Skip to content

May we suggest

Features / July 25, 2017

Ben Portis: 1960–2017

Friends and colleagues remember the Canadian curator and critic, who died in a road accident last week
Curator and critic Ben Portis. Curator and critic Ben Portis.

Last week, curator and critic Ben Portis was killed in a road accident. Portis began his career as an artist, and perhaps that is why, even after he became a curator (notably at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie), he made himself unusually available to artists and community members. Portis was present. He seemed to be at every opening and talk, eager to discuss art with enthusiasm and curiosity. It was a passion made apparent in his criticism, which appeared in a number of publications—including this magazine.

Here, friends and colleagues remember Portis and consider his legacy.

Ben was a complex, singular person with a great mind and a big heart. He came to work with me at the AGO in the early 2000s, bringing among his many curatorial talents a keen observation of the collection and the research skills of a true believer. His exhibition projects included artists whose popular recognition often came years later—the mark of a leader. Ben loved art and was a great friend of artists. And he dedicated himself to the art he loved, not to trend or fashion. He was a gifted writer and an incredible polymath. His rare and authentic intensity is a loss to the visual arts, film and new music community. I will miss our encounters over the years, but in sadness I smile at memories of his voracious intellect and infectious laughter.—Jessica Bradley, curator

Ben Portis might be remembered as the guy whose dedication to and curiosity about contemporary art led to excruciatingly long questions in public forums (think Martin Short as Brock Linahan as Brian Linehan).  But I’ve been thinking about him afternoon painting with Dorian Fitzgerald, and remembering a road trip Roula Partheniou and I took with him to the then-new DIA Beacon. We stopped into the gallery at Bard College and all the staff (curatorial, janitorial) rushed out to greet him with a returning hero’s welcome. We sang Appalachian folk songs to stay awake during the long drive and generally got to see past his often awkward exterior. On the way home, he arranged for us to visit Danny Lyon in his studio and his spark and genuine curiosity was never more clear than when watching him connect deeply to artists and their practice. He was in his element and I’m grateful to have seen that side of him.—Dave Dyment, artist

With regard to the loss of Ben Portis, I only wanted to mention something worthy of his many other attributes as a friend and colleague. Ben was a true-blue music lover, through and through. He was a source, his compassion and understanding dynamic and reaching. Across all genres and many decades Ben had the flow, the melody line, the score and the joy. And Ben had sincerity of purpose and this is how he listened: with clarity. Many times, over dinner and records, or running into him at live shows, his crazy laughter and serious appreciation made him the kind of real fan that any artist would be proud to have in the crowd, or back stage. And so we’ll miss you Ben. There will always be a seat for you at the next show.—Michael Davidson, artist

I’m shocked and saddened to learn of Ben Portis’s passing. I enjoyed many conversations with Ben about art, sound and music, and will miss him, his writing and curatorial projects, the insights these brought. It’s times like these that we are reminded how small the “art world” is here in Canada, and what a blessing it is to be part of this community. Sometimes the art crowd gets a bad wrap for seeming aloof or cool, but the genuine appreciation for each other is on display when we lose one of our own. I was in St. John’s earlier this week and was touched by how the community there came together to celebrate life of and mourn the loss of Mary MacDonald, who left us far too soon.

Both Ben and Robert Linsley died in needless and tragic traffic accidents. Are we as a society in such a rush that human life is collateral damage in the need to maintain this speed? Let’s all slow down and make a point of sharing our appreciation for each other while we’re still together on this crazy journey we’ve chosen to be a part of.

A favourite memory of Ben was at Electric Eclectics, the experimental music and sound festival in Meaford. Ben showed up looking very much the curator/critic, smartly dressed in a collared shirt and blazer. However, by day two he was in shorts and T-shirt and had covered his body in grey clay that he and some others had come across at a local beach. Ben seemed truly happy and relaxed that weekend, at home in a community at the intersection of art and music—Ben’s people, and that’s how I will remember him.—Paul Walde, artist

In addition to his art smarts, which went deep while carried modestly, Ben Portis loved music and we became jazz concert buddies. Our most recent date (Bang on a Can All-Stars), memorable enough in itself, now serves as a special appreciation for a man of wide-ranging and eclectic enthusiasms, and exceptional kindness. He had so much to give and was generous in giving it. In addition to missing him as a friend, I will always regret the decades of Ben Portis projects and insights now lost. Wherever you are now, Ben, may music All-Stars give you new challenges and joy!—Vera Frenkel, artist

Spending a day with Ben in Toronto could involve a studio visit with a media artist in the morning, a contemporary dance performance at noon, a landscape painting exhibition after dinner, and a punk concert at night. At each stop, he would be welcomed and embraced by everyone. His endless network of friendships with artists and his immense appetite for culture were truly admirable. Ben’s attention was a gift, always unfolding.—Juan Ortiz-Apuy, artist

I didn’t know Ben Portis as well as many people did, but the two of us had many impromptu, invigorating conversations over the years. We talked about contemporary art, of course, but mostly about music—from Cage to Dylan—film, dance, comics and design. Though trained as a visual artist, art critic and curator, it was clear in his professional practice that Ben insisted on having his wide-ranging and eclectic intellectual and spirit inform his work. Ben’s writing and curating are now a part of my understanding of Seth, Rebecca Belmore, Denyse Thomasos, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Peggy Baker, Shary Boyle, Kent Monkman and Harun Farocki. My last conversation with him was at an AGO First Thursdays, at one of the quieter talks that we hold in the Print and Drawing Centre. That night the topic was the representation of musical thinking in painting. Ben had a particular passion for this topic, having organized an excellent exhibition at the University of Toronto Art Centre featuring work by Yves Gaucher, John Cage, Graham Coughtry, Richard Gorman, Nobua Kubota, Michael Snow, the Nihilism Spasm Band and others. That was a great show assembled by a very intelligent, curious, creative and generous human. Ben will certainly be missed, doubtless by his friends and family, but also by those of us in the community who simply admired his work.—Jim Shedden, manager of publishing at the Art Gallery of Ontario 

Ben and I knew each other for a long time; we ran into each other at openings and events just like how most people in the art world come to know one another. It wasn’t until February of last year that we finally had a chance to work together. Ben curated “Baleful,” a group exhibition at our gallery (Pari Nadimi Gallery). The result was a thoughtful exhibition of such an exemplary curator like Ben. I remember he was so proud of it that he took his mother to the gallery one day and gave her a private tour. It was such a tender moment!—Pari Nadimi, gallerist

Publishing Ben was a matter of arriving at the same place as him. He would root into a position, and could be intransigent, even ornery, about the editing process. I don’t believe this sprung from ego; he just cared more than most about getting it right. He sweated over the articulation of the granular, the nuances and ironies of a work’s feeling. He saw things deeply, through the dark, his mouth slightly open, his eyes squinting. He had that look when I’d see him at openings, too. It quickly became a smile.—Sky Goodden, editor of MOMUS

I am still quite shocked and saddened by the news of Ben’s passing. We last spoke just over a week ago when he came to visit me at my gallery. He was in good spirits that day and I’m grateful to have that as my last memory of him. Ben was as a gifted writer and storyteller. His writing was always clear and lucid, yet descriptively rich and often tender in tone. The following is just one example, an excerpt from his introduction to Shary Boyle’s 2008 monograph Otherworld Uprising:

The psyches of Boyle’s creatures are turned inside out in varying states of revelation – lonesome, pensive, soulful or ecstatic. Each was brought into existence by Boyle’s solitary vision. The kaleidoscopic splintering of that vision, however, leaves them stranded, separate from one another and somehow from their author, too.

In truth, he was one of my favourite writers and now I’m left wondering if I ever told him. Over the last few days on social media many have written fond remembrances of him and I hope that he knew that his work and presence in the art community was appreciated. A life cut way too short, he will be greatly missed.—Juliana Zalucky, gallerist