I imagine that each person leaves a distinct hole in the universe when they die, but some of those spaces are more sprawling, more labyrinthine than others. With the news of the death of John Bentley Mays last week, one was left to contemplate that vacuum.
For 18 years the art critic of the Globe and Mail (from 1980 to 1998), Mays would go on to explore and unpack his adopted city of Toronto with a kind of epic inquisitiveness, perhaps born of his outsider status.
Emotionally, John was a refugee from the American South, and his cotton-farming family’s tangled history there, marked by death and trauma. Toronto, for him (and for his wife, Margaret Cannon, and their family), was a place of reprieve, and he never tired of parsing its alleyways and rail lines, its galleries, bookstores, concert halls and museums.
When I arrived in Toronto in the mid-’80s, we would often bump into each other—I the fledgling editor and writer at Canadian Art, he the towering éminence chauve (as in bald, not chauvinistic, he was never that)—eventually collaborating as editor and writer in my years at the helm of the magazine. John’s copy would always land with an authoritative thud (or was that just in my imagination?), his thoughts formed with a kind of gravity and resolve that made him the undisputed leader of the pack.
As the years unfolded, whether he was writing for the Globe and Mail, Canadian Art, the National Post or his own blog, the subjects of his engagement were many. A laneway house redo one day and Frank Gehry condo towers the next; sonatas by J.S. Bach or paintings by Anselm Kiefer; a Kandinsky retrospective or the apparition-like appearance of a deer in the downtown business district.
Baudelaire’s prescription for good criticism was apt also for John himself: “partial, passionate and political.” The eye had to be an I on the page, but the bedrock of erudition (and his was vast) was foundational too.
Books unfolded in due course—Emerald City: Toronto Visited (1994), In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression (1995), Power in the Blood: Land, Memory and a Southern Family (1997) and Arrivals: Stories from the History of Ontario (2002)—each one an encounter with self, with history, with community and the search for place.
Alongside his courtly manner and deep kindness, John could sometimes be fierce—too fierce, perhaps, for some—but there was a reason for it. His aspirations for art and culture were enormously high; his disappointments, when they came, seemed thunderous and deep.
But, when reading his work, one was always profoundly aware—and this is perhaps the great legacy he leaves us—that the discussion around art, architecture and urban life are at the core of civil discourse. These are fights worth having, and John was a great warrior.
There will be a mass for the dead at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Toronto on September 24 at 11 a.m.