Why This Man Thinks These Camels Can Change The Way You See The World

And how he’s spending your money to prove it

BARRIE HALE May 1 1970

Why This Man Thinks These Camels Can Change The Way You See The World

And how he’s spending your money to prove it

BARRIE HALE May 1 1970

IN THE THREE SHORT YEARS Brydon Smith has been in Ottawa, as the National Gallery’s first-ever Curator of Contemporary Art, perhaps his most popular addition to the cultural heritage of the nation has been a small herd of camels by New York artist Nancy Graves. There are three of them, lifesize, each caught in mid-movement — pacing forward, grazing, looking back at where they have been. They are made of wood, steel, polyurethane foam, burlap, sheepskin, goatskin, wax and oil paints, and there is so compelling a quality of camel-ness about them that on first encounter they are taken for the real thing. It is common enough to see people start back in alarm from their first sight of them; children in the gallery have complained about their stink (they are in fact odorless) and have been concerned that the gallery hasn’t put grass on the floor so that the animals might graze — all echoes of Brydon Smith’s own first response to them :

“If it’s any comfort,” he says, “I was confounded by them at first. But I have to deal with things that are beyond me at first, beyond what I know of art at the time . . . I’m not infallible, I had to think about it, talk about it, cut through the novelty. I knew they could be popular, but . . . ”

Yes, but. Is it art? you might well ask; is this what has become of Canadian Culture in 1970? At 32, Brydon Smith has spent much of his life saying yes to both questions, and in the course of doing it he has been changing Canadian notions of culture — it has become less and less a chattel of an elite group, more and more something that is accessible to every individual, if he wants it. The important thing, for Smith, is that everyone can get it, through the National Gallery and through the confrontation of contemporary art, and it is to that end that he spends $25,000 of our money on such art every year.

The controversy that often surrounds contemporary art has been a big part of Brydon Smith’s career ever since he graduated with a Master’s degree in Fine Art from the University of Toronto and joined the staff of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now Ontario) six years ago. In 1967, for example, Smith organized for the AGO Canada’s first, largescale museum exhibition of contemporary American art. Dine, Oldenburg and Segal — all New York artists, all of whom exhibited work they had done in the previous five or six years. The AGO acquired three works from that exhibition, among them Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Hamburger, and there were cries of alarm in the streets.

The thing is what its title says it is — a giant hamburger, more than four feet high, eight feet in diameter, made of painted sailcloth stuffed with foam rubber, intended by Oldenburg to be exhibited formally in a museum space, as sculpture. Just hearing about it was enough to start the outraged letters flowing to Toronto newspapers — it was American stuff (worse still, New York stuff) in a Canadian museum; it was the art of Right Now in a museum, which is supposed to show things that have accumulated hundreds of years of historical value, the “great art” of the past; it wasn't art anyway, it was some kind of bad joke, and what was a public gallery doing, letting a guy like Smith use public money, our money, to buy stuff like that?

At the time, Smith replied to the criticism, in the letters column of the Globe and Mail: “ . . . cultural shock has always stimulated outraged rejection and parades of protest. This is not art!' has been said about Oldenburg’s Giant Hamburger, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Manet’s Olympia, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, and so on.

“I want to point out that the confronting of an unsettling work of contemporary art. such as the Hamburger, can also be very beneficial for the viewer, given the right conditions. First, the viewer must like art. Secondly, he must be secure enough to enjoy being alive in the 1960s, in spite of the frightening violence and rapid change of these times. Thirdly, he must spend some time with the work, looking at it and thinking about it. Then he may discover valuable insights about art, life, and himself . . . Fifty years from now the gallery will probably exhibit the Giant Hamburger as a relic of the mid-20th century. Let me urge your readers: Don’t wait until 2017, when this work will be an antique heritage for our grandchildren. Go to the gallery now, and see the Hamburger while it is still alive.”

Much of that had begun to happen as soon as the Hamburger went on exhibition in Toronto, and it continues; whenever it is shown, the Hamburger attracts a circling crowd of viewers, who linger and chatter among themselves. As an object, it is so eerily like a “real” hamburger, yet is so huge, that it evokes gross images of the mass populations of North America feeding themselves on greasesizzled meat patties. As a sculpture, because it is softly stuffed with foam rubber and its surface is painted with finesse, it is tantalizing, like a big, luxurious cushion, and sensitive to the pull of gravity, introducing philosophical notions of chance and change to the traditional idea of sculpture as frozen, ideal form. It offers an extension of awareness that works on many levels, sensory, intuitive, reflective — and that is the sort of talk you may read in the arcane corners of your daily newspaper, where the art criticism is hidden away. What it means, in brief, is that the Hamburger works as art in an art gallery.

Most art in public museums simply doesn’t work that way. It comes equipped with a ready-made pedigree that assures the viewer of its historical importance and value; there is such a gulf of scores or hundreds of years between so much museum art and the people who look at it now, that most of what is art about it — most of what is affecting about it — is lost in a vague atmosphere of piety.

“Just because there’s a bunch of people standing in front of a Reubens and oohing and aahing doesn’t mean it’s happening for them,” says Dennis Reid, a young (27) assistant curator at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Reid had come through the Fine Art course at the University of Toronto at the time of Smith’s Dine, Oldenburg and Segal show, and was already committed to some sort of fine-arts career, but he remembers that exhibition as a real breakthrough:

“It was the first exhibition that really meant a lot to me in terms of art and life, the first time I’d ever really realized the different levels that art can work on. Then later, when I went to Europe, I realized that every painting in the London museums can do that to you. Brydon believes in the edge of contention of contemporary art, he believes that it’s necessary to get people engaged in a way they just aren’t with things that have 100 years between you and them. His shows are always tremendously popular.”

“There’s a radical change in the museum world,” says a National Gallery employee who prefers to remain anonymous. “It is no longer the preserve of an elite, a private club for none-too-serious, gentlemanly pursuits. What’s happened to it is the rise of the middle class. All those guys [and he means Smith and Reid, among others] are unashamedly middle class, like most of the rest of North America. And most of the art of, say, the 1960s has to do with coming to terms with middle-class values.”

Smith says, “What I do in the gallery is an extension of my lifestyle. It is counter to what has been acceptable.”

His lifestyle. Born and bred an only child in Hamilton, Ontario — his father an office employee for one of the steel mills there — Brydon Smith was the first generation of his family to go to university. In high school in the 1950s he played basketball, was good at math, was streamed into the science course at McMaster University, did well — then dropped out, almost a scientist, in the middle of his third year. He had been smitten by art.

He had bought his Erst painting, an expressionist landscape, and he says now, “I just had to find some reason for my actions; it was completely outside of my experience at the time. I found I was thinking, reading, talking more about art than I was about anything else.” Art simply became inextricable from Kis life from that point on. “Our first date was the Van Gogh exhibition at Toronto,” says his wife Jane, “so we decided to get married and quit buying two catalogues all the time; it was that quick.” Smith submerged himself in the Fine Art course at the University of Toronto, and the Art Gallery of Toronto hired him as soon as he surfaced, in 1964,

(Chief curator at the gällery then was Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs, an art scholar and administrator who is now the Director of the National Gallery. She was instrumental in hiring Smith in Toronto, hired him away from there to be her first Curator of Contemporary Art in Ottawa, and her line on Smith has been unwavering in both places: “We’re very lucky to have him,” she says.)

Shortly after he joined the Toronto Gallery, Smith began work on a major retrospective of the paintings of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch modern master, one of the giants of modern painting, who developed an art of near-total abstraction from reference to anything but itself — composed, geometric, balanced and harmonious. The Toronto exhibition was intended to be — and finally was — the definitive Mondrian exhibition, 114 works from his earliest signed drawing (1888) to his last important pictures before his death in 1944, accompanied by a 230-page catalogue written by University of Toronto scholar Robert Welsh, the whole thing carefully annotated, lucid and academically circumspect. Organizing such an exhibition is an undertaking like no other in magnitude and meticulous diplomacy — the pictures have to be assembled from dozens of lenders, other museums, every one of which is jealous of its own prestige, and such private collectors as, in this case, Her Majesty The Queen of The Netherlands. Smith and Welsh brought it off. It was a critical and popular success, and something of a Canadian coup — an exhibition of a Dutch master organized and first shown in Toronto, and then shown at The Hague, in the city museum of Mondrian’s homeland. After that, Smith might have been ready for anything, and he was — he organized, Dine, Oldenburg and Segal from scratch, showed it at the Art Gallery of Ontario a year after Mondrian, then left for Ottawa where Jean Boggs gave him the freedom of his inclinations and an annual budget of $25,000.

With Brydon Smith there, Pop Art came to Ottawa for the first time, in the form of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and James Rosenquist’s Painting For The American Negro, a giant, mural - like painting nearly seven feet high by 17 wide, a collage of meticulously slick billboard images, equally strong in their sweet, junky sense of nostalgia and the oppressive weight of institutionalized, sentimental half-truths. Smith’s first exhibition in Ottawa was a Rosenquist retrospective, early in 1968, and it was characteristically large, thorough and popular, a popularity that was not uncalculated: “It was a matter of trying to assess what would be best for this gallery and its audience, most of whom are tourists,” Smith says. “It would have been too much to ask the gallery's public to begin with an exhibition of purely abstract art. It seemed somehow right to show Rosenquist first, because he’s an important artist and because his work is generally accessible — it's representational, it gives the audience something to grasp, to start with.”

In the past three years, Smith has built a contemporary collection that, though still relatively small, is remarkably comprehensive, and clearly finding a large audience. Smith recently organized a retrospective of the work of Dan Flavin, a New York artist who makes his art from formal arrangements of fluorescent lighting tubes. The exhibition traveled from Ottawa to Vancouver and, later, on to New York. Flavin, a man who carries the kind of social armor you might expect of a New York avant-gardist, was struck by the openness and directness of the response to it. People would recognize him from his news photos and stop him on the street to thank him for the exhibition and tell him how beautiful it was — not Patrons of the Arts, but high-school kids, and housewives; just people.

Smith is regarded as a kind of champion of New York art, and there are reasons for that. Mainly, if you are interested in contemporary art, you have to be interested in New York art; it is not that all the good stuff comes from there, but more of it comes from there than anywhere else, and has for 20 years. In Toronto, he also championed the purchase of contemporary Canadian art, three times as much of it, compared to contemporary American purchases. At the National Gallery, Canadian art is largely outside Smith’s mandate. A young curator named Pierre Théberge presides over the contemporary Canadian field — and there’s a budget of $100,000 for both contemporary and historical Canadian work, which is four times what Smith spends annually on non-Canadian contemporary art. In Ottawa, Smith has organized shows of Canadian work for exhibition abroad, with considerable success — two of them, the formal abstractions of Montreal painter Guido Molinari and the steel sculpture of Regina-born Robert Murray, won the first two major prizes ever to come to Canada from the highly competitive international exhibitions at Venice, and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He is currently at work on another exhibition for Venice, of the recent constructions of Toronto artist Michael Snow, who says: “Brydon has a serious understanding of what artists are doing ... I think that some people equate Dan Flavin and Rosenquist with the acts of certain U.S. corporations in Canada. I don’t like to . . . they are two really wonderful artists, and we’re all artists.”

What Brydon Smith is doing at the National Gallery finally comes down to a matter of what is done by Giant Hamburgers . . . and camels. Smith bought one of the Nancy Graves camels last summer, and showed it in Ottawa with the two others because they had all been made at the same time. A trustee of the gallery, Allan Bronfman of Montreal, vice-president of Distillers Corporation Seagrams, Ltd., together with his wife, was so taken by the three camels together that he bought the other two and gave them to the gallery, so the set wouldn’t be broken up. It was an almost unheard-of thing for a gallery donor to do — following the tastes of the curatorial staff, rather than seeking the institutionalization of his own taste by giving art he had already collected. The Bronfmans’ response was widely shared — crowds have lingered around the three camels ever since, after their first shock, walking around them, fascinated, exploring the territory between appearance and reality that is a traditional province of art.

And likely as not, that’s where you’ll find Brydon Smith, too, strolling the exhibition halls, surrounded by the art he has brought to Canada’s National Gallery, watching people watch the art. “My collection is part of my lifestyle," he says, “and it is not that of people who have traditionally collected art in this country. I’m interested in breaking down conventional ways of seeing, in keeping our powers of perception as open as possible; it’s only then that we have any possibility of seeing what’s there.”