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‘I believe painting is a language, and each artist has their own. They need their own space,’ says Mirvish, seen here with one of his many canvasses by American Larry Poons. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
‘I believe painting is a language, and each artist has their own. They need their own space,’ says Mirvish, seen here with one of his many canvasses by American Larry Poons. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

visual art

David Mirvish unveils his art, and pitches his big plan for Toronto Add to ...

In the living room, the story gets even more personal. An expansive work by Jack Bush holds the main wall (“I guess you could say he was a mentor to me,” he told me later in the day), and it is presented opposite a striking painting of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1915 by French émigré Albert Gleizes, which is installed above the fireplace. Briskly, he parses the history of modernism that the painting reprises. “In the upper left you have Russian constructivism,” he says, “the cables of the bridge are Italian futurism, the centre is French cubism, and it’s an American subject.” Gleizes and Jean Metzinger had just written the first book on cubism, he says, and this painting came out of his first trip to New York. Like Mirvish’s own family, which had come to America from Lithuania and Russia – first to Colonial Beach, Va., and then to Washington – Gleizes had come seeking new horizons across the Atlantic. This painting seems to capture the dazzle of that first immersion.

Other objects in the room reveal his eclectic tastes – a 14th-century ceramic pot from Japan, a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz – but my eye is drawn to a bookcase standing near the windows, a metal structure whose upper surface hints at its former life in a garment factory. (“You can tell they used it for pattern cutting,” he says, “and we liked the resonance of that.”) Atop it sits a two-part sculpture by British artist and writer Edmund De Waal, whose book The Hare with Amber Eyes is a contemporary masterpiece exploring the compulsions that drive art collecting, the losses and regenerations of cultural diaspora, and the rupture of the Holocaust. De Waal’s twinned glass boxes house a host of cylindrical white porcelain vessels, their extreme delicacy allowing for an unearthly, virginal translucence as the daylight passes through them. One is drawn to contemplate the soul, the delicate human vessel, and the ephemerality of life.

Within the bookcase, Mirvish has arranged a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas (an echo, perhaps, of the Book of Knowledge that his grandfather sold for the Masonic Lodges when he first landed in Toronto, during the Depression), and a complete 19th-century leather-bound edition of the works of Alexandre Dumas, a bar-mitzvah present given to him by his parents more than 50 years ago, at his request. “There are 60 volumes in total,” he says, “and I have read about 34 of them.” Opening one, he leafs through it. “I cut the pages myself. Some book collectors don’t, you know,” he adds, “but book collectors are a strange bunch. I believe books are to be read. “

And works of art are made to be looked at. Driving down to visit the first of his two storage warehouses on the fringes of the city, we talk about the long-standing grudge in some sectors of the art world against colour-field painting, deemed by many to be too decorative after the muscular abstract-expressionist gesture paintings of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. He talks, too, about the difficulty of writing about colour-field painting, or doing justice to it in print reproduction, given the often gargantuan scale of the works and their vaporous visual effects. Physical sensation through vision is the key to it, he says, as we stand in his brightly lit industrial space facing a peach-and-saffron Olitski canvas that feels like it’s a mile wide. The paintings make us slow down, he says: “You just fall into this unbelievably beautiful space.” In encyclopedic museums, where a smattering-of-each is the curatorial rule, these works struggle to be properly understood – a peril he hopes to avoid in his own museum. “I believe painting is a language, and each artist has their own,” he says. “They need their own space. Otherwise, you have a cacophony.” The Phillips Collection in Washington and the Menil Collection in Houston strike him as the best models to follow.

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