In 1961 an exhibition at Toronto’s Laing Galleries made headlines when prospective buyers lined up and then actually argued over the right to buy works by a Canadian artist. The event was a landmark in the history of Hogtown’s climb to cultural sophistication. Suddenly, modern art was hot in Toronto, which could finally boast a homegrown artist-celebrity in the handsome, clever Harold Town. As the leading spokesman for Painters Eleven, a radical group of Toronto abstractionists, Town did much to shake up the genteel art establishment in the 1950s. But the early 1960s marked the zenith of Town’s popularity. He has remained prolific and provocative but is increasingly out of step with prevailing taste. Still, his most loyal supporters have continued to call for a Town retrospective. Their pleas have been answered by a massive exhibition of 233 prints, paintings, collages and drawings which opened last week at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and will travel to Kitchener and Windsor, in Ontario, and Halifax through March, 1987.
Throughout his career, Town—at home last week recovering from a successful operation for bowel cancer— has fought against what he regards as the great Canadian sin of blandness. It is typical of the passion the 61-year-
old artist still inspires that freelance curator and exhibition organizer David Burnett, former curator of contemporary Canadian art at the AGO, champions him with partisan fervor. In his catalogue he challenges conventional critical wisdom that Town has produced nothing noteworthy for the past two decades. Burnett portrays the artist as a victim of Canada’s perverse need to cut its heroes down to size, and of the art establishment’s kowtowing to New York standards of excellence. How disappointing then to enter the cavernous halls of the AGO and to discover in Town’s later work a profusion of garish colors and grotesque forms serving no persuasive esthetic or thematic purpose.
The only sensible strategy for viewers is to flee into the past, because in Town’s 1950s work there is much to admire. He established his independence early on by concentrating on printmaking and collage at a time when his Toronto contemporaries were following the New York trend toward abstract expressionist painting. Town won international recognition for his remarkable lithograph prints—small marvels of jewel-like color and abstract organic shapes which evoke the mythic world of the unconscious.
Town’s larger collages, which often
combine drawing, painting and printmaking in addition to the application of paper and small objects, are often similarly impressive. He is at his best in the delicate, almost Oriental mood of Garden for Eurasian Princess. In their brilliant weaving of bright color and childlike imagery, his best paintings from the early 1960s—including Wright Flight (Memorial), in which a winged shape hovers over a mysterious void—are equally satisfying.
But Town, searching for new worlds to conquer, never pursued one direction long enough. He tried out many styles, but mastered none. His numerous ventures have ranged from an eyesmarting affair with op art in the late 1960s to a recent, embarrassingly kitschy series of preening males entitled Musclemen. Although his later work is often arrestingly ugly, Town’s technical facility and grace still inform such works as his whimsical drawings of movie stars.
The unfolding of Town’s career, displayed in all its grandiose excess at the AGO, is a disturbing phenomenon. It is as if an exotic organism had grown monstrous over the years, dispersing itself in a series of bizarre mutations. Perhaps the lesson is not that Canada crushes its heroes but that it crowns them too quickly. To demand, as the exhibition does, that the public follow joyfully down the dead-end paths he has taken, is asking too much.
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