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The latter half of the 1960s was a heady time for Sorel Etrog. Sculptor Sorel Etrog, c. 1965. Credit: Paul Smith Photography Originally published Jan. 1, 1966 (Paul Smith Photography)
The latter half of the 1960s was a heady time for Sorel Etrog. Sculptor Sorel Etrog, c. 1965. Credit: Paul Smith Photography Originally published Jan. 1, 1966 (Paul Smith Photography)

Sorel Etrog artist, 80

Striking sculptures crowned diverse work Add to ...

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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