Green Loop, Jack Bush, 1971
The established tale of mid-century abstract painting in this country relies on two parallel narratives, each originating from either side of Canada’s two solitudes. In Montreal, it was the story of the Automatistes, of Borduas and Riopelle, Barbeau and Françoise Sullivan. In attitude, the movement tilted decidedly in the direction of Europe and surrealism, and with all the avant-garde accoutrements one would expect to see in any collective daring to call itself a movement. It had a blustery manifesto (Le Refus global) with radical proclamations, an alpha dog (Borduas) with a group of adoring cohorts from a variety of disciplines, and even a bit of anti-clericism thrown in for good measure. It was in essence a cultural movement, paralleling the rise of nationalism and the anti-Duplessis sentiment in Quebec. And like just about every other art movement with an agenda, its mercurial ascent was followed by an almost immediate dissipation of energies, as the main protagonists shifted their attention to bigger ponds, like Paris or New York.
The other dominant tale of abstract painting in Canada at midcentury is that of the Painters Eleven and the realities of making art in Toronto. Here, context is everything, as the Painters Eleven essentially formed, not around a political manifesto or an intellectual rallying cry, but for the most Torontonian of reasons: landing shows, getting profile and selling art. The cast of characters included some of the most well-known painters of the period, including Jack Bush, William Ronald, Harold Town and Jock Macdonald, and like the city itself, it had the habit of bowing before the aesthetic altar of all things British and American. This was a Toronto, not of the commercial galleries and artist-run centres of today, but of art clubs and watercolour societies, endless landscape paintings and the looming spectre of the Group of Seven. Innovative art—especially work concerned with prevailing ideas around abstract painting—was without champions or venues, and so eleven like-minded souls (nine men, two women) banded together, more a matter of survival and mutual support than any kind of revolution.
Iris Nowell’s Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art charts the rise and fall of the group of artists through the lives of its major protagonists. There is a chapter devoted to each of the eleven members, with short sections interspersed throughout that provide some overall history and context. The structure of the book privileges the individual over the collective and, as the title suggests, anecdote over aesthetics. In many ways, the book reads as a kind of love story between the author and many of the artists she knew so well, and the stories (many of which Nowell, both as writer and as friend, experienced first-hand) are vividly and convincingly portrayed.