Artist Sorel Etrog’s life and work embraced the complexities and contradictions that make us human. The eminent Canadian philosopher and educator Marshall McLuhan, one of Mr. Etrog’s many notable collaborators, wrote of the artist, “His work is always multi-levelled and multi-sensuous in ways that are not easily described in conventional literary terminology.” By engaging us with imaginative tools and observations drawn from the world, artists such as Mr. Etrog express the ideas and thoughts we share, but also offer a point of departure.
A prolific and internationally recognized artist, Mr. Etrog died on Feb. 26 at the age of 80. He leaves his sister, Zipporah Gendler, and family. Mr. Etrog crafted striking and monumental bronze sculptures that appeared in Toronto and then other cities across the country. His work came at a critical turning point for Canadian art in the 1960s, as artists were striving for contemporary and dynamic expressions. Mr. Etrog’s route to Canada was equally noteworthy, interwoven with the story of postwar immigration and cultural diversity.
Mr. Etrog said that “leaving one’s native country has beneficial effects from the creative viewpoint … a distance … a space that makes many things possible.”
Born in Jassy, in northeastern Romania, in 1933, Mr. Etrog survived the Nazi pogroms of the Second World War and emigrated to Israel with his family in 1950. After compulsory military service, Mr. Etrog studied art in Tel Aviv from 1953 to 1955. His first solo exhibition of painted constructions was in Tel Aviv in 1958. One of his teachers, Romanian artist Marcel Janco, who had co-founded the avant-garde Zurich Dada group in 1917, wrote on the occasion, “the young painter Etrog … is compelled to show the permanent bond between the plastic arts with architecture on the one hand, and with society on the other.”
Mr. Etrog was awarded a scholarship to study the Brooklyn Museum Art School. A fortuitous meeting with Toronto art collectors Samuel and Ayala Zacks in New York in 1959 resulted in the purchase of the first of many Etrog works by the couple, but just as important was their invitation to work in their Southampton, Ont., plywood factory that summer; there were tools, materials and space. Rather than paint trees – in the “Canadian tradition” – Mr. Etrog continued with his painted constructions, now with Canadian wood.
The couple also introduced him to Walter Moos, who had just opened a gallery in Toronto at Avenue Road and Davenport Road. Mr. Moos was also an émigré from Europe via New York who had survived the Holocaust. He promptly offered 26-year-old Mr. Etrog a solo exhibition, which opened in October. A couple of years later, Mr. Etrog had the first solo exhibition when Mr. Moos’s gallery relocated to Yorkville Avenue, where a vibrant art scene subsequently developed. Their professional relationship and close friendship would be lifelong; Mr. Etrog spoke at Walter Moos’s memorial service in 2013.
The warm reception Mr. Etrog received in Canada quickly influenced his choices. Although the first of several New York exhibitions of his work was held in 1963, he closed down his New York studio that year. At the time, New York was rapidly emerging as the new centre of the art world and Canadian artists were flocking there. Mr. Etrog, however, settled in Toronto, working first in a studio in the Tip Top Tailors building on Lake Shore Boulevard, through the support of Toronto collectors Benjamin and Yael Dunkleman.
The latter half of the 1960s was a heady time for Mr. Etrog. He established a studio in Florence in 1965, enabling him to cast larger bronze works. In 1966, the year Mr. Etrog became a Canadian citizen, the National Gallery chose him to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale alongside artists Alex Colville and Yves Gaucher. The grouping appears unlikely; Mr. Colville’s precise figurative work was drawn from a regional Canadian experience, and Mr. Gaucher’s cool, geometric orchestrations appear to have emerged from Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Mr. Etrog’s totemic and abstracted figurative sculptures, in hindsight, offered a bridge between the legacies of European modern art and his passion for the Mediterranean world of antiquity and Oceanic and African cultural expressions. His work had already been collected by the Art Gallery of Ontario, National Gallery of Canada, Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art.