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.
The next year, Mr. Etrog’s sculpture was featured prominently at Expo 67 in Montreal. His work was included in the National Gallery of Canada’s Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art, the largest and most inclusive exhibition of Canadian art assembled to date, and in the groundbreaking Canadian and international exhibition Sculpture ’67, organized by Dorothy Cameron for the National Gallery and mounted at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square and various sites in High Park. One of his works from the show, the poignantly-titled Survivors Are Not Heroes, is now permanently installed in front of Hart House at the University of Toronto. In 1968, the Art Gallery of Ontario organized the travelling solo exhibition One Decade. That year, he also designed the Canadian Film Award statuette, which was known as “the Etrog” until 1980, when it was renamed the Genie. The statuette, however, remains the same.
At a moment when Mr. Etrog had become well established as a sculptor, he plunged into projects that fed his inquisitive spirit. His experimental, expressionist black-and-white film Spiral, for example, which took four years to complete, was broadcast on the CBC in 1975 and inspired a book collaboration with Marshall McLuhan, published the following year. He also wrote poetry and plays, composed music, created unique limited-edition artist books and worked on collaborative projects for stage, theatre costume designs and installations such as Musicage in 1982, for the 70th birthday of American avant-garde composer John Cage.
In 1984, he devised The Kite, a performance involving National Ballet of Canada soloist Gloria Luoma, to celebrate the 78th birthday of Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett. Mr. Etrog had met Mr. Beckett in Paris in 1969. Inspired by Mr. Beckett’s writing, he created a series of drawings that were produced as a book project titled Imagination Dead Imagine. He also met the Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco in Paris, again collaborating to produce an illustrated poem titled Chocs in 1969. Mr. Etrog was drawn to both because his view and visualization of the human condition had a literary dimension. In the early 1960s, Mr. Etrog said that his “search is for a language of forms,” and Mr. Beckett and Mr. Ionesco are figures credited with shaping a post-1950 cultural and philosophical consciousness.
His literary interests extended to other modern essayists and writers, including T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. The imaging of words and the word play of images were important to Mr. Etrog’s visual vocabulary with works on paper, and even his sculptural work has a literary dimension.
Rather than simply viewing Mr. Etrog’s works in public spaces as objects or tokens of a type and style, we can read them as characters, as if in a Beckett play, to work through the absurdities of life. The city is the stage; we are on the stage.
In 1980, Mr. Etrog presented stark, new geometric steel-wall constructions that were witty and playful, and in part based on variations on a humble hardware hinge that he had been exploring for several years.
Out of this series came two monumental free-standing commissioned works, the 8.5-metre-high Sun Life, 1984, at the corner of University Avenue and King Street in Toronto, and the 10-metre-high Power Soul for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Mr. Etrog had more than 85 solo exhibitions in North America, Europe and Asia, and was included in numerous international group exhibitions. His works are represented in major museum collections around the world, and permanent public sites across Canada and internationally.
A cast of his early 1960s bronze Sunbird II was mounted in Reviers, in France’s Normandy region, in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing. He received many accolades and honours, becoming a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, a member of the Order of Canada, and a chevalier of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
For the past decade Mr. Etrog had been donating his sculptures to Mount Sinai Hospital. Last November, the hospital announced that the works will be incorporated into the planned Hennick Family Wellness Centre, which will showcase the works in a meditation area.
Last year, the Art Gallery of Ontario honoured him with a 50-year retrospective. In conversation, Mr. Etrog joked that he had been waiting 50 years for this exhibition. Yet waiting was never in his nature; Mr. Etrog was never idle. Those who only knew him in public saw a tall and self-assured Mr. Etrog. In private moments there was a gentle humility. This was not a contradiction.
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