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A major Kurelek moment in the art world (finally)

Artist William Kurelek, October 18, 1973.

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

He's hot, he's sexy and he's dead.

That's how Rolling Stone magazine, in a 1981 cover story, described the mania for Jim Morrison 10 years after the Doors' lead singer expired from a drug overdose in a Paris apartment.

The cover line also has a certain application to William Kurelek – although as a devout, dour Christian with a decidedly apocalyptic bent he'd no doubt take umbrage at the "sexy" bit.

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Still, there's no denying Canadian culture is in the midst of a major Kurelek moment 35 years after the Alberta-born painter's death in a Toronto hospital at 50. Over the last seven days the country's three major art auction houses – Heffel, Joyner Waddington's, Sotheby's – have put a total of 15 Kureleks on the block and all 15 have sold, most for amounts well above their presale estimates. Heffel, in fact, set an auction record for Kurelek last Thursday when it sold one of his archetypal mixed-media winter allegories, 1973's King of the Mountain, for $380,250 to Winnipeg dealer Bill Mayberry. Overall, the three auction houses grossed more than $1.4-million from this fall's Kurelek consignments. If popularity and market power are sexy, then William Kurelek is very sexy indeed.

Of course, Kurelek's always been a favourite of collectors, even during his tortured and tortuous life. Before this recent round of auctions, he ranked among the 20 top-performing Canadian artists in the resale market. Not everything by him that went up for bidding would sell, however. Now this seems to be very much the case. Take Spoiling the Snow Carving, a 1960 oil depicting what appears to be a mother pouring boiling water from a kettle into a washtub that's been used to house a snow castle built by her children. It's a tough, unsentimental picture, cruel even (the right hand of the young girl in the lower right corner, for instance, obviously has been badly scalded and she's sucking her fingers in pain) and undoubtedly inspired by Kurelek's own strenuous Prairie upbringing as the oldest of seven children born to hard-scrabble Ukrainian immigrants. Consigned to Sotheby's, Spoiling went into bidding Tuesday evening with a presale estimate of $12,000 to $18,000 – an indication the auction house felt its unforgiving subject matter wouldn't elicit big dollars. Yet the painting sold for more than $57,000, including buyer's premium. Clearly a Kurelek painting, however harsh its contents, is the closest thing to a sure sale in the often volatile Canadian art market.

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James More


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