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Features / July 11, 2014

Remembering Toronto’s 1960s Spadina Art Scene

Current enthusiasm for the 1960s and contiguous years, while not confined to art institutions—witness today’s pop naifs channelling much-diluted James Brown played by the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—has nevertheless been reflected in exhibitions to mixed critical response. “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967” at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2008–09, organized by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, was applauded in some quarters for its willingness to dig for meaning beneath pop’s famously resilient surface. “David Bowie is,” the popular Victoria and Albert Museum show exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2013, while questioned for having little meaning beyond its multiple surfaces, was nevertheless a huge hit. An exhibition of Amy Winehouse memorabilia has been shopped around in recent months. What’s next? Bieber instead of Biedermeier?

Of course, this tendency drives active contemporary artists bonkers. Why market the faces of ’60s culture when there are plenty of contemporary art stars waiting for their close up? “Did David Bowie even bother to come to the opening of his show?” gripes Eldon Garnet, Toronto’s articulate, multidisciplinary writer and conceptual photographer. (For the record: rocker-photographer Patti Smith did show up for “Patti Smith: Camera Solo” at the AGO.) But to Matthew Teitelbaum—whose father Mashel Teitelbaum familiarly picketed the museum in the 1980s for its indifference to artists—the Bowie show, rich with questions about the transformed individual as artwork, points to a deeper need running through museum-thinking everywhere. And that, says Teitelbaum, the AGO director and CEO, is of “trying to recapture something that happened earlier, something of the moment in the ’60s. We’re looking to skip a couple of decades, entirely bypassing the ’80s, going back even to the ’50s, when there was a combination of individual and collective sensibilities that were in balance. We’re trying to find that balance.”

In fact, Teitelbaum doesn’t have far to look. Spadina Avenue, a brisk, five-minute walk from his corner office, was the stomping ground in the 1960s for one of the most mercurial, argumentative, thoughtful, hard-drinking and seriously talented coteries of artists in Canadian art history—I mean Gordon Rayner, Graham Coughtry, Robert Markle and the rest of the gang that had second- or third-floor studios up and down Spadina Avenue and along College Street, showed mostly at the Isaacs Gallery and drank at Grossman’s Tavern (379 Spadina Avenue), the still-boisterous live-music venue wedged into an elegant, Second Empire–style home.

Canada grows art collectives like hockey squads: the Group of Seven, the Automatistes, Painters Eleven. But the Spadina crew were arguably the last cohesive—well, to a degree—coterie of Art Stars, with theatricalized practices as great painters, adept multimedia manipulators and energizing teachers. The sheer bravura of their work came to be called “the Toronto Look.” I prefer “the Toronto Swagger.” Swagger is seriously on the wane across the country these days. It’s certainly not an attitude embraced by international contemporary-art celebrities such as Edward Burtynsky, Peter Doig or Brian Jungen, who have piloted their careers as if they are stealth bombers over cloud cover. Swagger opens up space, a psychological no-go zone even when implied, not performed. Particularly when it’s implied. Coughtry’s habit of staying coach-like on the sidelines while being in control was classic under-the-radar swagger. It had a power that was unmistakable in the few parties I was at back in the day, a good many years younger than everyone, a local musician ripe for awe. And then:

The scene: We’re at Grossman’s as Rayner is handed a newspaper column mentioning Michael Snow’s Walking Woman series (1961–67), the artist’s famously one-dimensionally curvy silhouette. Rayner, looking like Terry-Thomas, the mustachioed British actor, harrumphed in Terry-Thomas fashion: “With all this serial work going on,” Rayner said, seemingly increasingly fierce, “With [Dennis] Burton and his Garterbeltmania, and Coughtry’s Two Figures, I intend—no pun intended—to stick my fingers into all kinds of other pies.” Or:

“I had a dream about you last night,” a friend and contemporary of mine told Marlene Markle one night in the Markle studio space over Gwartzman’s Art Supplies, later taken over by David Bolduc when the Markles moved to the rural Ontario country.

“And did we have fun?” said the artist’s wife and muse.

To those of us somewhat-younger players on the sidelines, Madame Markle’s response was as freighted with implication as Lauren Bacall asking Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, “You know how to whistle, don’t you…?” Worldliness was what was expected from the iconic people who had lived in New York, or would spend weeks obsessing, monk-like, on a single painting (as did John Meredith) or had John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album worn out from endless play.

“They were real heroes,” says John MacGregor, the British-born painter introduced to gallery owner Av Isaacs by Rayner and Coughtry. “They were slightly older than me and they knew things. There were a lot of drugs around, and a friend of mine started freaking out and I asked Rayner what to do. ‘Ahhh,’ said Rayner, ‘Don’t worry: it’ll pass.’” (A much-needed monograph would be Stimulants and Canadian Art: A History.) Jack Bush favoured martinis. Hallucinogens and cocaine became the chart toppers starting in the 1970s. In the period between them though, grass, wine and beer provided the highs of choice that I noticed whenever I forayed deep into Spadina territory. “How’s the baby?” was a telephone-call code between particular artist friends at the time when someone would plan to visit. If told the baby needed diapers, the visitor knew to bring some dope.

“Everywhere you went, there was the buzz of something exciting happening,” says Dennis Reid, the AGO’s former chief curator, who visited Toronto in the 1960s when he could find time away from his gig as curator of the post-Confederation Canadian art collection at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. “You’d go to the Mirvish Gallery for an opening and there’d be the artists.”

“We all knew that that particular scene was very lively then in Toronto, far more so than Montreal,” says Michel Goulet, the internationally collected Montreal sculptor. “We all thought of going to Toronto to work at the time. But we didn’t. For many of us it was because of the language.”

“The Toronto scene in the ’60s was very important,” I read in an email from British Columbia curator Ian Thom, whose “LIGHTS OUT! Canadian Painting from the 1960s” at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2012 included, among others, Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow, Harold Town and Ronald Bloore. “But it was, to my mind, not any more important than what was going on in Montreal, Vancouver and Regina, not to mention London, Ontario.”

Accepted. Also: my souped-up account doesn’t begin to address the undercurrent of questions of identity politics concerning race, gender and place of First Nations felt everywhere through the city, which was then already growing a vibrant reggae culture and was beginning to read Black Canadian writers such as Austin Clarke. And what about the artists and dealers who worked elsewhere, say in so-called Mirvish Village on Markham Street, which boasted the David Mirvish Gallery and early careers of successful gallerists such as Jane Corkin and Olga Korper?

Still, Teitelbaum will have some way to go if he intended to find his ’60s fix on Spadina. Their memory—and “they” includes the workaholic polymath Dennis Burton, the night-crawling Gershon Iskowitz and William Ronald, who played the role of the truculent older brother—is further diminished following the deaths in 2010 of Richard Gorman, painting feverishly only months before he died, and Rayner, himself working up more waterscapes from his beloved Magnetawan country in northern Ontario, shortly before he suddenly died at his Dupont Street home. Their parallel or alternate lives are forgotten, particularly their writing: Burton’s in various outlets, Markle’s “New Journalism” writing about Gordon Lightfoot and hamburgers. And will any media course today make mention of Ronald’s intelligent journalism on CBC radio and television or the later grand-poobah way he hosted a talk show on the upstart CityTV?

Using decades as points of reference—à la The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin—is generally a mug’s game, except, it seems, when it comes to the ’60s, where ’60s awareness had a newly minted feel as everyone lived it. The University of Toronto’s embrace of psychedelic culture via its “Perception ’67” festival made it clear this sure wasn’t your parents’ Toronto, which, should anyone remember, went famously gaga over Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s visit in 1960. These and further shifts in cultural tectonics left the Spadina/“Toronto Look” crew a bit retrograde/-garde. They thought the world of Willem de Kooning while the world discovered Toronto’s Marshall McLuhan. They channelled New York abstraction when New York channelled Toronto by way of Jane Jacobs and her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. They argued long into the night about whether “painting was dead” while Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1964) could be found at screenings around town. They talked jazz at the Pilot Tavern while Bob Dylan was discovering the Band not many blocks to the south down Yonge Street.

(While on the subject of jazz; the Artists’ Jazz Band, spearheaded by Coughtry as much as anyone, was taken seriously by those in it, by their wives and girlfriends who sometimes sat together at concerts; by their hardcore followers and most critics. “Above all,” notes Roald Nasgaard in his doorstop of a book, Abstract Painting in Canada, “they played jazz together.” Actually, they didn’t. They played something that Michael Snow once described for me as “music that approximates the sound of jazz. They technically couldn’t play, but the music was amazing.” Snow knows whereof he speaks, of course. He was a solid two-handed stride piano player well before he became all the many things he became, as well as an AJB member. The AJB—which also included Gerald McAdam, Jim Jones and Nobuo Kubota—was another sort of public gesture made by men who were very good at that sort of thing.)

A watershed of sorts was signalled in 1972 with Reid’s exhibition “Toronto Painting: 1953–1965” at the AGO, following the National Gallery. “What I had in mind was to show Toronto was capable of intergenerational growth,” he tells me over a bowl of translucent Chinese soup. “In most people’s minds, from a historical point of view, the prominence of Toronto in the Canadian art world ended with the Group of Seven and maybe with Painters Eleven. Montreal, after all, had this sense of ongoing tradition.” Even so, for a good many Toronto painters, the show seemingly put them in the past tense and out of the loop. Some spent longer and longer time away. Others seemed to “have gone underground,” Wieland told Barrie Hale, the former Toronto Telegram critic involved in the “Toronto Painting” show.

Occasionally their contrariness, sharpened by a few drinks, grew into something hard and hectoring and worse: mean-spirited. Rayner’s anger could be volcanic. Markle, usually sweet-tempered, blasted me one afternoon for daring to write about pop stars when jazz was going missing. “We all knew about this anger even back when they were at OCA,” says Garnet, who was on the scene at the time. “They tried to suppress their anger with alcohol, but it sometimes got away from them. It certainly caught up with Coughtry.”

Yet this is hardly any Lost Generation of Canadian art, insists Marc Mayer, whose “Jack Bush: A Retrospective” opens in November 2014 at the National Gallery, where he is director. “They might seem to be behind in one perspective, but we have our own perspective. Canadian content is very different from American content. We are truly different.”

Mayer didn’t mean Toronto, but he might have, because the city was truly different, however briefly, before the ’60s had come and gone and John Lennon appeared with the Plastic Ono Band at Varsity Stadium in 1969 as he bid goodbye to the Beatles. It wasn’t exactly a state of grace, but it wasn’t exactly anything else either.

It was like seeing an afternoon drift away at the Pilot one mid-winter afternoon, as the unwavering beam of chalky light came through the window facing Yonge Street, bringing a sharp, silvery edge to everything inside. Markle and his friend, actor Michael Sarrazin, sat side by side, each nursing a beer, each savouring his star quality in his own way, although Markle clearly had Sarrazin wonderstruck. The actor had Hollywood firmly by the fine print and was en route to film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, released in 1969.

Just then, a black silhouette popped out from the blinkering light to take shape as the most uncannily perfect woman either man had seen. With a neat twist she hefted herself onto a barstool, asking for a Stoli martini, très dry.

I watched the bartender, who had eyes only for Markle and Sarrazin as he served the martini. Watch them, he directed my gaze. Helped this way, I got it. But would they? This was a test. How long would it take them—the guy who painted all the naked women and the actor who lived with Jacqueline Bisset—to realize that Ms. Stoli was a man?

“Forever,” Markle would tell me later, “if you didn’t want to.”

This is an article from the Summer 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or the App Store until September 14.