Greg Curnoe, whose glowing and wonderfully various work is celebrated by an exhibition opening Friday at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, won a place in cultural history with a one-man revolution that affected the practice of art across Canada. His reputation faded after he died in a 1992 bicycling accident, and even before his death he believed he had been unfairly displaced from the centre of a national art network he had helped create. In 1991 he wrote, "I feel that I am rapidly being written out of my own culture." But in his influential years, the 1960s and 1970s, he challenged and transformed the ways we think about art.
He was a brilliant, eccentric colourist who defied the conventions that governed art. In the early 1960s, when he began to exhibit, a rigid and impersonal formalism dominated criticism. In poetry the New Critics insisted that the lives of poets explained nothing about their poetry. In visual art, formalist criticism considered all subject matter irrelevant (Cézanne was painting spheres, not apples). Another orthodoxy held that art happens when artists gather in big cities and exchange ideas. In Canada, painting and sculpture might emerge in Montreal or Toronto, maybe Vancouver, but nowhere smaller.
Curnoe opposed all of this, and helped alter everyone's ideas. His art obsessively documented his private life, his district in London, Ont., and the people around him. He exhibited paintings consisting entirely of prose passages in block letters, recounting his days. Because he loved to ride a bicycle, he painted bicycles, superbly. His work's beauty emerged not from aesthetic theory but from his commitment to reality.
Meanwhile, his belief that Toronto art was imitating New York turned him against metropolitan culture. Like many artists who followed after, he declared himself a regionalist. He made himself and other Londoners known across Canada as celebrants of their community.
And while American art conquered the world, Curnoe became Canadian culture's angriest and most prominent anti-American. In 1982 he said, "My work is about resisting as much as possible the tendency of American culture to overwhelm other cultures." He didn't think this conflicted with his love for American jazz, comic books, and poets like William Carlos Williams. His hyperbolic anti-Americanism became an embarrassment, particularly to friends and admirers who intuited that it was partly founded on jealousy and his failure to acquire an American dealer and audience.
The AGO exhibition that Dennis Reid has organized, Greg Curnoe: Life & Stuff, is so densely packed with images and sound that it recalls the Happenings of the 1960s. It revives Curnoe's art by exploring Curnoe's life, which is as far from formalism as a museum can go. At the entrance you see Curnoe on a brief loop of film, and then a series of self-portraits. From there to the end, the show examines his art through the prism of his personality. In a way, that makes this exhibition about a dead artist feel oddly contemporary. Curnoe's naked and intensely personal manner neatly fits our current obsession with celebrity.
Sarah Milroy's searching catalogue essay on his life describes how Curnoe stumbled into the critical bear trap of his era, feminism. He found it natural to depict women erotically, and he was startled when feminists challenged him. He explained that he painted women as objects of desire because "I don't think there is anything wrong with seeing a woman I am attracted to as an object."
Another male artist might have left it at that, but not Curnoe. He was a radical, and the radicalism of the 1980s located itself in feminism. He couldn't bear to be on the conservative side of any argument. And there was a more compelling reason to take feminist criticism seriously: One of the women objecting to his nudes was his wife and model, Sheila.
Curnoe responded by turning this dilemma into art. In 1990 he produced one of his lettered text paintings, It, which is in the AGO exhibition beside nude paintings of Sheila. It consists entirely of words she spoke to him: "It just seems odd to me that all of the paintings of me are nudes -- and there's nothing personal about them at all ... " Other models may have felt that way, but how many have seen their complaints inscribed on the walls of a museum? Curnoe was one of a kind.
His life was filled with contradictions, not all of which he understood or even wanted to acknowledge. He was one of those self-deluding elitists who claim to be populists and never see the fallacy in their position. He claimed that he didn't operate on the level of high art, but his work lived there if it lived anywhere.
He may have dreamt of making art for the mass of his fellow citizens, but only the elite appreciated him. His main supporters were in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the university art departments, the Canada Council and a few other centres of elite opinion. His great patron was millionaire Londoner Jake Moore. Most Canadians showed no interest in him -- or any other living Canadian artist.
He lived with more than his share of anxieties and resentments. In London, the place he established as an art centre, there was a discussion and exhibition of regionalism in 1990. The organizers (he complained) neither invited him nor mentioned his work in the catalogue. "It seems to me that this is like discussing Cubism without Picasso," he wrote. A sense of proportion was not among his qualities.
He brought admirable energy to everything he did, and generously helped others find the energy to fulfil themselves. He founded art galleries and magazines, and often inspired colleagues to do work they might not have accomplished without his encouragement.
He had a gawky, country boy manner, and wasn't easy to know, but I always felt when talking to him that something interesting was going on. I never knew him when he wasn't on edge, however, and I always had the sense that there was a permanent low-level depression thrumming beneath the surface. Curnoe often tried to present his art as simple and direct, but there was nothing at all that was simple about the man himself.