In Search of Innocence

Title Screen

Back in June I came across a reference to an old NFB film about the West Coast art scene, “In Search of Innocence”. The film dates from the very early 1960s, when beatniks ruled the earth, and I felt compelled to check it out because I’ve long been interested in that period of local art history, and because I’m a fan of many of the painters chronicled therein. Unfortunately, it’s not on the NFB website, and no local library seems to have it, so my only recourse was to buy a copy. But there are worse things to do with your dollars than support the NFB.

I’d planned to do a bit of a review here, and so I will. But it won’t be as long as I’d originally thought because Claudia Cornwall did a great write up on her blog back in 2011, and not much would be gained by me repeating what she wrote.

The film was made by a Quebec filmmaker, Leonard Forest, as a tribute to the artists of the Canadian West Coast. Most if not all of the film takes place in and around the Lower Mainland. I’m guessing the segment with Margaret Peterson might have been filmed here on the Island, at her 1962 solo show at the AGGV. But she also had a show at UBC in 1961, so maybe it was there. Anyhow, there are a few glimpses of Vancouver, which was a very different city back then. And there are quite a few nature shots. The trees don’t seem to have changed all that much. But primarily the film is set in the galleries, artists’ studios and other smoke-filled hangouts of the era. The individual scenes are knit together by a rather portentous, self-consciously poetic voice-over, the effect of which is somewhat comic now.

A large part of my interest in “In Search of Innocence” has to do with how different the zeitgeist it reflects was from the one I experienced a couple of decades later. When I arrived in Vancouver back in the early 80s most of the artists who appeared in the film were still around and working. Al Neil was still performing and making art, Jack Shadbolt was still painting, Don Jarvis was still at Emily Carr, and Roy Kiyooka was teaching at UBC, where I was studying at the time. But even though it was only 20 years after the heyday of the beats, there was a huge gulf between the worldview of that era and that of the (then) present. The avante garde scene of the 1950s and early 60s, with its poetry, jazz, abstract expressionism, and mysticism, seemed worlds away from the conceptual, theory-driven worldview that had largely replaced it. Even the Neo-Expressionists seemed more fuelled by a pop-derived irony than the High Art seriousness of that earlier era. In fact, the title of the film reflects the divide: whatever the artists of the 80s and afterward were in search of, I’m pretty sure “innocence” wasn’t it.

So by the early 80s, in other words, the big names of the 50s and early 60s were still around, but increasingly consigned to the realm of history as far as their ideas and aesthetics went. It’s therefore quite fascinating to have a window onto an earlier time, to see some of those artists in their heyday, at the moment of their creative and cultural apex. A relic of a long-vanished past, and one that seems to have captured something of what it felt like to be there, in the smoky jazz clubs and studios, talking intently about Spontaneity and Time (whether it actually was like that, of course, isn’t something I would know).

Roy Kiyooka

Couple of things in the film had a personal resonance for me:

I took at least one painting class from Roy Kiyooka in the early 80s. He’d given up painting years before, but he was still a good teacher. I remember he would sometimes repeat your words back to you in such a way that you weren’t sure whether he was taking them seriously, or whether he thought they were the dumbest thing he’d ever heard (In my case, he would have been perfectly justified if it was the latter). It was a mannerism that’s hard to fully convey in words, and I’m glad to see that “In Search of Innocence” captured it for posterity.

The film ends with a shot of Jack Shadbolt working on a huge mural he did for the Edmonton International Airport in 1963. Titled “Bush Pilot in Northern Sky”, it presided over my many arrivals and departures back when I had family there and made regular trips to the city. Local wags said it looked like an exploding airplane, but to me, it looked like the land falling away as you rose up into the sky.

Edmonton Airport Mural

Torres-García at the MoMA

A year and 20 posts ago, I wrote about my ongoing, decades-long interest in the School of the South, aka the Taller Torres-García. The founder of the school, Joaquín Torres-García is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the MoMA, which runs until February 2016. Given that it’s his first major North American retrospective in 40 years I’d hoped to be able to make the pilgrimage, but it’s looking now like that probably won’t be possible.

In any case, great to see that he’s getting some favourable attention. Especially since the last time around he got two(!) highly unfavourable reviews from the critic John Canaday, who said that the work looked like it might have come out of a “progressive Kindergarten.” The review of the current show in the NYT was a lot more positive, not to mention perceptive. (Meaning that it echoes a number of the things I wrote a year ago 🙂 ).

More on Jock Macdonald

I’ve been giving some more thought to Jock Macdonald’s late abstract expressionist paintings. I may have been too quick to judgment in my previous post, so I’m going to take another run at them from a different angle.

My re-think was prompted by a comment made by Robert Amos in a review of the same exhibition in the weekend’s edition of the Times Colonist:

From a distance the paintings appear to be spontaneous gestures, but closer examination reveals the hand of the artist fussing over the edges and touching up the patterning of every image. [http://www.timescolonist.com/life/islander/robert-amos-museum-highlights-canadian-art-1.1997859]

I’d noticed that particular characteristic myself, but didn’t think it was important enough to mention in my review. The more I think about this group of paintings though, the more I think the deceptive appearance of spontaneity is probably their most interesting quality, and one that complicates my previous reading of them as well-made but basically derivative.

My new reading is at odds not only with my earlier take, but with Robert Amos’ take as well. Amos asks the rhetorical question “If they weren’t the spontaneous expression of his subconscious, what were they? It’s an excellent question, and I think trying to answer it might be a worthwhile exercise.

But first we need to situate these works in context. “Spontaneous expression” was a pretty big deal back in the late 50s. Thanks to the Surrealists, short-circuiting one’s conscious intentions had come to be seen as an act imbued with all kinds of significance. By mid-century, according to one of the dominant narratives, the technology-driven horrors of two world wars had wiped away any lingering confidence in Enlightenment values. In that context, the random spatters of a legion of Abstract Expressionists were seen to be frontal assaults against the bankrupt rationality of Western culture.

And yet from another point of view the same works were celebrated as an expression of the freedoms available in Western democracies, set against the conservative, rule-bound styles of painting prevalent in fascist and communist dictatorships of the day.

So gestural abstraction was beloved by yea-sayers and nay-sayers alike. But it was a consensus based on a contradiction, and it could not be sustained for long. Abstract Expressionism was still riding high in 1960 but would soon be eclipsed by a number of other styles, notably pop art but also post-painterly abstraction, op art, and the beginnings of conceptual art. All of these subsequent approaches returned at least some measure of conscious intention to the artmaking process. Conceptual art represented an almost complete about-face, from spontaneous gesture embedded in the physicality of paint, to the work of art as idea, whose physical embodiment was almost an afterthought.

Painted as they were in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Macdonald’s works participate in the valorization of the spontaneous gesture. But Macdonald, for what I think were probably excellent but largely aesthetic reasons, was never completely committed to that approach. True, he did some purely automatist works under the guidance of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, but as works of art they were pretty bad, and he must have been aware of that. He got far better results when in the mid-50s he used automatist techniques as a springboard for developing more consciously constructed watercolours.

It’s likely the same forces were in play when he turned from his watercolours to the large abstract canvasses. These paintings probably began with a spontaneous gesture or two, but such were Macdonald’s aesthetics that he couldn’t just leave them in their initial, unfinished state. So just as he did with his watercolours, he went back in and very consciously fine-tuned their colours and forms, preserving the appearance of spontaneity (unless you look really closely), but improving the composition, adding subtleties of colour and texture, and generally working them up into finished designs.

One could, of course, simply dismiss that approach as a failure of nerve, and anyone who bought into spontaneous expression as either critique or celebration would probably have done just that. But in retrospect we could position it rather as an anticipation of things to come, a recognition of the limits of the spontaneity. An acknowledgement that, for better or worse, we probably need to think about what we’re doing at least some of the time. In the artworld of the late 50s that would have been an interesting and somewhat controversial stand to take.

Exploration

“To invent something totally new and different just because you want to do something new and different is in my opinion, the height of stupidity and hubris.” — Linus Torvalds

You frequently run across the assumption that the fundamental purpose of painting is to blaze new trails into undiscovered aesthetic country. In some circles this has become so widely accepted that no one bothers to question it any more. Which is too bad, because it is clearly wrong.

The elevation of formal innovation to the primary purpose of painting is actually quite recent, dating from the invention of photography. Photography forced a radical reinvention of the art of painting by taking over its basic representational function. From the middle of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, generations of painters laboured to re-establish painting in a niche that was undeniably its own. All the great movements of the modern period – Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstraction – represented an attempt to discover what was truly unique to painting. In the process of reinventing painting, painters opened up a lot of new ground, and (I would argue) succeeded admirably well in creating a place for painting in the era of photography. Unfortunately, in the process they (and their exegists) also created the misunderstanding that opening up new ground was what painting was about, end of story. In evaluating paintings, the appearance of newness became the only criteria that mattered.

All forms of expansion eventually reach their limits. Eventually, the radical innovators of the modern period came up against some pretty insurmountable boundaries; after all, there’s only so much you can do with patches of colour on canvas. After the 1950s, formal innovation & exploration slowed to a crawl. If the purpose of painting is exploration, and this is not happening, then painting must be over. QED.

However, the purpose of painting cannot be simply to innovate for the sake of innovation. Or to put it another way, if the purpose of painting or any other human activity is only to expand its territory, then it is not worth worrying about, because it’s completely trivial. Formal innovation is only a byproduct of painting’s fundamental purpose, which is the same as any other kind of human communication: to say something meaningful about something that matters. If what you want to say can be expressed within the range of available techniques, then formal innovation is unnecessary.

 

The Taller Torres Garcia

It’s getting on two years now that I’ve been writing this blog and I have yet to write about one of my greatest influences and interests, a school of painters known collectively as the Taller Torres Garcia. So for my 50th post, I thought I’d address that omission.

Not too many people in western Canada have heard of them, but the Taller Torres Garcia are tremendously well known in Latin America, particularly in Uruguay and Argentina. Functionally you could compare them to the Group of Seven, in that they are highly significant regionally but not as much elsewhere. Stylistically however they derive from a later moment than the Group of Seven, taking their starting point from Constructivism rather than Art Nouveau and post-Impressionism.

Taller_Torres_Garcia,_Leccion,_Montevideo,_1947

Their founder, Joaquin Torres Garcia, was born in Uruguay but moved to Spain as a young man. He didn’t return to Uruguay until he was 60 or thereabouts, having spent the intervening years moving peripatetically around Europe and spending a couple of years in New York. Along the way he met and was influenced by a lot of the big names of the period, even working as Gaudi’s assistant at one point. After a number of false starts and setbacks, he eventually attained his definitive style during a highly productive period in Paris in the 20s, where he worked with a number of more or less like-minded painters grouped together loosely under the name Cercle et Carré.  Then for reasons that are somewhat obscure he decided to return to Uruguay, where he spent his last 15 years or so spreading the Modernist gospel in the New World. He formed the Taller Torres Garcia, or “Torres Garcia Studio” six years before he died, so as to pass the torch to an entire generation of young Uruguayan painters and sculptors. In this he was largely successful, and in fact the Taller as a formal organization outlived its founder by 13 years before winding down in 1962.

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