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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 warehouses, I get a taste of the kind of installations he is contemplating. A dark green Caro sculpture lies at the centre of a room whose walls are hung with a collection of Morris Louis’s Bronze Veil paintings from 1958, sombre-hued pictures in mossy greens, tarnished golds and plums, made by pouring thinned layers of paint on canvas. “It took me 50 years to assemble this group,” he says. The paintings are a surprise, resonating with a dusky solemnity akin to Rothko’s, but much less jubilant than the more highly coloured pictures for which the artist is best known. (Mirvish owns several choice examples of those, too.) As the hours go by, the racks divulge a trove of works by Helen Frankenthaler, Olitski and Stella, as well consummate painting from Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, an earthy composition of tobacco browns, creams and clotted black that would hang comfortably in any of the world’s great museums.

Mirvish has made no secret of his father’s historic puzzlement over his son’s choices in art, but he says Mirvish senior always encouraged him to define his own territory. His mother, Anne, now 94, was a sculptor, and more closely shared his inclinations. When he was around 12, the three of them took their first trip through Europe. “My father had a big American car shipped over,” he recalls, “and he drove it around on those tiny French roads. People in Europe had never seen a Cadillac. They actually gathered around the car.” As they made their way, his mother toured him through the cathedrals and museums.

A few years later, in 1963, she decamped for six months to the New School in New York, where she was turned onto Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. David and his father stayed home in Toronto. “We painted the dining-room walls the colour of mustard and the ceiling the colour of ketchup,” he says today, with a laugh, “and then we did the reverse in the living room. We sort of exercised our own artistic licence,” a boys-will-be-boys response to her flying the coop. “When she came home, she took one look at it and went upstairs to bed, and she didn’t come down for two weeks, until it was painted over. But you can’t go away and not expect something to happen.” What she brought back with her, though, was more than a disinclination for fast-food colours on the living-room walls. Recalling his later years as an art dealer, he says, “She would have been my best client if I had let her.”

These days, Mirvish is considering the challenges of making a museum. How to ensure it will have curatorial viability after he passes on? How to relate the collection to contemporary life? And how to reach out to the city’s new audiences for art? He hopes to include a space in the King Street complex where new Canadians can be sworn into citizenship, amid the architectural vestiges of the old brick factories where Toronto’s first immigrants laboured.

Throughout our day together, Mirvish fielded a dozen calls on his cellphone. Almost all of them involved his art collection. But one – received as we were waiting out a rain squall over lunch at Gilead Café – was clearly different from the rest. Curious about the sudden downshift in his tone of voice, I asked him afterward what the call had been about.

It was concerning his father’s tombstone, he said, for which he was finally completing his plans. (His father died six years ago.) It is a task he says he has put off, ruminating over the wording of the inscription and style of the stone in an absurdly lengthy deliberation. The newspapers have beaten him up over it, he told me, but it’s as if that final act of closure would irrevocably put his vibrant father in the past tense. I asked him what he had decided to put on the headstone. He paused, and then said to me: “A Man with a Good Name.”

It’s something to shoot for in this world. With his big plans for King Street, Mirvish is aiming for the same.

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