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Ulysses Comtois, Richard Gorman, Jack Bush
24 May – 30 June 1995


In the critical debates concerning the 1950s shift of power from Paris to New York a key question is how that shift shaped events and histories in other, more marginal places. What effects did New York's newly acquired status as the most important art centre of the Western world have on art and artists elsewhere? And how did that shift of power affect local culture, local cultural politics, alliances and histories? This exhibition seeks to trace the changing cultural alliances of Toronto, its shifts of orientation from Britain to Paris and finally to the United States-as exemplified by the invitation of one of the most powerful and prestigious museum men in the world, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Director of Collections of the Museum of Modern Art.

Already in the late 1940s Canadian artists, including future members of Painters Eleven, had begun to orient themselves towards New York. They were attracted most of all to the immigrant teacher Hans Hofmann, one of the great forces behind the emergence of the New York School. But official culture in Canada appeared to move in an opposite direction. The Massey Report of 1951 sought to maintain traditions rooted in the British Commonwealth. Together with Walter Gordon's report on foreign ownership of Canadian industries and resources in 1955, both reports sought greater national control and strength of national institutions. Both raised fears of the absorption of Canada into the United States, a fear which culminated in the highly nationalist principles and rhetoric of the Diefenbaker years (1957-1963).

Similar tendencies underlay the interests and actions of the most established cultural institutions, such as collecting policies in the area of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, most contemporary non-Canadian work collected by Ontario's largest, and arguably most important gallery, was not only of British origin, but also acquired on the basis of recommendations by a panel of British experts.

In the mid-1950s, however, a shift occurred toward collecting in the area of the School of Paris and other European countries, reflecting perhaps the importance of Toronto's arch-rival Montreal as an art centre and the notable success of Quebec artists such as Riopelle and Borduas in Paris. On the recommendation of the Galeire Pierre in Paris, the Art Gallery of Ontario acquired a few works by major artists of the School of Paris, and then proceeded to purchase more recent abstract paintings of informel and expressionist tendencies with works by Vieira da Silva and Georges Mathieu.

Businessman J.S. McLean of Canadian Packers initiated a special fund for collecting American art as early as 1953, but a decided interest and active pursuit of purchase in the area of the American avant-garde, and especially the New York Abstract Expressionists, only occurred around the beginning of the1960s. At the height of the fateful debates in Canada concerning acceptance of American BOMARC missiles and their nuclear warheads, Toronto's elites began to look toward New York as the ultimate arbiter on questions of taste and value in collecting modern art. In conjunction with an exhibition of contemporary Spanish art, circulated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Women's Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto (as the AGO was then called) invited Alfred Barr to select a work of his choice from their 15th Annual Sale and Exhibition of contemporary Canadian art for the collection of MoMA. Barr, who even in New York was still considered one of "the most powerful tastemakers in American art," and in Toronto was seen as nothing less than "Mr. Modern Art" himself, was thus called upon to place a stamp of approval on contemporary Toronto art. Yet, while he might have been expected to choose the gestural, abstract expressionist paintings by some of Toronto's most established or new generation of artists, such as Robert Hedrick and Richard Gorman, Barr instead chose a tiny landscape picture by regionalist "primitive" William Kurelek and works by Montreal painters Jean McEwen and Ulysse Comtois. He also accepted a number of additional gifts from private individuals and collectors, and even purchased a few works by Toronto artists through Toronto's private dealers. Alfred Barr's choices clearly reflected the beginnings of the reaction against Abstract Expressionism (in New York and in Toronto), and therewith signaled the eclipse of what locally had stood for the emulation of American heroics and power.

The exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University returns, for the first time, Alfred Bar's selection of Canadian works to Toronto, and presents them beside a small selection of works that indicate the general collecting tendencies at the Art Gallery of Ontario after World War II. The exhibition also contextualizes Barr's choices with works by some Toronto artists that had been expected to receive "the laying on of hands." In this way, the exhibition situates Alfred Barr's perspective from New York within the Art Gallery of Ontario's re-orientation to an apprehension of New York in the early 1960s. The Art Gallery of Ontario's move was quickly followed, of course, by the opening of several private galleries to Toronto dealing with contemporary American art, such as Jerrold Morris International in 1962 and David Mirvish in 1963.
Art Gallery of York University | Accolade East Building, 4700 Keele Street | Toronto ON M3J 1P3 | agyu [at] yorku.ca