An art collector’s home is a space of autobiography, a place where deep truths are told through the objects placed within it, and David and Audrey Mirvish’s house in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood is no exception. Last week, I dropped in for a look. I had just returned from Venice, where I had found the Mirvish name whispering from wall labels: An exceptionally fine 1943 Robert Motherwell collage from his collection is the opening stunner in an exhibition of the late New York artist’s work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection; at the Museo Correr on Piazza San Marco, an Anthony Caro exhibition was advertised with posters bearing the Toronto theatre impresario’s Red Splash, a 1966 abstract metal sculpture made by the British artist at the peak of his powers.
For 15 years, starting in 1963, Mirvish had been the face of contemporary art in Toronto. His David Mirvish Gallery on Markham Street, tucked in around the corner from his father’s discount emporium, Honest Ed’s, helped introduce Toronto audiences to the innovations under way in American painting and sculpture, while also championing local artists such as Jack Bush and Robert Murray. Since the gallery’s closure, however, Mirvish has become less visible, quietly moving in the art world’s rarified international circles, refining his holdings with strategic acquisitions, and diligently pursuing his knowledge of the artists he admires.
The privilege of this relative seclusion, though, is shifting somewhat as he strives to convince the planning department of City Hall to grant him permission to erect three 80-storey Frank Gehry-designed condo towers on King Street West. It is a game-changing architectural addition to the urban core that would also include a new satellite facility for OCAD University and a museum to serve as a public platform for his expansive collection of modern sculpture and painting. It’s a project he is undertaking for profit, to be sure, but also, one senses, for the pleasure of unleashing his own creativity, and leaving a legacy in the city whose culture his family has helped to shape. A courtly man, and discreet, he has never had to make a case for his art, until now.
As he walks me through the collection, he stops from time to time to unleash a stream of information: Where has this work been shown? When did he acquired it? Where does it stand in the artist’s development? And what are the current scholarly debates surrounding it? Behind his commentary is the force of a lifetime of looking and learning, whether he is discussing a 1953 forged-steel totem by David Smith (a modernist sentry of sub-Saharan inflection) or the shaped canvas by American abstractionist Frank Stella, built of intersecting chevrons of yellow and white, which hangs in the front hall. “Stella stands at the crossroads between colour field, pop and minimalism,” Mirvish says of his old friend, who collaborated with him in making the murals for the Princess of Wales Theatre, 20 years ago.
The dining room hosts a gathering of similarly kindred spirits, works by the colour-field painters from the sixties and seventies that he has collected in most depth, and whose works he once sold. Among them are pictures by Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski, whose vertical abstraction in deep purple here was a wedding present to the couple from the artist in 1967. A dark-hued ceramic work by contemporary artist Arlene Shechet keeps company with its elders, a bulbous abstraction with a base loosely shaped like a dancing foot. “This piece has a surface that fascinates me,” Mirvish says, referring to the glazing, which emits a mysterious, emulsified sheen despite its darkness. It’s something he feels about many of the works in his collection, where the play of light and colour create abstract spaces for mental exploration and release.