“No jury but time": How Painters Eleven Brought Abstract Art Out of the Shadows


Photo: Courtesy Douglas & McIntyre

Tom Hodgson (1924–2006) loved nudity and had an “uncanny knack for inspiring that state.” William Ronald (1926–1998) once showed up at a retrospective of his work garbed in white, with an exotic dancer on each arm. Hortense Gordon (1889–1961) was remembered — even at her wake — for “her immense zest for life, her recognition that art is supremely important, her enjoyment of a party.”

They, along with Jack Bush (1909–1977), Oscar Cahén (1916–1956), Alexandra Luke (1901–1967), Jock Macdonald (1897–1960), Ray Mead (1921–1998), Kazuo Nakamura (1926–2002), Harold Town (1924–1990) and Walter Yarwood (1917–1996), were collectively known as Painters Eleven: an influential group of rogues and mavericks determined to leave their mark on the Canadian art scene as Abstract artists. And they did — as Iris Nowell relates in gripping detail in Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011). Written by a woman who lived with Harold Town for twenty years, Painters Eleven gives readers a front-row seat to the men and women behind one of Canada’s most important Abstract art movements.

The book is peppered with fond, intimate details on each of the artists, culled from interviews with the people who knew them best. Covering the heady early days of Painters Eleven, through the deaths of several members, Nowell explores the group’s genesis, and eventual mainstream acceptance, through the lens of eleven very different personalities.

“Something was cooking,” Jack Bush later recalled of those years. Following a studio visit by influential New York art critic Clement Greenberg — who became one of Bush’s lifelong friends — Bush found himself questioning his style and subject matter. Urged by Greenberg at various points to use more colour, change his brushstrokes and explore non-figural material, among other things, Bush quickly got over his shock, changed his style, and became one of the first Canadian Abstract artists to achieve international recognition, with works that now sell in the mid-six figures.

Regardless of what was happening on the international art scene, Abstract art remained a tough sell in post-war Toronto. Yet these nine men and two women were sure they were catching the next big wave. It was one of the more reserved members of the group, Alexandra Luke, who can be credited with giving Abstract art a pivotal push out of the shadows, helping to create Painters Eleven. The group was, in fact, formed in her living room. 

As Nowell writes of Luke: “Affronted that she and Toronto artists working in Abstraction lacked exposure, she assumed a leading role in organizing a touring show, the Canadian Abstract Exhibition.” The show opened in Toronto in 1952, then travelled throughout Ontario and into New Brunswick until March 1953. The exhibition introduced countless Canadians to Abstract art. While it is impossible to say how many gallery owners were inspired to sell Abstract works, nor how many collectors began collecting them, as Nowell observes: “There is categorically no doubt that the Canadian Abstract Exhibition played a pivotal role in the founding of Painters Eleven.”

The organizing meeting of the Painters Eleven took place in October 1953. While the fledgling group agreed they did not need or want a manifesto, they did come up with a statement that read, “There is no manifesto here for the times, there is no jury but time. By now there is little harmony in the noticeable disagreement, but there is profound regard for the consequences of our complete freedom.”

The group scored a “small but important ray of publicity” in 1953, when William Ronald was working as a window designer for Simpson’s department store in Toronto. He succeeded in convincing the store to enhance window displays for contemporary furniture with Abstract art. The windows, entitled Abstracts at Home, were unveiled in October 1953, accompanied by a full page ad in the Globe and Mail newspaper. A number of the artists whose works were featured in those windows became members of the Painters Eleven that same month.

To say Iris Nowell did her groundwork in researching this book is an understatement. She interviewed widows, ex-wives, girlfriends, siblings, children, and other family members. She spoke to curators, collectors, gallery owners, critics, writers and photographers. Nowell’s relationship with Harold Town also gave her unique insight into this precocious and talented group of artists. She went to their openings and parties when they were alive, then read personal diaries, archival material, catalogues and interviews after they had passed away. The book also boasts 279 colour photographs, chosen with care and affection for each of “the wild ones.”

It is a work that successfully conveys the excitement of a time in Canada’s art history that truly deserves a higher profile. As Denise Leclerc, former Curator of Modern Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, writes in the foreword to Nowell’s  book, “Painters Eleven revolutionized contemporary art in Toronto, bestowed full legitimacy on Abstract Expressionism in Canada and enlivened the international art scene.”

This November, a collection of Bush’s works from the 1930s through the 1970s will be featured in a new exhibition at the National Gallery. The exhibition will include paintings, drawings, and commercial illustrations exploring his artistic trajectory and fascination with the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism.

Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art by Iris Nowell is available from the National Gallery bookstore. The exhibition Jack Bush: A Retrospective is on view at the National Gallery from November 14, 2014 to February 22, 2015. A catalogue in English and French editions accompanies the exhibition. For more information, please click here.

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