For at least 25 years, Graham Coughtry of Toronto was one of the most accomplished Canadian painters, a romantic modernist of high sensitivity and delicate imagination. His earliest pictures exhibited a profound love of paint itself, and that quality never left his work. His death on Wednesday night, at 67, was the third within seven months among artists who started out at the Isaacs Gallery, Joyce Wieland and William Ronald having died previously.
In the 1950s, Coughtry attracted admiration with his sensuous, thickly painted studies of interior spaces, influenced by his favourite artist, Pierre Bonnard, the French post-Impressionist. Those works led him toward the pictures that made his national reputation, glowing semi-abstract paintings that showed one or two figures floating, unmoored, in space. These were sometimes called studies in loneliness and alienation, but Coughtry's stated purpose was to explore the possibilities of powerful impasto surfaces and a colour sense that was both uninhibited and highly original.
His art went into the National Gallery and most other Canadian museums. He was a favourite of collectors: Elizabeth Kilbourn, in her book Great Canadian Painting, noted that his 1961 show made him "almost overnight, one of the most celebrated painters in Canada," and that a list of collectors waited to pay $2,000 for one of his pictures, then an unusually high figure. In the 1960s he painted a major mural at the Toronto airport. He also collaborated as a muralist with his friend Irving Grossman, the architect.
Coughtry and Michael Snow studied together at the Ontario College of Art, worked together at a commercial art firm, and made a joint debut with a two-man show at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus in January, 1955. That event brought them an early taste of front-page notoriety: Mayor Nathan Phillips, alerted to the possibility of scandal by a news-hungry reporter from The Toronto Telegram, blustered through the gallery and demanded the removal of three drawings that he thought looked obscene. One of Coughtry's was briefly taken down by the art committee, then put back on the wall.
In those years Coughtry and Snow were buying art supplies at a shop owned by Avrom Isaacs in the Gerrard Village, a midget art community in downtown Toronto. They encouraged Isaacs to open the Greenwich Gallery at 736 Bay St., thus launching his long and storied career as an art dealer. The five painters featured in the first exhibit, in late 1955, included Coughtry, Snow, and William Ronald. The printed announcement of that event, combining high ideals with an offer of art on credit, became so much a part of cultural history that Douglas Fetherling put it in his textbook, Documents in Canadian Art, three decades later.
In that period, Coughtry spent much of his time working in the graphics department of the young CBC television network. There he won prizes for his title cards and illustrations, many of them inspired by another of his early enthusiasms, Ben Shahn, the American social-realist painter.
He had his first one-man show of paintings in 1956 at the Greenwich. Three years later, it became the Isaacs Gallery, moved to the richer area of Yonge and Bloor, and flourished as the leading private gallery in English-speaking Canada, with Coughtry and Snow among its stars, alongside Wieland, Gordon Rayner and John Meredith.
Coughtry's last commercial outlet was the Moore Gallery, first in Hamilton and then at its Toronto location. But he wasn't highly productive at the best of times, and in the 1990s he often lacked the energy to paint. For more than a year he required a portable oxygen supply. As his worried friends pointed out, and he ruefully acknowledged, decades of heavy drinking and smoking had ruined his health.
The Isaacs gang worked and partied in an intense milieu they created for themselves, highly competitive yet mutually supportive, focused on the gallery, the nearby Pilot Tavern, and various Spadina Avenue studios. In that company, Coughtry was quiet, sweet-tempered, and not notably ambitious. For a long time he spent part of every year in Spain, where he painted in an 800-year-old towered farmhouse on the Balearic island of Ibiza. In Canada he and his wife, Larissa Pavlychenko Coughtry, lived near Claremont, outside Toronto. Until recently he taught part-time at the Ontario College of Art and Design; years ago, he was a much-admired teacher at the New School and then at Arts' Sake, an artist-run school that lasted five years before dying of managerial incompetence.
Coughtry helped form the Artists' Jazz Band, which served for decades as a combination of hobby, party trick, and free-form artistic expression. Coughtry, on trombone, and Rayner, on drums, were regulars. The AJB played at art gallery events around Ontario, once shared a bill with John Cage, and performed at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris as well as at Sarah Lawrence College, the elite women's school in Bronxville, N.Y. In the 1990s the band became inactive; Coughtry recently suggested it be revived as the Jivy Geriatrics.
For Coughtry and many of his colleagues, modern jazz was as vital as art, a common language they all shared even when they differed on painting. They saw their work running parallel to jazz improvisation. With audacity, confidence and pride, they made their noisy revolution while Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane played in the background.