Harold Barling Town
1924 - 1990
CGP CPE CSGA OC OSA P11 RCA
Born in Toronto in 1924, Harold Town studied at the Western Technical School and the Ontario College of Art until 1945. Following his studies, he worked as an illustrator for Maclean’s and Mayfair before becoming immersed in the art scene. He also became a lively writer, contributing essays for catalogues, and was the coauthor of the Tom Thomson biography The Silence and the Storm. Among others, he illustrated Leonard Cohen’s book Beautiful Losers and Irving Layton’s Love Where the Nights are Long: An Anthology of Canadian Love Poems.
Town traveled to New York City and Chicago in 1948, where he saw the works of American Abstract Expressionist artists. Outspoken and charismatic, he became a seminal figure in the development of abstract art in Canada. In 1953 he joined Painters Eleven, an innovative group of abstract painters that included Jack Bush and William Ronald. Active from 1953 to 1960, they exposed the public to modernist movements such as Abstract Expressionism.
Town worked in a variety of media – painting, printmaking, assemblage and collage. Collage was said to be at the heart of his work, and David Burnett wrote that they were “a complex, multi-directional interweaving of technique, materials, experience and expression.” He rocketed to prominence in the 1950s, creating an explosion of innovative work in many different series. He achieved considerable recognition for his autographic prints, a series of monoprint works produced between 1953 and 1959. Widely appreciated nationally, their reputation spread internationally as they received awards in Yugoslavia, Chile and New York. In 1958 he was awarded what was the largest public art commission to that date in Canada – a 10 by 37 foot mural for a hydroelectric dam at Cornwall, which inaugurated the St. Lawrence Seaway. Between 1957 and 1964, he had 15 solo exhibitions – in Toronto, Montreal, Regina, Vancouver, New York and New Jersey, and his work was included in about 70 group exhibitions in Canada and internationally. He was known for his inventive imagery, expressionist brushwork and his control over his painterly images, which engaged in a push-pull of dynamic tension across his surfaces.
Town exhibited internationally extensively – he represented Canada in the 1956 and 1965 Venice Biennale, and participated in the Milan Triennial, the Bienal de São Paulo, Documenta in Kassel and the World’s Fair in Brussels. He was the recipient of a Guggenheim award in 1960, and in 1966 received an honorary doctorate from York University in Toronto as well as the Order Of Canada. His work is in the collections of London’s Tate Gallery, and the Guggenheim, Metropolitain Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Retrospectives of his work were held at the Windsor Art Gallery in 1975 and the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1986. Town passed away in 1990, remembered for his quintessential part in shaping the Toronto modern art scene of the 1950s and 1960s.