They were small-town Ontario boys, bearing the plainest small-town Ontario names you ever heard, Bill Smith and John Smith. The sons of a factory worker in Brampton, they both became successful abstract painters after studying at the Ontario College of Art. Professionally, both used only their first and middle names: Bill became William Ronald (1926-1998) and John became John Meredith (1933-2000). On Sept. 9, Meredith's death from pneumonia in a Toronto hospital brought their bizarre story to an end.
It was a melancholy story, because for all their talent they were miserable and angry men, and especially angry at each other. Their mutual antagonism went far beyond the normal resentments of siblings working in the same profession. They didn't speak for years at a time, and neither of them liked hearing anyone mention the other.
The art world respected their animosity: For instance, essays on Meredith rarely speculated on the possible influence of his older brother. When Robert Belton was writing The Theatre of the Self: The Life and Art of William Ronald, he couldn't pry a word about Meredith out of Ronald. (Ronald also convinced Belton that his second marriage was brief and unimportant, a position that the second wife has persuasively denied.) Belton couldn't get anything useful from Meredith, either, and the astonishing result is a painter's biography that barely mentions the existence of a painter sibling. Stranger still, when I first read Belton's book I was so accustomed to imagining the brothers separately that I didn't even find this omission outlandish.
In most ways, they were different. Ronald, seven years older, was also much taller and bulkier; Meredith, who was small-boned, slight and nervous, spoke of his brother as one might speak of a bully. Ronald was a bombastic, room-filling exhibitionist. In art college, he became a combative rebel.
Meredith, who went there a few years later, was considered quiet and thoughtful. He was always shy. It's hard to imagine him being interviewed by a broadcaster, much less serving as host of radio and TV programs, as Ronald did when the painting was not going well.
The one thing they had in common was alcohol. For much of their lives, both drank heavily. But their reactions differed. When drunk, Ronald became abusive, Meredith quiet and sullen.
They were both marvellous artists, at quite different times. In the 1950s, Ronald's abstractions were among the best in Canada, and it seemed natural that he should move to New York and exhibit at the gallery of Sam Kootz, Picasso's main New York dealer. Kootz paid him a salary and got 18 paintings a year in return. He sold some, but ended up with 60 or so, and at his retirement sold them off cheap, depressing Ronald's market. That was in the mid-1960s, after Kootz and Ronald had acrimoniously separated, and Ronald had returned to Toronto. In the years that followed, Ronald's work declined, but to the end of his life he could still make exquisite abstract watercolours.
Ronald believed in making an impression, no matter how clownish. Invited to lecture at Princeton, he strode on stage and painted a picture before the audience while a tape played jazz mixed with his comments on life and art. In the late 1960s, I was chairing a University of Toronto panel discussion. Ronald didn't show up at the appointed time, so we assumed he had forgotten and went ahead without him. He hadn't forgotten: He was waiting to make an entrance. After a few minutes, while another speaker was delivering his profundities, Ronald strode in, wearing a sweeping blue cape, a Viking helmet and gigantic boots. He didn't like to go unnoticed.
About that time, Ronald's reputation was falling and Meredith's rising. In a series of shows at the Isaacs Gallery (where Ronald had exhibited in the 1950s), Meredith established himself as an original and highly personal abstractionist. Collectors loved him -- he sold a dozen paintings out of his 1967 exhibition of 17. For another decade, he was among the painters admired by young artists, the constituency that concerns mature artists most. Ronald, on the other hand, was by then a back number.
Once Ronald said to me, "You and Clem Greenberg are the only good art critics in North America." A pretty compliment, to be sure, but all it meant was that Greenberg and I were the only critics who had recently praised him. Later he turned against Greenberg, and my relations with him also deteriorated.
He loved to threaten critics. In 1970, after Barry Lord's negative review in the Toronto Star, Ronald phoned him, confessed that he was a violent man, and said that if they were ever in the same room, he couldn't be responsible for his actions. Ten years later, the phone rang in my house at 3 a.m. It was Ronald, drunk, threatening to come over and beat me up for a piece on Painters 11, to which he had belonged in the 1950s.
I was puzzled, since I'd said nothing against him. My crime, it turned out, was saying that Jack Bush was the only member of the group who now had an international reputation. This implied, accurately, that Ronald had been forgotten in New York since the 1950s. Even after two decades, he wasn't accepting that fact -- but somehow he forgot to come over and beat me up.
The power drained out of Meredith's work sometime in the 1980s, and with it much of the meaning of his life. He was married twice, but otherwise reclusive. Silence and isolation were always part of his style, but when the fiery, powerful art was no longer flowing from his studio, and collectors no longer lining up to buy it, he grew lonely and desperate and paranoid. Emphysema afflicted him in the 1990s but didn't stop him from smoking: The last five or six times I visited him, the coffee table held packages of cigarettes beside several bronchodilators, which he used when he felt his breath failing.
When Ronald made a surprise visit to Meredith's last exhibition in the early 1990s, Meredith reported this to me with astonishment and even a little gratitude. It sounded like the beginning of a rapprochement, but that didn't happen. And so far as I'm aware, no one ever learned what had driven them so far apart.