A Master Colourist: A Biography of Greg Curnoe

Ask the average Canadian gallery-goer about Greg Curnoe, and they will likely mention paintings of bicycles and a hospital. Scratch a little deeper, and they may recall a piano and locomotives, or arrays of stamped words on monochrome squares. They may even remember him as a regionalist artist. What is rarely top-of-mind, however, is Curnoe as master colourist. In Greg Curnoe: Life & Work by Judith Rodger — now available in an elegant new print version from the Art Canada Institute (ACI) — Curnoe’s innate understanding of colour and colour theory is on dazzling display.

The flat blocks of colour typical of comic books may, Rodger suggests, have been an important influence on Curnoe’s work. Comparing him to Manet and Matisse, she remarks upon his skill in creating volume through a "characteristic juxtaposition of pattern . . . and complementary colours to denote shadows."

Greg Curnoe, Self-portrait No. 15, Aug. 5/8, 1992, August 1992 Watercolour and graphite on wove paper, 30.5 x 22.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Greg Curnoe/SOCAN (2019) Photo: NGC

The broad strokes of Curnoe’s life and career trajectory are widely known — devoted regionalist, Canadian icon, generous mentor, temperamental artist, avid cyclist, untimely death. What makes this book so engaging, however, are glimpses of Curnoe’s slightly eccentric personality. In 1963, for example, he formed his own political party. The Nihilist Party of Canada had no platform, no candidates, and a membership consisting solely of Curnoe’s friends. The score for his 1965 film on the Party is kazoo music.

He was also sensitive to personal and professional criticism. His full-frontal self-portrait, What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander (1983) was, in fact, the artist’s slightly bewildered response to his wife’s complaint that she had never liked being his nude model.

Greg Curnoe, Four Dollar Ring, 1984. Pastel and graphite on wove paper, 182 x 90 cm approx. Gift of Sheila Curnoe, London, Ontario, 2012. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Greg Curnoe/SOCAN (2019) Photo: NGC

Although Rodger’s monograph has been available from ACI since 2016, having Curnoe’s work available in a book of this quality feels like a reaffirmation of his importance. When asked in an interview with NGC Magazine about the decision to publish in print, ACI Founder and Executive Director Sara Angel said, "We were getting a lot of requests for print versions. But it’s more than that. In a multi-platform world, people want to be able to research and access information online, but they also want to be able to sit down with a book." 

Greg Curnoe, Liz said ... February 5–March 29, 1991, 1991. Watercolour, ink and graphite on wove paper, 125 x 108 cm approx.  Gift of Sheila Curnoe, London, Ontario, 2012. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Greg Curnoe/SOCAN (2019) Photo: NGC

Greg Curnoe: Life & Work is one of the first print titles from ACI. With initial plans to release four titles a year, ACI is working towards building a comprehensive Canadian Art Library, featuring artists from Shuvinai Ashoona and Greg Curnoe to Helen McNicoll and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald.

"Canadians are sometimes unaware," says Angel, "of the iconic artists in their own backyard. It’s great to be able to introduce people around the world to people like Greg Curnoe, and to give them a sense of just how excellent and important they are."

In a particularly nice assessment of Curnoe and his work, Rodger remarks that, "All of Curnoe’s work was a kind of self-portrait — a painted, stamped, assembled, or written autobiography." As this new publication on Curnoe attests, it is an autobiography well worth reading.


Greg Curnoe: Life & Work by Judith Rodger is published by the Art Canada Institute and is available for online reading or in book format. Share this article and also subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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