Art as energy

Wayne Clark April 14 1980

Art as energy

Wayne Clark April 14 1980

Art as energy


Wayne Clark

Had Toronto been the Paris of the 1920s, artist Charles Pachter was saying as he sat in his living room besieged by morning sunlight and new resolve, his friends in the city’s artistic community would probably have stormed the offices of the art critics and poured wine over their heads, or poked a few noses. “But in Toronto, you know,” says Pachter, with some puzzlement because the reaction hardly suits his grander scheme and scale of things, “they just go ‘tsk tsk’ and that’s about it.” The time when he would have liked his friends to have enacted a vineal vengeance on his behalf was last October, when almost every art reviewer in the city decided not to write a single word about an exhibition he had spent two years and $11,000 mounting. And that hurt.

“It was a professional insult. It was like a composer writing a new symphony and the critics saying, ‘Oh well, we’ve done him before,’ ” says Pachter, who, at 37, found himself afterwards unpacking an old trunk full of paranoia and questions he’d thought he’d answered long ago about both his talent and his dream: to create a Montparnasse for the city’s writers, actors, dancers and 4,000 artists. It’s that

dream, he suspects, and the success he feels he’s having with it—along with an admitted penchant for mischief—that have kept him from being taken as seriously as he would like to be as an artist. “The hardest thing for anybody in this city to understand, it seems—because they must have a category to put you in —is that not just my ‘art,’ but my whole life, is my art. You come to a point,” he says, reflecting on his personal October crisis, “where you know the bud has opened and you’ve got to keep watering the flower. You just have to accept that the more chutzpah and hustle you show, the more you have to endure the ignominy from your colleagues.”

His latest concession to compulsive chutzpah will become, he hopes, a hangout for the art community, and although six of his most recent paintings will hang there, Pachter may soon find himself with another plateful of sotto voce flak for not confirming himself to art that can be framed: this spring a restaurant of his own design opens in the heart of his Montparnasse. At the heart of the art world’s suspicions about Pachter, says Lorraine Monk, director of still photography

(Pachter is also a photographer) for the past 19 years for the National Film Board, is that “we haven’t got over that Victorian concept: you’ve got to be Chopin spitting blood before anybody wants to listen to you. Thank God nobody ever told da Vinci that he couldn’t invent the submarine and paint the Last Supper. I’ve been around artists all of my life and I say Charlie’s a genius. He’s multitalented with incredible energy. And most of art is energy.”

There was some consolation for Pachter in the fact that, at the exhibition no one reviewed, buyers had paid the highest prices yet for his works. He ended up grossing $25,000. (One of his paintings, called Life Is Not a Fountain, she says, “is one of the masterpieces of Canadian art in the past decade.”) Although Pachter needed the boost in confidence, it was not that he needed the money. (“I’m almost a millionaire and I probably will be by the time this is written,” he told Maclean’s recently.) For more than 10 years he’s been doing what artists aren’t supposed to do: buying real estate. Says Pachter, who has never received a government grant: “It gives me the leverage to do the creative things.”

In order to _

matchmake creative people for his Montparnasse, Pachter has been

buying old offices, warehouses, stores and houses in the Queen Street West section of downtown Toronto. As part of what he calls his “transformative vision,” he renovates or restores them and then rents for the most part to arts organizations, design and printing companies and artists. What was once a quietly dying neighborhood of low-income housing and second-hand furniture stores is now—with much credit due to Pachter—draped in bookstores and boutiques and restaurants The “matchmaking,” he says, is part of his art. However, says James Purdie, art reviewer for The Globe and Mail at the time of Pachter’s October exhibition:

“It is possible to do all those things—

he’s a great synthesizer—and be a great painter. But Charlie Pachter is not one of those people. Most of the gifted painters in this country, or anywhere else that I’ve known, have worked considerably more than the four hours a day he does.” The Toronto Star’s reviewer, Sol Liftman, says: “I’ve told him he can’t be a part-time painter, that he either has to really work at it full-time or remain basically an interesting personality and a reasonably good painter, not a great one.” Pachter, of course, doesn’t buy the argument. “I can’t paint any more than four hours. The eyes can only stand so much.”

Much of Pachter’s energy at the moment is going almost directly across the street from the restaurant, into a five-

storey, roman -eseque revival building that he is turning into a permanent gallery for his own work, a concert hall and a theatre.“ I want it to become a mini Museum of Modern Art. There’s no high-profile place in Toronto for contemporary art.” Pachter has refused to deal with private galleries for years because of the 40to 50 -per-cent commissions they charge.

Pachter’s art extends beyond working with three-dimensional space-cameras

and canvases. Last month he also started hand-printing what he says will be “a magnum opus, the most elaborate and expensive handmade book that’s ever been done in this country.” The book will be a deluxe limited edition of Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie, with 30 illustrations by Pachter. He hopes to have the 100 copies published next October, priced between $7,000 and $10,000. Pachter began illustrating Atwood’s poetry in the early ’60s by mail while Atwood attended Harvard University and Pachter studied at Michigan’s exclusive Cranbrook Academy of Art (he studied previously at the University of Toronto and the Sorbonne in Paris). One of the five he eventually printed in editions of 15, Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, was the only illustrated book by a Canadian offered at a Toronto exhibition in 1976 that included books by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse. It sold for $2,500.

Pachter says he’s now painting more than he ever has. In the ’60s, before he got involved in real estate and his Montparnasse vision, he spent most of his non-painting time “wallowing and being neurotic.” His painting at that time included many “tortured self-portraits that looked very much like the German Expressionists, very European.” His work has changed so much, he says, “some people would find it hard to be-

lieve it was the same artist.” In 1969 he spent a year as assistant professor of art at the University of Calgary where he discovered, in contrast to the “urban cobweb” he’d always known in his home town, Toronto, “space, light and the insignificance of people.” With the same boldness of form and color he had used in trying to unearth the essences of his own identity, and with the same compulsion to irony and deprecation, his Calgary lithographs sought to show a national identity shaped—more than we really wanted to know—by commercial American pop and pap. When he

returned to Toronto in 1970 his focus shifted again, this time to estheticizing a local object: Toronto’s streetcars. For two years his artist’s eye saw little else.

Although his work is now preoccupied with the people and places physically closest to him, he book another whimsical fling at nationalism in 1973. Although known for his streetcar graphics he wanted “to go national.” He had already used the $3,000 he made at his first exhibition as a down payment

on his first real estate investment, a house on a street called Shaw. One stop on the Queen’s Royal Visit that year was the opening of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake. On the day of the opening, Pachter got himself not only national but international media attention by opening what he called The Other Shaw Festival,at which he exhibited a series of works that have become known as the Queen on Moose paintings. As Toronto Life was to report later: “People were so scandalized that Charlie sold most of the paintings.” The city’s art reviewers found them technically crude and dismissed them as “boyish pranks” or, recalls Pachter, engaged in “schlock psychoanalysis, going on about the Queen being my mother and me meaning, ‘Get off my back.’ Aside from the simple humor, they were about colonial mentality and borrowed images. The time was right.”

Two years later Pachter added to his growing reputation as a precocious enfant terrible by staging the first of two elaborate satires on the pretensions and insecurities he found in Toronto’s art world: for what he called The Ugly Show, Pachter asked the city’s bestknown artists to contribute their worst works. The next year—one in which he managed to finally get himself elected to two working committees of the Art Gallery of Ontario—Pachter presented The Stunning Show, where 1,000 members of the city’s art community found themselves conned into parodying themselves at Pachter’s invitation. Every painting was priced at more than $100,000, the mushroom tartlets were glued to the plates and, under the names of Toronto’s elite, Pachter sent himself a studio full of congratulatory flowers.

When Pachter wasn’t exercising his sense of mischief, he was buying, renovating and restoring more buildings. Says Scott Thornley, head designer at the Art Gallery of Ontario: “I think if he ever wanted to, he could put down his brushes forever because he uses structural space like a palette. He’s amazing to watch work on a 3-D space. He works totally contrarily to what you’d expect. Anyone who thinks this side of Pachter is just a business side is thinking that way simply out of envy or spite.”

While Pachter still finds himself being told by critics and artists that he can’t have his myriad involvements and be a painter too, he says he’s never been on better terms with his creative energies. He wants to try film-making and maybe later, theatre. Adds Thornley: “There are things he does graphically and in painting that I don’t like but I would never, never think that it was an indication of mediocrity. He’s struggling to be a Renaissance man—and, you know, he’s doing it.”