Bad-Boy Regionalist to Canadian Icon
For many, Greg Curnoe (1936–1992) was “the artist who paints bicycles”. To others, he was an ardent regionalist and, to others still, an iconoclast who successfully bucked the Canadian art establishment. He was certainly all of these things, and as James King’s new Curnoe biography, titled The Way It Is conveys, he was also much more.
Born in London, Ontario, Curnoe began his art studies at an early age. Following art classes at high school, Curnoe attended Toronto’s Ontario College of Art. His professors considered him an “original,” but he was not necessarily the best student and did not complete his final year. He eventually returned to London, convinced that artists could be committed regionalists and still have important national — even international — careers.
Curnoe’s status as an important Canadian artist was arguably cemented during a fateful studio visit by then-National Gallery of Canada curator Pierre Théberge (later NGC Director). Upon viewing Curnoe’s now-iconic The Camouflaged Piano or French Roundels (1965–1966), Théberge reserved it for the Gallery on the spot, marking the first purchase of Curnoe’s work by a national collection.
Curnoe also achieved an international reputation — his text-based works were particularly popular in Europe. His heart, however, remained in London, Ontario. Here, his studio, a former factory, had an expansive view of Victoria Hospital, the place where he was born and which he painted more than once. His painting View of Victoria Hospital, Second Series (1969–1971) is currently on view in the Gallery’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.
One of the most compelling things about James King’s book is its dissection of Curnoe’s self-made career. Although the artist occasionally supported his art with other forms of employment, he maintained that, as an artist, he needed to make his living solely and sustainably from art. As the book relates, Curnoe was nothing if not a good promoter of his work.
The book also points out that Curnoe was — despite his rebel artist persona — a surprisingly conventional man at heart. Marrying in 1965, he set about creating a suburban family. He often used his wife, Sheila, as a nude model, although she made it clear that she disliked the process. It wasn’t until feminists took issue with Curnoe’s nudes of his wife, however, that the artist took the radical step of painting himself full frontal in the nude in What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander (1983).
The book also details Curnoe’s lifelong love of comic books and the importance of text to his work. Sometimes the words made sense only to the artist; other times, they were intended as a tribute to lost friends, as in For Jack #2 (1978) and For Selwyn #2 (1979).
And what of the bicycle images so closely associated with Curnoe? An avid cyclist from childhood, Curnoe was a long-time competitive cyclist with a local club. He set a number of club records, and began looking at his bicycles as visually appealing objects.
In the 1980s, Curnoe’s work was not selling as well, and he began questioning not only his art, but his legacy. As the book suggests, it seemed as though he had lost his way. A fortuitous archaeological find on his property, however, led him to new avenues of artistic enquiry. He began studying the history of the site, Indigenous peoples of the region and land claims. According to King, this was likely the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the artist’s career. Sadly, on November 14, 1992, Curnoe was killed by a pickup truck while cycling.
As King suggests in this attractive and lavishly illustrated book, Curnoe’s artistic legacy is as complex as the man himself. Prodigiously talented and a master colourist, Curnoe positioned himself as a controversial figure. He fought with the Canadian artistic establishment and insisted on forging his own path. Along the way, he created an enduring body of work, proving that, although artists think a career can only flourish in a big city, one can indeed go home again.
The Way It Is: The Life of Greg Curnoe by James King was published by Dundurn Press in 2017. It is available from ShopNGC. To share this article, please click on the arrow in the menu bar at the top right of the page.