National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 8, 1984-1985

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Harold Town and the Art of Collage: 
On Music Behind, 1958-59

by Denise Leclerc

Article en français

Page  1

Collage as a refined art form was not widely seen in Canada until the mid-fifties, and its appearance was due primarily to the efforts of Harold Town, whose body of work in collage soon became very impressive. The Cubist tradition can clearly be seen in his paintings at the beginning of the decade, but he interpreted Cubism along expressionist lines, setting himself the task of working out its logical implications. The single autographic prints that followed brought Town artistic recognition. These works were created by assembling a group of heterogeneous elements in a set composition before using them in the printing process. The artist then combined this procedure with that of collage, forming an interacting pair that yielded a matrix with an infinite number of combinations.

Music Behind (1958-59), which followed a series of collages inspired by the Royal Ontario Museum's vast archeological holdings, has less in common with the European tradition of pasted paper than with American works of the same period, such as the "combines" of Robert Rauschenberg and particularly Red (1955), primarily because of sections that stand out in low relief. The main objects protruding from Town's collage are the back panel of a television set made of masonite and a plastic shield for the tube. The artists were challenging the role of the support in this type of work: instead of a canvas, Rauschenberg used real objects such as a bedsheet and quilt, and Town makes the masonite back panel act as a double for the support of the same material.

Certain disturbing elements, such as the danger (only apparent, of course) of the back panel coming unstuck, or the razor blade located near the centre of the work, bring to mind the cutting operations that are basic to the production of any collage. It is revealing that the artist thought of the television component not as an object recovered from the scrap heap but as a scalp or trophy of war. The presence of a machine part in this collage stems from a very modern - in fact, Dadaist - idea and encourages reflection on the artist's fascination with the complexity and miniaturization of machinery, which may be similar to the difficulties innate in art.

Music Behind is, however, closer to the spirit of the Neo-Dadaist movement that developed at the end of the 1950s than it is to American Abstract Expressionism, which had a greater influence on the other artists of the Painters Eleven, of which Harold Town was a member. In Music Behind, there is the same propensity for mixed art forms characteristic of Neo-Dadaist works, which became more relevant in Toronto in the early 1960s. Lastly, through its sensitivity, Music Behind indicates a tension between two poles of artistic attraction. Despite the fascination that New York held for this generation of Canadian artists in terms of innovation, the European schools still exerted a strong pull when it came to more conventional values.

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