TOWN, Harold Barling
Born: 13 June 1924, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died: 27 December 1990, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
A provocative and prolific painter and printmaker, and co-founder of Painters Eleven, Harold Town was born in Toronto. Throughout his career, Town worked simultaneously in a wide variety of media – painting, drawing, printmaking, collage and assemblage – to which he brought his characteristic ingenuity, fertile imagination, and technical virtuosity. As cultural journalist Robert Fulford stated, “He always ran parallel careers, as if convinced that the world deserved several Harold Towns at the same time.”
After high school, Town studied at the Central Technical School and in 1942, attended the Ontario College of Art. Following his graduation in 1945, he worked as an illustrator for Macleans and Mayfair. Although he had exhibited frequently with the Ontario Society of Artists since 1946, Town first came to public attention with his painting, Two Nudes, at the Royal Canadian Academy’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1951. It scandalized the reviewers and paved the way for a chain of future controversies that would surround Town and his work.
Around 1950, Town began to associate with a disparate group of Toronto painters interested in modernist and abstract art. Local artists Albert Franck and Florence Vale encouraged Town and these artists who frequently met at their house on Gerrard Street East. In addition to artistic advice, Franck included Town and others in his Annual Exhibition of Unaffiliated Artists at the Eaton’s Fine Art Galleries in 1950 and 1951, and at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1952.
In the early 1950s, Town, inspired by the cubist collages of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and the work of the German expressionist Kurt Schwitters, began to make collages, juxtaposing found materials from everyday life, and infusing them with new meanings. Reviewing an exhibition of Town’s collages at the Jordan Gallery in Toronto in 1959, Robert Fulford regarded them as “brilliant”, and stressed that Town “raises the form to a new lyricism; his bits of burnt paper, scraps of his own discarded prints, old wine labels and other ‘foreign matter’ are put together with such a fine sense of unity and such a dazzling amount of originality that the whole exhibit can only be called a virtuoso performance.” Later, Town also constructed assemblages infusing them with his characteristic audacity and wit. In Music Behind, 1958-59, Town took the back of a TV panel (given to him by Albert Franck), complete with its protruding plastic cone, painted a grid of dribbled primary colours and added an assortment of old papers, sheet music, stamps, straws and a paper fan. For Town, the art of collage was “the one medium most suited to the age of conspicuous waste, and it’s marvelous to think of the garbage of our age becoming the art of our time.”
In December of 1952, Town embarked on his innovative series of “single autographic prints”, a series of monoprints (single and unique images) overprinted with a variety of colours and enhanced with collage. Town invented the name for the prints and referred to them as “SAPS”. In works such as Seaburst, 1958, (National Gallery of Canada), an ethereal layering of colours contrasts with the bold black shapes that fan out from a wheel-like configuration. Town produced hundreds of prints, constantly experimenting with colour combinations, multiple printings, and the addition of a diverse range of materials and collage elements. The diversity of themes explored in the prints reflected Town’s extensive and eclectic interests as he embraced references to Greek mythology, Canadian history and topography as well as Asian themes that reflected his fondness for Asian art. Art historian David Burnett commented, “Through the process of layering and the accumulation of impressed materials, the prints became metaphors of personal archaeology.” Widely appreciated nationally and internationally, they won awards in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, Santiago, Chile, and in New York, and were acquired by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Museum of Modern Art, as well as countless Canadian art museums. This public enthusiasm had a curious impact on Town – he decided to abandon printmaking around 1960, lest he be pegged as a one-medium artist.
Also in 1952, Alexandra Luke, another member of this group organized the Canadian Abstract Painters shown in Oshawa and included Town’s work. Following the Abstracts at Home event organized by William Ronald in 1953 where seven artists integrated their work with the furniture displays at Simpson’s department store, the participating artists, Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, Walter Yarwood, Luke and Ronald proposed an exhibition of abstract art. In the fall of 1953, Luke organized a meeting for the group that now included Town,Tom Hodgson, Hortense Gordon and Walter Yarwood, and Painters Eleven – named by Town – was born. Their first exhibition, held in 1954 at the Roberts Gallery, shook the Toronto art world, and garnered favourable reviews in the press, although sales were few. The membership of the European-trained, Danish born artist Oscar Cahén was of particular importance to Town who admired Cahén’s eccentric use of colour and confident cubist-expressionist draughtsmanship. In addition both admired the work of British artist Graham Sutherland and the American Rico Lebrun. Town’s approach to abstraction during this period as exemplified by Mechanical Forest Sound, 1953, (National Gallery of Canada), revealed his love of bright, almost garish colours and energetic drawing that in this work evoked the neon light and chaotic bustle of night in Toronto.
For the second exhibition at the Roberts Gallery in 1955, Town wrote the introduction for the exhibition brochure, emphasizing the individuality of the eleven painters. Subsequent exhibitions at the Roberts Gallery in 1956, and at the Park Gallery in 1957 and 1958, as well the invitation to exhibit at the Twentieth Annual Exhibition of Abstract Artists at the Riverside Museum in New York City, all contributed to the group’s increasing critical acclaim. In October 1960, the Painters Eleven artists voted to disband.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Town also received important public art commissions: in 1958, a 37 foot long mural for Robert Saunders Generating Station then part of the Seaway Power Project at Cornwall, Ontario, in 1959, an exterior enamel frieze for the North York Public Library; in 1963, a mural for the lobby of the Telegram Building in Toronto, and in 1964, a two-part mural and sculpture for the Malton Airport, Toronto. In 1964, Town was also commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada to design the sets and costumes for the House of Atreus.
As a painter in the 1960s, Town took a personal approach, synthesizing pre-determined design with the dramatic gestures, drips, and colourful swirls of action painting. In Banner #1, 1960, with its geometric shapes and assertive, expressive drawing juxtaposed against an impenetrable black background, Town demonstrated his dashing, theatrical style to great public applause. His 1961 exhibition of paintings, prints and collages at the Laing Galleries in Toronto is legendary: line-ups formed at the door, and every work was sold. The success led to a cover story in Macleans, and launched him as the best-known and esteemed artist of his generation.
Between 1959 and 1964, Town’s output and sales sky-rocked. He had fifteen solo exhibitions in Toronto, Montreal, Regina, Vancouver, New York, and Madison, New Jersey, and in 1964, he was chosen for the second time for the Venice Biennale. During this period, he also participated in over seventy group exhibitions nationally and internationally in Europe, Japan, the United States and Mexico. Furthermore, his work attracted the highest prices of any Toronto artist and museums began to buy his work: in 1961, the Art Gallery of Toronto and Cleveland Museum of Art; in 1963 – 1964, the Stedelijk Museum, Tate Gallery, London, Brooklyn Museum and Guggenheim Museum.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Town persisted with a prolific production of paintings and drawings, simultaneously exploring new ideas in these different media. In the Tyranny of the Corner series (1962-1963) Town explored painterly problems, attacking the notion of the central image in abstract expressionism. Describing his intentions, he said, “In my series Tyranny of the Corner I have invited the corners to come early to the party, and tried…to make all the elements of the painting that arrived late, a trifle uncomfortable.” In works such as Pitch Out, 1960 (private collection), a diamond shaped central image painted with gestural brushwork and enhanced with an abstract design fights for supremacy with the bright yellow background dominating the corners. The Set paintings of the same period also explored these ideas. Town showed these new paintings at the Jerrold Morris International Gallery in Toronto in 1962 and received favourable critical response.
Between 1964 and 1965, Town produced another group of boldly designed paintings in which he used the graphic unit of the “doughnut” and masking tape to create positive and negative spaces. In The Great Divide, 1965, an intense, overall pattern of small, golden doughnut shapes are divided down the middle by a thin white line, irregular and meandering like a river. In contrast, on both sides, narrow white geometric shapes intrude, creating a debate about the relationships between background and foreground.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Town embarked on the Silent Light and Stretches series. The former, named for the toppling of a Christmas tree and the marvelous display of broken Christmas decorations that ensued, and inspired a sequence of intensely patterned, colourful paintings between 1968 and 1970. The Stretches series, of 1970-71, present the image of an elongated drip whose precise streamlined edges recall Town’s admiration of Matisse’s cut-outs and the period’s artistic preoccupation with flatness. Later, some of these same images were rendered in silkscreen, such as Untitled, 1979, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
From 1964 until 1972, Town also worked on the Enigmas, a series of drawings described by Town as “the political cartoons of my private editorial page.” Acerbic attacks on personal and public power relationships, Town chronicled his various likes and dislikes in society, “with love I draw what I hate”, he said. Using black and white ink on coloured paper, elegantly drawn, rich in detail, they show the dark side of humanity, violent and exploitative. In their graphic style and disturbing subject matter, they evoke the nightmarish quality of Goya’s satires. The series attracted immediate infamy when two of the ten drawings exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1964 were ordered removed by an Italian cardinal. With his typical eloquence and wit, Town responded, “It’s such an honour being banned in Italy, the mother of sensuality. It’s like being asked to straighten your tie in a bordello…Its ironic that the pictures were removed on the complaint of a cardinal, I regard censorship as a cardinal sin.” In contrast the other important drawing series of this period, The Lady in the Cook Photo series and Silent Stars, Sound Stars and Film Stars (many of which were later published in a book of the same name), were inspired by photographs and display his passion and virtuoso talent for drawing.
In the early 1970s, Town embarked on two new painting series. In the Park series, the canvases featured small areas of thickly impastoed colour enclosed by irregular shapes floating on a flatly painted background; Town alluded to the conflicts between culture and nature. In contrast to these, the Snap series was linked to a particular process where Town impregnated lengths of string with colour that he snapped against the surface of the canvas. This process resulted in thousands of tiny splashes which dried to form brilliantly coloured, heavily textured surfaces reminiscent of fabric, and which in turn were juxtaposed with or sometimes contained by, cleanly drawn geometric shapes. Conceived by Town as a challenge to the dictums of the American critic Clement Greenberg who valued flatness in painting, and opposed illusion, Town created works that remained flat and offered a new kind of pictorial space through colour contrasts. Unfortunately for Town, these works were not greeted with critical enthusiasm at the time.
From the early to mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, Town continued to work on a number of series in painting, drawing and collage. In drawing these include, the Vale Variations, (1972-1977), inspired by an erotic fantasy by his old friend Florence Vale, the Toy Horse series (1976-1982), 800 individual drawings inspired by a toy horse acquired from a local antique store, the Bug Walk series (1983) which combines collages of man-made structures and finely drawn invading insects, The Famous, (1984-1985), delicately rendered portraits of historical personages and Stages (1986-1987), where drawing combines with colourful collage. The strongly figurative bent of the early 1980s is also echoed in the playful Muscleman series of paintings, where men with thickly painted exaggerated muscles and very small heads, posed to display their mindless physiques. In 1984, Town illustrated Pas de Vingt: A Celebration of Ballet Dancers by James Strecker, and in 1990, he contributed illustrations to Strecker’s Black: A Tribute to Black Musicians.
In the 1986 Town retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, David Burnett insisted that an assessment of Town’s work “must account for the relations between the various fronts on which he works simultaneously, and that previous criticism that dismissed his inability to focus on one thing, greatly and erroneously failed to do this.”
Throughout his career, Town was a lively and opinionated writer. In addition to exhibition statements for Painters Eleven exhibitions, Town penned essays for exhibition catalogues and sent provocative articles to the daily newspapers as well as art presses. He also published four books: Love, Where the Nights are Long (1962), an anthology of Canadian love poetry; Enigmas (1964), a publication of his controversial drawing series; Silent Stars, Sound Stars, Film Stars (1971); Albert Franck, Keeper of the Lanes (1974), and with David Silcox, Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm (1977).
In 1989, just a year before his death, Town, who was regarded as a relentless experimenter, exhibited his new Edge Series of paintings at Gallery 121 in Toronto. In the spirit of earlier work that explored formal problems in painting, this exhibition of eight large canvases presented works with vertical borders replete with brightly coloured squiggles that were balanced in the centre with stripes or other patterns. “It’s painting for its own sake” said Town. Writing in the Toronto Star following his death from cancer at the age of 66, critic Christopher Hume said, “He was an artist the way that Mozart was a composer. His work seemed to flow from him effortlessly.”
Compiled February 2008
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada
1957, Arno Prize, Sao Paulo Biennale
1957, Second International Exhibition of Drawings and Prints, Yugoslavia
1958, Canada Council Purchase Prize
1958, International Exhibition of Drawing and Prints, Lugano, Switzerland
1960, Guggenheim International Award, Honourable Mention, Canada
1966, Honorary Doctorate, York University
1967, Centennial Medal
1968, Officer, Order of Canada
Canadian Group of Painters
Canadian Society of Graphic Art
Ontario Society of Artists
Royal Canadian Academy of Arts
Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers and Engravers
1956, Single Autographic Prints. Harold Town, Picture Loan Society, Toronto, ON
1957, Autographic Prints by Harold Town, Galerie L'Actuelle, Montreal, QC
1958, Two Canadian Painters: Paul-Emile Borduas and Harold Town, Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd., London, England
1960, Harold Town: collages, paintings, prints, drawings, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK
1960, Salon d'automne: Nakamura and Harold Town, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC
1962, Harold Town, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Waterloo, ON
1963, Town: An Exhibition of Recent Paintings of the Theme of "The Tyranny of the Corner", New Jersey Museum of the Arts, New Jersey, NY, USA
1964, XXXII Biennale de Venezia: Harold Town and Elza Mayhew, Venice, Italy
1964, Thirteen Paintings by Harold Town, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC
1966, Harold Town: Drawings and Prints, Macdonald Institute, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON
1966, Exhibition of Autographic Prints and Drawings in Brush, Pen and Ink, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Waterloo, ON
1967, Harold Town Paintings, Scarborough College, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1967, Exhibition of Autographic Prints, Hart House, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1967, Jean McEwen and Harold Town, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON
1969, Harold Town: Enigmas, Hart House, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1970, Retrospective Drawing Exhibition, Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, ON
1971, French Postcard Set - Girl on a Bicycle, Fleet Galleries, Winnipeg, MB
1971, Harold Town: Prints, Sarnia Public Library, Sarnia, ON
1971, Silent Stars, Sound Stars, Film Stars, Rothman's Art Gallery, Stratford, ON
1972, Harold Town - A Selection, Art Gallery of Northumberland, Cobourg, ON
1973, Harold Town: The First Exhibition of New Work 1969-1973, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, ON; London Public Library and Art Museum, London, ON; Rodman Hall Art Center, St. Catharines, ON; Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, ON; curator Kay Reid
1974, Harold Town: Lithographs and Serigraphs, Mazelow Gallery, Toronto, ON
1975, Indications: paintings, collage, drawings, prints, sculpture. Harold Town 1944-1975., Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, ON
1978, Harold Town. The Toy Horse. Works on Paper, Waddington Galleries, Montreal, QC
1979, Vale Variations, Robertson Galleries, Ottawa, ON
1980, Poets and Other People: Drawings by Harold Town, Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, ON
1981, Harold Town: Recent Paintings, Theo Waddington Galleries, Toronto, ON
1982, Portrait Drawings by Harold Town, Robertson Galleries, Ottawa, ON
1986, Harold Town: A Retrospective, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON
1997, Harold Town: Magnificent Decade 1955-1965, Moore Gallery, Toronto, ON
Amsterdam, Netherlands, Stedelijk Museum
Edmonton, AB, Edmonton Art Gallery
Fredericton, NB, Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Hamilton, ON, Art Gallery of Hamilton
Kingston, ON, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University
London, England, Tate Gallery
New York, NY, USA, Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA, Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY, USA, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Ottawa, ON, National Gallery of Canada
Regina, SK, Mackenzie Art Gallery
Sao Paulo, Brazil, Museum of Modern Art
Toronto, ON, Art Gallery of Ontario
Winnipeg, MB, Winnipeg Art Gallery
Vancouver, BC, Vancouver Art Gallery
Victoria, BC, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria