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Iris Nowell, author of Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art.
Iris Nowell, author of Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art.

Iris Nowell

Three pillars of emerging art Add to ...

A young man from Cody, Wyo., burst into the public consciousness on the pages of Life magazine on Aug. 8, 1949, posed in front of his massive painting Summertime (1948) reproduced in full colour across a double-page spread. The headline teased: "Jackson Pollock: Is He The Greatest Living Painter In The United States?"

Five million readers of Life and artists everywhere paused to consider whether dripping paint on canvas could be called art and the guy who made it an artist. Both proved to be emphatically true for the man later dubbed Jack the Dripper - and for every artist working in that new movement, abstract expressionism.

At Pollock's seminal first exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950, Milton Resnick noticed something different - men in suits and women in jewellery, versus the usual grunge artists. Resnick asked fellow painter Willem de Kooning what he thought was going on, and de Kooning said: "Look around. These are the big shots. Jackson has broken the ice."

The "big shots," including the wife of John D. Rockefeller, shattered the ice by purchasing 18 of Pollock's 27 paintings from the exhibition.

Consistent with any emerging art movement, the New York abstractionists gained vital support from a potent but unseen force of three pillars that unite to support new art: a dealer who takes a flyer on an untested artist; a leading collector who purchases a work; and a major public art institution that makes an acquisition. Pollock had all three - Betty Parsons, a Rockefeller and the Museum of Modern Art (which had already bought de Kooning in 1948.)

These three pillars provide unequivocal endorsement of a new art movement. In New York, this endorsement accomplished significantly more than championing abstract expressionism. Historically, it transferred the centre of art from Paris to New York.

Toronto artists working in abstract expressionism in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not have such pillars of support. Representational art dominated the art market and, although abstraction had gained a foothold in Quebec in the early 1940s as it had in New York, Toronto abstractionists lagged 10 years behind.

Finally, in 1953, 11 abstract expressionist artists banded together and formed Painters Eleven, expecting to gain attention as a group rather than battle it out singly. They were: Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Hortense Gordon, Tom Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Jock Macdonald, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood.

The following year, one of the three pillars kicked in. The Roberts Gallery, a dealer in representational art since 1842, took a chance on Painters Eleven and gave them their first exhibition, then another one in 1955.

New dealers opened their doors in Toronto from 1953 to 1960 to specialize in contemporary art, although not all survived. They were followed by contemporary art galleries established by Walter Moos, Avrom Isaacs, Dorothy Cameron and David Mirvish, who gave Painters Eleven exhibitions.

The second pillar emerged from Toronto's old money and nouveaux riches who attended the glitzy Painters Eleven openings - then the most glamorous social events in town - and bought their art. The names are familiar - Eaton, Parkin, Sarick, Waxer, Feheley, Hirshhorn and Zacks - as well as corporate collectors, financial institutions, resource industry companies, media conglomerates and law firms.

As for the third pillar, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO) bought Painters Eleven works beginning in 1953; by the 1960s, most provincial art galleries had made purchases. The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa holds close to 1,000 Painters Eleven works, the largest in the country.

Many Painters Eleven achieved widespread acclaim, won major art prizes and exhibited in esteemed international exhibitions. To cite briefly: Ronald moved to New York in 1956 and, that year, the MoMA bought a painting of his before he had been taken on by a dealer, the Kootz Gallery. The MoMA purchased two of Town's renowned single autographic prints. Town appeared in some 370 North American and international exhibitions from 1946 to 1986. Nakamura appeared in eight international exhibitions from 1957 to 1959. Macdonald and Gordon were exhibiting their early abstractions in 1931 and 1934. Hodgson, Cahén, Luke, Mead and Yarwood consistently produced brilliant work.

In 1972, the Boston Museum of Fine Art opened its new contemporary department with an exhibition by Jack Bush. Curator Kenworth Moffett, explaining his choice, said he thought Bush was "one of the best painters Canada has produced."

Regardless of the support Painters Eleven received, ultimately, it was their art that triumphed. They never stopped making their daring, beautiful art.

And now: Since the AGO's Matthew Teitelbaum and MoMA's Glenn Lowry have given us their glorious exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York, it seems only appropriate they give New Yorkers an exhibition of our glorious Abstract Expressionist Toronto.

Iris Nowell is the author of Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art .

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