Portrait Of The Artist As A Violently Honest Man
BARRY LORD used to work as an art critic for the Toronto Star, and in his own way he is a courageous man. He has been involved in demonstrations against the imperial politics of the United States, and he has said in a magazine that he lives with a woman who is not his wife; not heroism, perhaps, but small public acts that allow a man in the middle of the night to think of himself as brave.
Still, art criticism is not an occupation that normally demands public physical bravery. Artists who have been badly reviewed get drunk and tell their friends that the critic is blind and a fool and a pansy, but they do not ordinarily think of doing anything to the art critic, like busting him one in the face.
But the day after Lord printed a bad review of William Ronald’s first one-man show of paintings in five years, Lord answered his phone and there was William Ronald, who stands about six feet and weighs almost 200 pounds, telling Lord that Lord had better be very careful never again to be in the same room with him.
“I was appalled,” says Lord. “I mean, here was this guy actually threatening my life. He said that he never did that, he never called up art critics after a review, but he thought I should know that he had a very violent temper and if he ever found himself confronting me, physically, he would not be responsible for his actions.”
Ronald is now a little embarrassed about this; if he met Lord at a party, it is likely that he would step out of the room saying loud things about art critics, but he would not actually try to take Lord apart on the living-room rug. “Look,” he says, “I called him up because it was a terrible review, stupid, a personal attack. He said I was a victim of fashion, like I was an abstract expressionist and that wasn't selling so I was trying to do solid colors and that was bad. Well, what does he know? I know what I’m painting. But he could do this to some other artist, some young guy who can’t
fight back. Just so long as he gets his $35 for writing his ----ing column.”
Ronald’s face is solid, meaty, and directed forward through a curved Indian nose; he is a big man, physically strong, and his gestures are abrupt. His voice is surprising, higher than one would have expected, almost petulant when he is excited or angry. He wears flamboyant clothes, and has a spadeshaped black beard, cut meticulously to the corners of his jaw. The effect is that of a triggerman for some mysterious mob of Satanist fashion designers.
William Ronald is 44, a professional artist, a teacher of art at Toronto’s York University and a broadcaster (his interview show, As It Happens, is broadcast on CBC radio Monday nights across the country). He is,
in fact and by reputation, one of the most violently honest men in Canada. He has scrapped with critics, art dealers, television executives, writers, and other artists. (“I never actually had a fight with Harold Town — he just called me up out of the blue one day and said, ‘Listen, you start walking from the north end of Queen’s Park, and I’ll start walking from the south end, and when we meet in the middle, I’ll break a chair over your head.’ ”)
Town may have been upset by Ronald’s less-thantactful assessment of their respective international reputations: “Look, I am one of the, say, five Canadian paint-
ers of this generation who are known outside of the country at all. There’s Levine, Riopelle, Borduas, I guess, maybe one or two other guys, and me. That’s all. Nobody in New York ever even heard of Harold Town.”
Professional painters are not, by and large, intensely conspicuous people. As a rule — in the public mind, anyway — they keep to their studios, speak only to their friends, and leave the financial calculations to their dealers. Ronald, however, is an unashamed and unhesitant public figure, with an inexhaustible supply of opinions and no second thoughts about displaying them. And he is cold-blooded about what he is worth: he prices his paintings at $115 a square foot.
At this point it should be
said that I have known Ronald for about four years, I have worked with him, and I like him. But we are not, by any means, close friends; I am uneasy around him, there is a current of tension that precludes comfort.
Ronald is well known as a painter in Canada, certainly; and at one time he was considered one of the best in the United States. But since his last show in Toronto the critical community has become a little uneasy about his work. One well-known Canadian writer (who has had abrasive words with Ronald in the past and would therefore prefer to remain just a “well-known Canadian writ-
er”) says, “When Ronald went to New York in 1955, he rode in on the crest of the wave — he was an action painter, throwing the paint around, violent, it was natural to him and that was what was happening then. But he wasn’t one of the top 10 painters in New York. He had just about got to the point where the collectors were saying, ‘William Who? — oh, yeah, William Ronald, I think I know him,’ when the bottom dropped out of the abstract expressionist market, pop art came in — this would be 1963, 1964 — and he just ran out his string. And this latest show of his is, well, terrible — that fantastic color sense he had seems to have gone, he’s into mauves and greens that aren’t working, and the things just aren’t good art.” The critic sits back and sips his Scotch and
looks uncomfortable. “I don’t like saying all this. I thought his old stuff was fantastic. I still think his watercolors are beautiful — he’s into tiny paper cutouts in this show, which are just like them. And he’s interesting as a broadcaster. Sort of.”
Barry Lord: “Look, don’t get me wrong on this. The last show is bad. But, you know, abstract expressionism is coming back in at the galleries in New York, and maybe that will release something in him. It’s kind of ironic that he’s such a good painter and he’s trying to paint stuff that isn’t natural to him, while the chances are that his natural work would
really start to be popular again very soon. I feel a good deal of compassion for him.”
Ronald: “My work has
buried one or two critics in the past, and it’s going to bury quite a few more before I’m through. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I quit abstract express i o n i s m because I was through with it, not because it was unfashionable. I have a theory that whenever you get too good at something, whenever it gets too easy, quit. Maybe these guys should think about that.”
Ronald lives in a large, three-story, immensely forbidding red brick house in the centre of Toronto. He has two daughters, Suzanne, 13, a private, complicated girl who writes well and will shortly be extraordinarily beautiful; Dianna, 4, a full-
blooded Indian girl the Ronalds adopted shortly after she was born — she is a furniture-bouncer, loud and tall and strong and happy, with ferocious vitality and charm. Ronald’s wife, Helen, is blond, serene, quiet. They complement each other. She provides information he has forgotten, looks for papers he can use in the interviews, and otherwise stays away. When she is in the room Ronald becomes calmer and less manic. She acts as a cushion for him, absorbing his excess energy and making his life manageable. There are two dogs, one old, one young, and two quite tough-looking cats, who have marked out
William Ronald loves horseback riding, picnics and painting.
He doesn’t care much for art critics. Riding is great because “If you don’t concentrate you can kill yourself.” Critics? Well, “My work has buried critics in the past”
their turf and keep it cool.
Ronald has outflanked the art critics before. In 1955, he came to the public conclusion that the Canadian artistic community was a collection of old women, and that the Canadian public was a flock of sheep; he moved south, after eight years became an American citizen, and sold paintings to such galleries as the Guggenheim in New York, the AlbrightKnox in Buffalo, and the Art Institute in Chicago. His work at that time was vibrant and edgy; the best was a series of “central-image” paintings, oils that suck the eye into a central vortex, and then explode its attention out
toward the edges of the canvas.
The central-image series was the extension of ideas Ronald had been working on since the beginning of his career, at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, where he graduated in 1951. “It was a terrible place. God, was it awful. I had wanted to be a painter since I was 12; I thought I could make money at it and be good at it. I used to spend hours copying boxing pictures out of Ring magazine to improve my hands. And here these guys at OCA were saying I was no good. You know they failed me once? And then a painter and teacher there named Jock
Macdonald took a look at one of my things and said, ‘That’s good, that’s beginning to be something.’ I nearly fell over backward.”
Macdonald (who was also disliked by the more rigid of the teachers at OCA) took Ronald into his studio and started working with him. “Jock Macdonald was a great man. I mean that. A great man. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would fstand over you and tell you which brush to use. He would just sit and listen and talk for hours, over coffee, talking about painting, talking about anything. And if he had $800 — he wasn’t a rich man, he couldn’t have had $800 more than once or twice in his life — but if he had it, and you needed it, it was yours. He helped more young guys than anyone else I can think of. He could even have been a better painter, earlier, if he had been more private. But he even gave us that.”
Ronald’s father was at one time a market gardener; Ronald was born in a small town, Stratford, Ont., and he lived in small towns until he went to Toronto. His work is landscape lifted into pure color — the shapes of hills and valleys and rivers dominate. It is idiosyncratically but purely Canadian; international in tone, but rooted in what the land is like.
His younger brother, John Meredith (the family surname, which both have dropped, is Smith) is also a Toronto painter. Meredith’s work is highly organized and designed, but beautiful in the way Ronald’s is beautiful; the energy of the country is in the paint.
It was Macdonald who finally advised Ronald to go to New York; within a year, Ronald had contracted with Samuel Kootz for an annual one-man show. “I was on salary there. I would give Sam 18 paintings a year and he would pay me a straight salary. That was the European system, it was new in New York then. Later on I went to salary plus commissions, and at the end I was just selling my paintings. Then Helen got pregnant, and we moved out to New
Jersey, to this little village near Princeton, and I just painted. It was beautiful. I’d paint for nine months of the year, and then take three months for a show, the publicity and all, and then go back and paint some more. It was just — an idyll.”
Ronald had his last oneman show at the Kootz Gallery in December 1963; there was a short, fiery argument over what Ronald describes as “various things — Sam had a temper, and I’m not exactly a shrinking lily, and so we parted by mutual agreement.” Kootz retired and closed his gallery shortly afterward; Ronald, in New Jersey, went on the rocks.
“I had been working for nine years straight, you remember, with one American show and one Canadian show every year. I just got tired. And then I got on to
pills. They prescribed pills for everything at that time; you know, if you were tired they speeded you up and if you were nervous they slowed you down. You were supposed to take two or three a day, but I couldn’t handle them. At the end I was on nine, 10, maybe 15 a day.”
Ronald convinced himself that he was through as a painter — and as far as the Toronto critics were concerned, after a badly received show at the David Mirvish Gallery in Toronto, he was through. He came back to Toronto, and moved in with Father Paul Hopkins, an Anglican priest at St. An-
Ronald hurls himself at life. A single day sees him defending his one-man show (that's Airplane, a six-canvas work, behind him), cuddling his daughters, Dianna, 4, and Suzanne, 13, and trading gibes on his CBC program
drew’s Parish on Toronto Island. Hopkins and Helen nursed him through the catastrophic depression that follows withdrawal from pills, and to keep himself occupied Ronald decided to repaint the grubby green walls of Hopkins’ rectory.
The fresh coat of paint became a sinuous, dazzling 42foot mural that snaked across walls, over radiators, and terminated in a carefully crafted Ronald altar. The Island community, which was bucking civic attempts to raze their houses to make way for a park, pitched in to help. The rectory mural became a focus for their battle to keep their homes; that battle is still going on, in fits and starts, but after Hopkins’ death the building fell into disuse. “One winter they forgot to turn the water off, and all the pipes burst, so some
—ing maintenance man cut an eight-foot hole in the ceiling. Right through the mural. I’ve offered to go over and repaint it for free, but nobody’s interested.”
At this point, John Kennedy, a CBC television producer, offered Ronald the job of host of an arts program on Sunday afternoons, in a suicidal time slot opposite CFL football on the CTV network. Ronald jumped at it; the result was The Umbrella, a manic, bouncy half hour that combined interviews with Morton Shulman on art as an investment (Ronald: “You don’t like my stuff? Sit down before I knock you down”) with surrealist fanta-
sies of what Eddie Shack dreams about (mostly dogs and girls in bikinis). The program ran for two seasons and jacked up the audience to more than 1.2 million.
Broadcasters recall the show as a glamorous experiment in controlled insanity. Some of the critics were disgusted. Roy Shields, a Toronto writer, commented sourly on a recent Ronald television appearance, “It was a reminder of how fortunate viewers are not to have Ronald as a regular on television.” And The Umbrella made the CBC nervous; executives came up with an Audience Appreciation Index that proved to their satisfaction that, while a hell of a lot of people watched the Ronald show, over half of them didn’t like it, or him, or something. The show was dropped at the end of its second season.
“I still get people asking about that show,” says Ronald. “I don’t know why it was canned. I was outdrawing CFL football at the end. Hell, people were watching it, weren’t they?”
Interview at Ronald’s house: Mike Gluss, the photographer, has brought over his color transparencies for Ronald’s comments. Ronald watches himself projected against the wall. He is riveted, totally self-involved, entirely unembarrassed in his fascination with himself.
Gluss changes his slide: he has photographed Ronald from above and behind, and the result is a close-up of the cleft of his buttocks disappearing into his pants. Ronald howls, a great, rowdy, trombone burst of laughter.
After The Umbrella, Ronald began painting seriously again; his best recent work is a gargantuan mural, four stories high, slashing across a main wall of the new National Arts Centre in Ottawa. One critic, Barrie Hale (Lord’s predecessor at the Star), wrote that Homage To Robert F. Kennedy was “the only incident in the whole vast complex that demonstrates how art might inform architecture rather than decorate it or ape its design.” The mural works; it is aggressive, savage, extraordi-
narily inventive. The awestruck critical reception of the mural may explain Ronald’s rage at the indifferent professional reaction to his last show of easel paintings in Toronto.
But Ronald’s radio show appeals to people who couldn’t care less about his paintings. As It Happens is broadcast across the country, two hours in each time zone, moving from east to west, which» means that Ronald spends up to six hours on the phone or in the studio with anyone he thinks he can get a rise out of. On one program last year, Ronald grilled a scientist who was involved in the salvage job of an oil tanker that cracked up on the east coast (“How much is this going to cost? Have you called Aristotle Onassis?”), flirted with Liberace in New York (“Listen, Lee, I’ll see you when you get to Toronto, you tell your tailor to make me a suit and I’ll give you a painting”), and squelched a guest who had used a blue phrase on the air (“Okay, we’ll see you around, and before you leave put your pants back on” ).
Ronald’s producer, Colin MacLeod, says, “Bill is a professional. It doesn’t look like it some of the time, but he is. He always knows what he’s doing, he takes information well, he’s very good with people and — well, this is the difference between him and some of the other guys around here — he’s got balls.”
On the radio, Ronald’s ego flowers. He is driving, rude, sometimes raucous, impervious to insult, and entirely without self-consciousness. The program is wholly his, built around him, and one suspects that Ronald could not live happily without something like it. There have been occasions, on the air and off, when Ronald’s formidable ego has apparently revealed a hard-nosed, coldeyed, ambitious man. But as I leave his house after our last interview, he calls from the table where we have been sitting for three hours.
“Listen,” he says, “now that we’re through with all this, what do you think of me?” □