Harold Barling Town
CGP CPE CSGA OC OSA P11 RCA
1924 - 1990
oil on canvas
signed and dated 1960 and on verso inscribed indistinctly "H. Miller, 5 Elm Apt. 11"
70 x 80 in 177.8 x 203.2 cm
Estimate: $25,000 - $30,000
Sold for: $37,250
Galerie Dresdnere, Toronto, 1985
Private Collection, Vancouver
Gerta Moray, Harold Town: Life and Work, Art Canada Institute, 2014
Harold Town cuts a distinctive, bold figure in modern art in Canada. He was prominent as an aesthetic provocateur in Toronto from the 1950s until the 1980s, and his ever-inventive abstraction is currently enjoying a positive reassessment. In 1953 Town was a founding member of the influential and accomplished group of abstract artists to which he gave the memorable name Painters Eleven. Town was successful both critically and financially in the 1950s and 1960s especially, enjoying exhibits of his work across Canada and in the USA, and twice representing Canada at the Venice Biennale (in 1956 and 1964). He was nothing less than an art star.
While it used to be difficult to separate the exuberant and controversial Town from his masterly Abstract Expressionist canvases, distance allows us a welcome opportunity to look at and appreciate more fully the visual qualities of a painting such as Untitled, from 1960. Town’s successes at this time gave him the confidence to work on such a large scale. The drama of this painting is characteristic of his approach during this period, which exemplified New York critic Harold Rosenberg’s notion of “action painting,” articulated in the 1950s when Town was becoming prominent. The painting is above all gestural, in the sense that one can see and feel Town’s painterly actions as he worked across the large surface. This surface is dominated by an intriguing central motif, a loosely drawn oval that seems to struggle against the commanding and confining corners of a frame. As if to proclaim its authority, Town asserts this outline or border with much heavier brush-strokes, especially at the corners of the central image. To further highlight the presence of geometry and the grid, at the bottom right of this framing device he enters a quickly rendered oval that is centred by the intersecting lines of a simple cross.
If the theme of this painting can thus be construed as the contest between the rigours of geometry and the freedom of gesture, two important priorities in the work follow. First, the partially confined circle in the centre is replicated outside its white frame; other circles and ovals have in effect escaped to appear in a range of colours and sizes. These satisfy Town’s urge to paint in an unfettered way, a technique that both causes and welcomes the drips and marks we see across this surface. Secondly though, the large space in which all these forms cavort is nonetheless still framed by the unforgiving format of the canvas itself.
We can sense from the theatricality of this canvas that Town’s work, however sensuous, was also thoughtful. He wrote and speculated about the issues of modern art. One facet of that inquiry was his concern with just these issues of bordering and control, which are explored vividly in Untitled. Not only is the central form partially bounded by the corners of a would-be frame, but the vibrant red triangular form that pulls us towards the bottom left of the image is itself the marker of the corner as a starting place and as a problem for painting. In 1962 Town began a series of paintings called The Tyranny of the Corner, works in which he explored the fundamental imposition of corner geometries that we see in this canvas.
We thank Mark Cheetham, Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto and author of Remembering Postmodernism: Trends in Canadian Art, 1970 - 1990, for contributing the above essay.
Estimate: $25,000 - $30,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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