Harold Town (1924-1990) used to be cock-of-the walk on the Toronto art scene. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Town – as painter, printmaker, sculptor, draughtsman, writer, raconteur, bon vivant, and dandy – could apparently do no wrong. Then, by 1965, the moving finger of critical adoration began to move on, leaving Town a king without a country, a flamboyant, aesthetic tyrant without the means to perpetuate a tyranny.
It was remarkable, in fact, to watch lioniza- tion turn rapidly to condescension – and worse. One-time “Maoist” art critic Barry Lord (now owner of the globally omni-directional Lord Cultural Resources), noted in 1974, for example, that, given certain of Town’s passions and proclivities – his famous refusal to be schooled by visiting American heavy-hitter art critic Clement Greenberg, for example, and his obvious pride in being an inhabitant – the cultural inheritor, as he saw it – of the Studio Building in Toronto (which had housed studios by some of the members of the Group of Seven), and his proudly identifying himself with Tom Thomson (in 1977 he published a massive book about Thomson – written with David Silcox – called The Silence and the Storm), Town had clearly demonstrated a few of the “saleable cultural-nationalist poses of an artist who is really a sell-out. He is today,” wrote Lord waspishly, “the darling of the Art Gallery of Ontario Women’s Committee and all right-thinking Rosedale matrons.”
Painting defiantly, beyond the pale of a former enthusiastic reception, Town continued, regardless, to be immensely, exhaustingly productive, generating, within his practice, waves of volcanic if widely unappreciated inventiveness.
Téhis over-compensatory defiance galvanized into being, in the early 1970s, his fine long series of Park paintings (still sadly neglected) and the brilliant Snap paintings – vast, acidically-hued canvases made by snapping a taut, paint-laden string at the painting’s surface, thus building up the image an eighth of an inch at a time (Harold once asked me what I thought of the Snap paintings, and when I told him they made me nau-
seous, he laughed for twenty minutes, assuring me that I’d just given him the highest critical accolade anyone could bestow).
I was deeply fond of Harold Town and, although he’s been dead now for twenty-five years, I still miss him and think of him often. Which made my recent visit to the Christopher Cutts Gallery’s large and very welcome exhibition, A Collection of Work from the Estate of Harold Town: Paintings, Prints & Collages from the 1950s, a destabilizing amalgam not only of historical context-setting and a re-visitation of an episode in painterly style in abstract painting of the period, but also one of acute nostalgia – tinctured with a dash of the elegiac – for the
work, the times and the man.
The Cutts Gallery allocated an entire room of this large exhibition – and rightly so – to the artist’s Single Autographic Prints. These moody, teeming, incident-filled monoprints (which is a term Town disliked) came early in his career
(from 1952-1959) and made this reputation. The SAPs (as Town often called them) won prizes at print shows in Yugoslavia and Chile, and were shown at the Venice Biennale in 1956. Both The
Museum of Modern Art and The Guggenheim Museum in New York bought them. Alfred A. Barr, founding director of MOMA called Town “one of the world’s greatest printmakers.”
Everything Town did during these years immediately became the stuff of Canadian art legend. In his splendid introduction to an exhibition at Toronto’s Moore Gallery in 1997 (Mag-
nificent Decade: The Art of Harold Town, 1955-1965), Robert Fulford noted about the SAPs that “At first he used only black ink, and a number of the black-and-white prints survive.
He worked in a low-ceilinged basement studio on St. Mary’s Street,” Fulford recalled, “wearing an old football helmet to protect his head when he absent-mindedly bumped into ceiling joists and pipes, thereby creating one of the many myths that buzzed around him in those years.”
What are the SAPS like? Given that, once he came to printing the SAPS in colour, Town would often run each print through the press a dozen or more times, their surfaces took on a strange, otherworldly, lunar sheen, a satiny or leathery look. The prints ranged from evocations of the murkily emotive, to busy visual theatres where the grabby, rather clangy, riotously non-representational elements of the picture (often involving collage and bits of superimposed drawing) would contend together in ways so complex as almost to defy methodical parsing or level-headed analysis.
In a SAP like Fun House (1955), for example, the various lengths of pink (like the sections of a dress pattern), plus that cool meander of blue down through the picture (like a river on a map), bar entry to the deep, spongy, almost unenterable depths of the background. Sometimes the mystery of the SAPS lies in Town’s having so cunningly, so demonically, barred our way to them.
Too often, the paintings of the period seem less interesting than the Single Autographic Prints. There tends to be a top-heavy calligraphic complexity to them. They bristle, for example, with the painterly hooks and loops and pigmented chicken tracks (see, for example, the nervous pricks and thorns and gestural whorls of Dead Boat Pond 1 and Dead Boat Pond 2 from 1956, or Fence Dancer from 1959-60 or The Wotan Tree from 1954-55) that were a widely accepted part of the painterly vocabulary of the time.
But where Town is too often felled by a certain fussiness in his paintings of this period, he also saved by the sheer exuberance of the best of them. Sometimes, as with a painting like To Throw a Stone at Midnight from 1959 (Town had a genius for titles), the jumpy, fiddly bits of gestural detail billow and coalesce into a massive cloud-bank of painted theatricality. Sometimes,
as in the startling red-black Swing from 1959, the nervous gestures are reduced in number and then greatly magnified – with a concomitant gain in pictorial power.
Town’s best paintings of the late 1950s – the ones inhabiting what he called his “fat paint period” (such as Caravan and Vector A, both from 1959(– trade minor incident for major compositional thrust. But two of my favourite paintings in the Cutts exhibition have it both ways: there is a smallish blue-yellow Untitled painting from 1958-59, where – in a clear anticipation of the Park paintings to come – Town gathers together an unruly jostling of “fat-paint” daubs and smears, and incarcerates them in the hot space between sheets of clear, innocent blue, gold and yellow.
And in the magnificent Atlantis (1959-60), a huge, authoritative cloud of whiteness, floating against the painting’s dark centre, is so full of internal bits of painted freneticism, it almost appears to be powered by them: it’s as if this slow juggernaut of white is kept heavily buoyant by its own internal agitation. Atlantis is an inexhaustible painting, and it shows what Town
could do when he kept his centripetal eye on the