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A painter's palette in prose Add to ...

A Painter's Journey

By Barbara Caruso

Mercury Press, 288 pages, $19.95

A Painter's Journey, by Barbara Caruso, consists of diary entries made between June, 1966, and December, 1973. In language as precisely articulated as her paintings, she recorded the highlights of her daily life: projects she was undertaking, observations about new acquaintances and old friends, galleries she visited, dealers with whom she did business, works of art she saw, books she read.

She says she was not a faithful diarist, and there are gaps in the account, but there is no sense of disconnection between the entries. Her activity-filled days follow one another in a headlong rush. Caruso's dedication to her art was unswerving and her output prodigious. Hardly an entry fails to note the completion of a project or the beginning of a new one. She builds stretchers, primes canvas, plans new paintings, pulls prints, makes drawings, designs book covers and spends endless hours in front of her easel.

She began by making acrylic paintings on paper or on canvases of modest dimensions, but the works became bigger and bigger: 5 by 10 feet, 6 by 6, 4 by 12. The size of the paintings was directly related to what she could afford to spend on materials. In early days, lack of money was an acute problem; later, it settled into being merely a chronic one. Caruso and her husband Nelson lived and worked in cramped spaces on budgets so stringent that allotted sums for food, art supplies and pocket money were not even rounded to the nearest dollar. Barbara took on teaching gigs and Nelson did library work to support their real careers of making art and writing poetry.

When the commercial galleries began showing interest in her work, Caruso encountered a problem familiar to many artists: trying to do business with dealers who seemed to regard the work as mere grist for their mills, charging up-front exhibition fees and half the cost of the opening reception, taking a 40-per-cent commission on gallery sales and then demanding a cut on all work sold elsewhere, even from the artist's own studio.

After her first major exhibition, Caruso was relieved to find she had broken even. In 1971, she and her husband received Canada Council travel grants of $4,000 each, and taxpayers' money was never more conscientiously spent. Between Sept. 28 and Dec. 16, they visited all the major museums and historical sites in London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Mainz, Heidelberg, Paris, Avignon, Gordes, Nice, Pisa, Florence and Milan. Little wonder they spent the final day of their trip in their hotel room, exhausted, eating sandwiches and reading old paperbacks.

A few reproductions would have been a welcome addition to this book. Readers who have not seen Caruso's work must conjure up mental images of it for themselves. The author writes of using masking tape to keep her edges hard, composing canvases with precise rectangles of colour and adjusting their positions, hues and tones so that they will act and react in certain ways with one another.

The once all-powerful New York critic Clement Greenberg had decreed that there was no place in the then-contemporary movement called post-painterly abstraction for the spontaneous gesture, textured surface or any suggestion of illusory pictorial depth, and Caruso appears to have kept in line with these strictures. In her work, discrete areas of flat colour must bear the burden of expressing what it is she wants to convey. At the opening of her first solo exhibition, at Toronto's Aggregation Gallery, in 1971, one of the guests told her, "You can't do this," to which she replied, "I have done this; what's the problem?" "You can't paint with just colour," he said, "colour has to be something coloured."

In reply, Caruso quoted Fernand Léger, who declared that he and Robert Delaunay had liberated colour: "Before us, blue was the sky and green was the grass. Now, colour is colour."

For Caruso, today, colour is still colour. In an essay accompanying a 1999 exhibition, she wrote: "My paintings are about colour, its energy and activity, its interaction and interdependence. . . . My work is abstract or non-objective and it is rigorously planar." Since that first exhibition, Caruso has mounted more than two dozen solo shows and participated in as many group exhibitions.

A Painter's Journey will be of particular interest to Torontonians who recall the city's vigorous avant-garde art scene during the sixties and seventies. Caruso writes about exhibitions she sees and gallery owners she approaches: Carmen Lamanna was "dolefully gracious," but noncommittal; Jared Sable addressed his remarks about her slides to Nelson, as though he were her keeper. Jack Pollock pushed and pulled, said he wouldn't show her work but encouraged her to keep in touch; Jerrold Morris looked at the slides and complained about the state of the economy.

They were interesting times. David Mirvish was showing Larry Poons, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitsky and Robert Motherwell, and Kay Kritzwiser diligently reviewed not only such stellar exhibitions in her Globe and Mail columns, but those by little-known artists as well. Canadians were coming to the fore, including Jack Bush, who had abandoned his bucolic landscapes to work in bands of pure colour. The Isaacs Gallery exhibited Mark Prent's life-sized fibreglass sculptures of screaming human figures trapped in blocks of ice, and was charged by the police with displaying disgusting objects. They were a bit disgusting. I remember them well.

The last diary entry is dated Dec. 17, 1973. As usual, Caruso has several irons in the fire. She's resetting type for a book to be published by her own small press and calculating what the books should sell for. Some drawings have been returned from an unsuccessful show called Art for Spain. Another show, called Art 74, was more successful, but her works didn't sell. She's heard that the AGO's Junior Women's Committee wants to buy a painting "by a woman." A letter from Mount Allison University tells her that the curator will stop in to see her work in January.

Two final sentences encapsulate it all: "It's cold in here. I'm working on sketches for the next painting."

Helen McLean is at work on a new novel. Her essay Unmet Friends, in the current issue of Room of One's Own, is about the lives of three creative women.

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