Skip to main content
visual art

‘I believe painting is a language, and each artist has their own. They need their own space,’ says Mirvish, seen here with one of his many canvasses by American Larry Poons.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

An art collector's home is a space of autobiography, a place where deep truths are told through the objects placed within it, and David and Audrey Mirvish's house in Toronto's Forest Hill neighbourhood is no exception. Last week, I dropped in for a look. I had just returned from Venice, where I had found the Mirvish name whispering from wall labels: An exceptionally fine 1943 Robert Motherwell collage from his collection is the opening stunner in an exhibition of the late New York artist's work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection; at the Museo Correr on Piazza San Marco, an Anthony Caro exhibition was advertised with posters bearing the Toronto theatre impresario's Red Splash, a 1966 abstract metal sculpture made by the British artist at the peak of his powers.

For 15 years, starting in 1963, Mirvish had been the face of contemporary art in Toronto. His David Mirvish Gallery on Markham Street, tucked in around the corner from his father's discount emporium, Honest Ed's, helped introduce Toronto audiences to the innovations under way in American painting and sculpture, while also championing local artists such as Jack Bush and Robert Murray. Since the gallery's closure, however, Mirvish has become less visible, quietly moving in the art world's rarified international circles, refining his holdings with strategic acquisitions, and diligently pursuing his knowledge of the artists he admires.

The privilege of this relative seclusion, though, is shifting somewhat as he strives to convince the planning department of City Hall to grant him permission to erect three 80-storey Frank Gehry-designed condo towers on King Street West. It is a game-changing architectural addition to the urban core that would also include a new satellite facility for OCAD University and a museum to serve as a public platform for his expansive collection of modern sculpture and painting. It's a project he is undertaking for profit, to be sure, but also, one senses, for the pleasure of unleashing his own creativity, and leaving a legacy in the city whose culture his family has helped to shape. A courtly man, and discreet, he has never had to make a case for his art, until now.

As he walks me through the collection, he stops from time to time to unleash a stream of information: Where has this work been shown? When did he acquired it? Where does it stand in the artist's development? And what are the current scholarly debates surrounding it? Behind his commentary is the force of a lifetime of looking and learning, whether he is discussing a 1953 forged-steel totem by David Smith (a modernist sentry of sub-Saharan inflection) or the shaped canvas by American abstractionist Frank Stella, built of intersecting chevrons of yellow and white, which hangs in the front hall. "Stella stands at the crossroads between colour field, pop and minimalism," Mirvish says of his old friend, who collaborated with him in making the murals for the Princess of Wales Theatre, 20 years ago.

The dining room hosts a gathering of similarly kindred spirits, works by the colour-field painters from the sixties and seventies that he has collected in most depth, and whose works he once sold. Among them are pictures by Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski, whose vertical abstraction in deep purple here was a wedding present to the couple from the artist in 1967. A dark-hued ceramic work by contemporary artist Arlene Shechet keeps company with its elders, a bulbous abstraction with a base loosely shaped like a dancing foot. "This piece has a surface that fascinates me," Mirvish says, referring to the glazing, which emits a mysterious, emulsified sheen despite its darkness. It's something he feels about many of the works in his collection, where the play of light and colour create abstract spaces for mental exploration and release.

In the living room, the story gets even more personal. An expansive work by Jack Bush holds the main wall ("I guess you could say he was a mentor to me," he told me later in the day), and it is presented opposite a striking painting of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1915 by French émigré Albert Gleizes, which is installed above the fireplace. Briskly, he parses the history of modernism that the painting reprises. "In the upper left you have Russian constructivism," he says, "the cables of the bridge are Italian futurism, the centre is French cubism, and it's an American subject." Gleizes and Jean Metzinger had just written the first book on cubism, he says, and this painting came out of his first trip to New York. Like Mirvish's own family, which had come to America from Lithuania and Russia – first to Colonial Beach, Va., and then to Washington – Gleizes had come seeking new horizons across the Atlantic. This painting seems to capture the dazzle of that first immersion.

Other objects in the room reveal his eclectic tastes – a 14th-century ceramic pot from Japan, a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz – but my eye is drawn to a bookcase standing near the windows, a metal structure whose upper surface hints at its former life in a garment factory. ("You can tell they used it for pattern cutting," he says, "and we liked the resonance of that.") Atop it sits a two-part sculpture by British artist and writer Edmund De Waal, whose book The Hare with Amber Eyes is a contemporary masterpiece exploring the compulsions that drive art collecting, the losses and regenerations of cultural diaspora, and the rupture of the Holocaust. De Waal's twinned glass boxes house a host of cylindrical white porcelain vessels, their extreme delicacy allowing for an unearthly, virginal translucence as the daylight passes through them. One is drawn to contemplate the soul, the delicate human vessel, and the ephemerality of life.

Within the bookcase, Mirvish has arranged a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas (an echo, perhaps, of the Book of Knowledge that his grandfather sold for the Masonic Lodges when he first landed in Toronto, during the Depression), and a complete 19th-century leather-bound edition of the works of Alexandre Dumas, a bar-mitzvah present given to him by his parents more than 50 years ago, at his request. "There are 60 volumes in total," he says, "and I have read about 34 of them." Opening one, he leafs through it. "I cut the pages myself. Some book collectors don't, you know," he adds, "but book collectors are a strange bunch. I believe books are to be read. "

And works of art are made to be looked at. Driving down to visit the first of his two storage warehouses on the fringes of the city, we talk about the long-standing grudge in some sectors of the art world against colour-field painting, deemed by many to be too decorative after the muscular abstract-expressionist gesture paintings of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. He talks, too, about the difficulty of writing about colour-field painting, or doing justice to it in print reproduction, given the often gargantuan scale of the works and their vaporous visual effects. Physical sensation through vision is the key to it, he says, as we stand in his brightly lit industrial space facing a peach-and-saffron Olitski canvas that feels like it's a mile wide. The paintings make us slow down, he says: "You just fall into this unbelievably beautiful space." In encyclopedic museums, where a smattering-of-each is the curatorial rule, these works struggle to be properly understood – a peril he hopes to avoid in his own museum. "I believe painting is a language, and each artist has their own," he says. "They need their own space. Otherwise, you have a cacophony." The Phillips Collection in Washington and the Menil Collection in Houston strike him as the best models to follow.

In the warehouses, I get a taste of the kind of installations he is contemplating. A dark green Caro sculpture lies at the centre of a room whose walls are hung with a collection of Morris Louis's Bronze Veil paintings from 1958, sombre-hued pictures in mossy greens, tarnished golds and plums, made by pouring thinned layers of paint on canvas. "It took me 50 years to assemble this group," he says. The paintings are a surprise, resonating with a dusky solemnity akin to Rothko's, but much less jubilant than the more highly coloured pictures for which the artist is best known. (Mirvish owns several choice examples of those, too.) As the hours go by, the racks divulge a trove of works by Helen Frankenthaler, Olitski and Stella, as well consummate painting from Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, an earthy composition of tobacco browns, creams and clotted black that would hang comfortably in any of the world's great museums.

Mirvish has made no secret of his father's historic puzzlement over his son's choices in art, but he says Mirvish senior always encouraged him to define his own territory. His mother, Anne, now 94, was a sculptor, and more closely shared his inclinations. When he was around 12, the three of them took their first trip through Europe. "My father had a big American car shipped over," he recalls, "and he drove it around on those tiny French roads. People in Europe had never seen a Cadillac. They actually gathered around the car." As they made their way, his mother toured him through the cathedrals and museums.

A few years later, in 1963, she decamped for six months to the New School in New York, where she was turned onto Allan Kaprow's Happenings and Robert Rauschenberg's Combines. David and his father stayed home in Toronto. "We painted the dining-room walls the colour of mustard and the ceiling the colour of ketchup," he says today, with a laugh, "and then we did the reverse in the living room. We sort of exercised our own artistic licence," a boys-will-be-boys response to her flying the coop. "When she came home, she took one look at it and went upstairs to bed, and she didn't come down for two weeks, until it was painted over. But you can't go away and not expect something to happen." What she brought back with her, though, was more than a disinclination for fast-food colours on the living-room walls. Recalling his later years as an art dealer, he says, "She would have been my best client if I had let her."

These days, Mirvish is considering the challenges of making a museum. How to ensure it will have curatorial viability after he passes on? How to relate the collection to contemporary life? And how to reach out to the city's new audiences for art? He hopes to include a space in the King Street complex where new Canadians can be sworn into citizenship, amid the architectural vestiges of the old brick factories where Toronto's first immigrants laboured.

Throughout our day together, Mirvish fielded a dozen calls on his cellphone. Almost all of them involved his art collection. But one – received as we were waiting out a rain squall over lunch at Gilead Café – was clearly different from the rest. Curious about the sudden downshift in his tone of voice, I asked him afterward what the call had been about.

It was concerning his father's tombstone, he said, for which he was finally completing his plans. (His father died six years ago.) It is a task he says he has put off, ruminating over the wording of the inscription and style of the stone in an absurdly lengthy deliberation. The newspapers have beaten him up over it, he told me, but it's as if that final act of closure would irrevocably put his vibrant father in the past tense. I asked him what he had decided to put on the headstone. He paused, and then said to me: "A Man with a Good Name."

It's something to shoot for in this world. With his big plans for King Street, Mirvish is aiming for the same.