Tom Hodgson's abstract objective: Portrait of the late artist as a young man who wanted to change how we saw
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 March 2006)

The artists who came together in 1954 under the name Painters 11 were plotting to educate their culturally backward city, Toronto. As an art centre, Toronto was years behind Montreal and much farther behind New York. Painters 11 wanted to demonstrate the value of abstract art, a little-known kind of painting with no subject matter. Amazingly, they succeeded. Six years later, when they disbanded, they were a legend in Canadian art.

Gathered in one place, the 11 looked like actors dressed for different plays who had stumbled onto the same stage. Jack Bush, later the most successful, wore a double-breasted suit announcing his day job in advertising art. Harold Town dressed, in the 1950s, like an Edwardian fop. Hortense Gordon, at 67 the oldest, wore hats from the 1930s that made her look like the retired Hamilton schoolteacher she was. Oscar Cahen, from Copenhagen, the only European, filled the air with what he had learned studying in France and Italy. Their tastes were just as diverse. At meetings they could agree only on the principle that abstract painting deserved to be taken seriously.

Tom Hodgson was the guy in the windbreaker. He was the serious athlete in this gang, a national champion paddler, the least intellectual of the painters but the most practical. He imagined a role as a lyrical abstractionist and determined to play it with honour and dignity.

Hodgson outlived the other 10. His death on Feb. 27 in a Toronto nursing home at age 81 brought their story to a flickering end: The real Tom had vanished long before, claimed by Alzheimer's in the 1990s.

Painters 11 began its exhibiting career on Feb. 12, 1954, when they showed their work at the Roberts Gallery in Toronto. Bush organized that event, as he organized much else; he was the one who insisted on taking minutes at the first meeting because he knew they were making history. The Roberts show attracted the biggest crowd in the gallery's history. No one bought a picture, however. Toronto remained skeptical.

Painters 11 had more success later and soon several of the artists developed independent reputations. The 1960s were good to them and they embraced with exuberance a new moral atmosphere. At one mid-1960s all-night drinking party in Hodgson's studio, the buffet supper -- cold cuts, fruit, bread, etc. -- was prettily arranged on the naked body of a model stretched out on his work table.

In 1972 Hodgson had a retrospective show at the McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ont., which had been founded by a gift from Alexandra Luke, one of the 11. The McLaughlin's director for many years, Joan Murray, often curated Painters 11 retrospectives. In Hodgson she noted the connection between the athlete and the artist: "You see in his abstractions a reflection of the great sweep of his arm as a paddler."

The first tragedy in the history of Painters 11 hit Hodgson with special force. One night in November, 1956, Cahen died in a highway accident, aged 40. It was a shock to anyone who had followed his deliriously inventive abstracts and his brilliant illustrations in Maclean's and elsewhere. But Hodgson in particular had looked to Cahen as a mentor. Two years later he was still in mourning. "Oscar was one of the greatest anywhere in the world," he said to me, "and it's all over, there won't be any more of him." It was as if we had just learned about the accident.

Like many of his generation, Hodgson lost popularity, swept aside by successive waves of innovation. But in the last 20 years Christopher Cutts, a Toronto art dealer with a sense of history, has devoted himself to reviving once-great and still-deserving reputations. Hodgson became one of his triumphs. In the late 1980s the Cutts Gallery sold a big Hodgson painting for $5,000 but over the years he coaxed the price upward. A few years ago it reached $25,000. Hodgson would be pleased to know that in the week of his death a group show at the Cutts included a major Hodgson priced at $30,000. "All of that generation is starting to move," Cutts said the other day.

My own relationship with Hodgson was a unique part of my working life: He was the only individual I covered both as an athlete and as an artist. As an 18-year-old sports writer for The Globe and Mail, assigned to write about paddling (and many other amateur sports), I was introduced to a confident, self-assertive young man: thin, intense, with brown arms like copper cables. Even today, that's the first image that pops up when I try to recall him. I also remember he was proud of his club, the Island Canoe Club, and rightly proud of his own accomplishments. He was a national champion many times and he represented Canada at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. When I began reviewing art, I realized that the Hodgson rising to prominence in Painters 11 was the Hodgson who often won canoe races.

For years I would run into paddlers who knew nothing of his status in art and people mainly interested in art who didn't know he was a first-class athlete. The paddlers seemed to regard his painting as a hobby and the art world assumed that paddling could only be a pastime. I believe Hodgson himself took one of them as seriously as the other, but he claimed for painting a social mission. In the 1950s a writer for Canadian Architect asked him why he wanted to work with architects on murals. "So that good painting, which is almost completely foreign to most people, might become familiar to them and consequently enhance their lives."

He never pontificated that way in private, but apparently thought a serious question deserved a serious answer. So he expressed his hopes for a society in which everyone could know art and love it as he did. That's a less popular idea now, and seldom voiced by the relatively world-weary artists of the 21st century, most of whom are all too realistically aware that they will be lucky if they can impress a tiny fraction of their fellow citizens. Long ago, Hodgson and the other Painters 11 had a different dream, at once more ambitious, more Utopian and perhaps more generous.

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