Introduction to Magnificent Decade: Harold Town: 1955-1965: Paintings, Collages, Drawings, Prints, and Memorabilia

(Exhibition catalogue, The Moore Gallery, Toronto, October, 1997)

FROM THIS DISTANCE in time the words have an antique sound--Painters Eleven. That's the collective name Harold Town invented for the cabal of Southern Ontario abstract artists who came together in 1953 to debate, exchange information, and jointly show their work to the public. Why did Town reverse the normal English order of the words? It must have sounded chic, or perhaps Bohemian; it was also a way to distance a club of would-be revolutionaries from the Group of Seven, with its more conventional title. This was many years before Ottawa began naming departments "Parks Canada" and "Heritage Canada," or sending a platoon of trade-seeking politicians to Asia as "Team Canada." (Putting the modifier after the noun was some bureaucrat's hazy idea of acknowledging French usage, though when employed in English it probably annoys as many francophones as anglophones.) Back in the post-war era, when visiting his friends Albert Jacques Franck and Florence Vale in the tiny (and now long gone) Gerrard Street Village, an artistic ghetto around Gerrard and Bay Streets, Town often passed a cute little handicrafts store called Fiddlers Three. Maybe the idea was born there.

In any case, "Painters Eleven" sounded nifty in 1953, the right banner for brave and ambitious iconoclasts who were going forth into the marketplace to bring the light of abstraction to their fellow citizens, beginning with their fellow Torontonians. Being individualists, the members never claimed to share aesthetic ideals, but they had a collective goal: to animate a city that was, for the most part, visually comatose. And it was as a leader of this band of artistic conspirators--they included Oscar Cahén, Jack Bush, Alexandra Luke, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Tom Hodgson, and Jock Macdonald--that Harold Town the abstract painter first came to public attention. He was already accomplished as an illustrator for magazines and ad agencies ("Town, Harold, Advertising Artist," said his listing in the phone book for many years), but until the first Painters Eleven exhibitions his reputation in fine art was limited to those who managed to pick their way through the large, painfully spotty group exhibitions put on every year by the Ontario Society of Artists at what was then called the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Town never devoted himself exclusively to abstraction, and in fact one of the most striking qualities of his career--lavishly illustrated in this show--was his ability to work simultaneously in three or four different styles and media. He always ran parallel careers, as if convinced that the world deserved several Harold Towns at the same time. One has the impression that he liked to leave no idea unexecuted. But in the mid-1950s his abstracts were the largest and loudest and most emphatic of his works, and therefore the foundation of what turned out to be a remarkable career as a public figure; Painters Eleven helped to install him in the public consciousness. That was at roughly the beginning of the decade covered by this exhibition, 1955-1965, arguably the richest and most productive time of his life; certainly it was the period when he discovered the extent of his talent and demonstrated that he was as accomplished, technically, as any Canadian artist of the day.

In 1956, an automobile accident killed Oscar Cahén and fundamentally changed both Painters Eleven and Harold Town's own artistic environment. Cahén, the only European, was a unique figure in this group, more experienced, more sophisticated, and more audacious than most of the others. He was born in Denmark in 1916, and in his early twenties was a teacher in Prague, then a refugee from the Nazi occupation. Like many Jews, he was at first interned as an enemy alien by an obtuse Canadian government; contacts in the art world finally rescued him, and he went to work as a commercial artist, first in Montreal and then in Toronto. In the 1940s he developed as an expressionist painter, producing dark and ominous pictures. But by the time Painters Eleven formed, Cahén--now thirty-seven years old--had turned to abstractions in brilliant and unexpected colours. It was this startling palette that set him apart from his ten colleagues, and indeed from all painters in Canada. He had learned how to place one colour beside another in a way that produced unusual intensities. This discovery had a great influence on several of the Eleven, above all on Tom Hodgson and Town. In a sense, Town inherited Cahén's edgy, acid colour sense. For the rest of his life, Town's colours would always be unpredictable. It was as if he had unconsciously made his painting career into a permanent homage to his dead friend.

In the 1950s Painters Eleven made it possible for Town to maintain a network of contacts with an extensive cohort of artists on his own level, something that seems not to have been the case at any other point in his life. As a painter (though perhaps not as a printmaker or draftsman), he was consciously developing alongside his peers, either in creative response to them or--as in a celebrated rivalry with William Ronald--in opposition to them. His work was much in evidence when Painters Eleven held their first exhibition at the Roberts Gallery in Toronto in February, 1954. That show created a considerable stir but no sales, which was frequently the case in the early days of Canadian abstraction. The Eleven exhibited with more success at the Roberts Gallery in 1955 and 1956, as guests of the American Abstract Artists in New York in 1956, and in 1957 and 1958 at the Park Gallery, a short-lived outlet on Avenue Road, north of Bloor Street. For a while they seemed to be turning into a permanent institution, a part of the artistic landscape, but the members had never intended that their association should last forever. In 1960, halfway through the years this exhibition covers, Painters Eleven voted to disband. At least in Town's case, it had done its work.

There was a style that several of the Eleven shared for a while, but Town was soon generating his own approach to abstraction. Early in this 1955-65 period, he began turning out paintings in a manner all his own, and with a peculiar force. In retrospect it appears that one of his accomplishments was to bridge the two most popular ways of making abstract paintings. The art of that period could be roughly divided into "action painting" (represented, to take two examples, by Jackson Pollock in the U.S. and Jean-Paul Riopelle in Canada) and what we might call "layout painting" (represented by, say, Mark Rothko in the U.S. and eventually Jack Bush in Canada). Action painting was said to emerge from the fine frenzy of the artist, something like a creative spasm, while artists like Rothko emphasized the formal and contemplative aspects of their work and made no claim to spontaneity.

Town worked both sides of that street. He used the swirls and drips and accidents of an action painter while at the same time working within a carefully determined design. A stylish and emphatic grandeur now inhabited Town's abstractions--they were charged with a heroic, heaven-storming, I-will-not-be-denied intensity, represented in this show most effectively by "Banner #1" (1960), with its dramatic use of Prussian blue. It was this dashing, theatrical style that dominated the most successful exhibition of his career, at the Laing Galleries in 1961, which was soon followed by a cover story in Maclean's that helped establish him as the best-known Canadian artist of his generation. In this period he was also producing the beautiful collages and the richly authoritative drawings that are in this exhibition. But something else was going on as well. He was developing a set of images that greatly extended his audience, won him international prizes, and marked him forever as a unique figure in Canadian art---his "Single Autographic Prints."

WHY DID HE CALL them that? He invented the phrase, but never explained why he needed it. After all, these were monotypes, multiple-colour monotypes--that is, prints of which only one copy was made. Still, Town was right to give his works a name of their own, unused by any other artist; he was right to indicate that something grand and ambitious was going on here. The Single Autographic Prints (or "SAPs," as Town sometimes called them) were--are--nothing like anyone else's prints. They are delicate, wonderfully varied, and endlessly mysterious. One can look at them longer, and with more profit, than at any other art objects produced in Canada at that time: so much is happening in them, so many abstract "events" are crowded into a relatively small space.

Sometimes Town used private experience as the emotional basis for a print, trying to recall in ink the essence of something he had seen or lived through. But these memories (occasionally hinted at in the titles) seldom meant anything beyond Town's own imagination. What appears to have fascinated those who began collecting the Single Autographic Prints in the mid-1950s was the air of utter strangeness about them, the feeling of an unsolved puzzle. William Withrow was right to say, in Contemporary Canadian Painting, that they "were surely among the most beautiful art objects ever made by a Canadian artist," but it is their strangeness, as much as their beauty, that makes them permanently valuable. At times they appear to be reports from another planet, where colours and depth perceptions are not like those on earth. At other moments they seem to be inspired by cityscapes, perhaps cityscapes of antiquity.

The Single Autographic Prints, which Town made from 1952 to 1959, may have been the most satisfying project in Town's life as an artist. Looking at them today, one can sense his growing confidence as he worked his way toward something that must felt like a new art form. At first he used only black ink, and a number of the black-and-white prints survive. (He worked in a low-ceilinged basement studio on St. Mary's Street, wearing an old football helmet to protect his head when he absent-mindedly bumped into ceiling joists and pipes, thereby creating one of the many myths that buzzed around him in those years.)

Later he added red, and produced many prints in black and red. And then, at some point in 1953 or 1954 (as Town told the story to David Silcox many years later), he received a piece of stunningly simple advice from Douglas Duncan. An art patron who rented and sold art through the Picture Loan Society (on Charles Street, just around the corner from Harold's studio), Duncan was an early backer of Town's, a role he played in the careers of many Canadian artists. One day he said to Town, "There are more colours than red and black, you know." This was hardly news to Town, but it made him realize for the first time that the prints he was making on the lithographic stone did not need to be limited in colour. As Town said later, amused at himself, "It struck me like a thunderbolt." He went right out and bought a variety of paints and began using them straightaway.

Soon he was taking the same print back to the stone again and again, sometimes overprinting twelve or fifteen times, adding layer after layer of colour. Looking at those prints today, following their progress through the 1950s, one can sense Town discovering the possibilities unfolding before him. His surfaces alone are impressive. They become more and more unusual as the years pass, so that in the end the prints seem not to be on paper at all--the surfaces look like linoleum, or perhaps leather. (They have their own peculiar shine.) He occasionally uses bits of collage, sometimes bits of earlier and discarded prints. Occasionally he runs a comb across the surface of the lithographic stone to produce a striated effect. Sometimes he produces a line across the surface with a string or a thread. He realizes the wonderful possibilities for ambiguity in layering, and uses them so well that we want to peek in behind the surface. This palimpsest effect--the feeling that each print has a unique history, that much has happened to it before we see it--becomes an essential part of his repertoire. Slowly he discovers what he can do with depth in this format, and the distance from the picture plane to the deepest point in the design seems to stretch endlessly. Best of all, he learns that mixing pigments, and overprinting, can produce an infinite number of colours, and the prints begin coming out of his studio in colours no one has ever seen before.

The single autographic prints acquired many admirers in Canada, won prizes at print shows in Yugoslavia and Chile, and went into the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. They were the one unreservedly successful aspect of Town's career.

TOWN'S ART DEVELOPED in many more directions after 1965--so many, perhaps, that the high accomplishments of 1955-1965 were obscured. Town was his own competitor: one kind of Town art competed with another, so that the collective mind of the art public found him difficult to sort out. Town, in other words, sometimes swamped Town. Since his death in 1990, his accomplishment has been largely forgotten; it awaits discovery by a new generation. The time for a re-assessment is here.

Proust says, "People do not die immediately for us, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life...It is as though they were travelling abroad." If the person was as vividly alive as Town, the aura lasts an especially long time. But when finally a painter's death is accepted by everyone who cared about his work, all the art that he made achieves a kind of equality of opportunity. Each of his works can now press its nose against the glass of history, demanding a place. Each has its chance, because the favouritism of the painter has ceased to be a factor. Time and history slowly do their work, choices are made, and the body of the artist's work, now free from the artist himself, reconfigures itself according to a freshly evolving sensibility. All going well, it then discovers its proper place in the world that the artist never lived to see. This exhibition is a modest attempt to encourage that process by redirecting attention toward ten of the most productive and impressive years ever experienced by a Canadian artist.

(Robert Fulford is an executor of the estate of Harold Town.)

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