art may be rejected as a question in the final chapter, but nationality sets the parameters for this history.
The demands that these reviewers already place on the book show the difficulties the project will confront. Two of the reviewers thereby question the audience for the book and the difficult accommodation of both student and general reader, which is one of my major concerns as well. One of these, the third reviewer, judiciously argues the problems—and contradictions—of such wide terrain to be described in one story. This will be the problem consistently before me in all my considerations. So will be this writer’s main concern: that any such construction is already a representation articulated by a voice.
Here is my second response (5 December 1992):
Given the complexities that I outlined in both my proposal and response, an “anecdotal, interesting, non-theoretical narrative for non-specialist readers” is exactly what contemporary Canadian art does not need. Nor will it really serve the audience of non-specialists and students for which it is directed. Furthermore, it will replicate outmoded forms of publishing that keep Canada at a lag in the writing on art. I see no reason to continue when “caution” supersedes innovation.
Nevertheless, I thank you for asking me to submit a proposal and appreciate your supportive representation of my project to your board.