Brydon Smith: A Voice of Fire

Brydon Smith with Barbara Steinman's Becoming: Is. Was, 2006. Collection: Ann Thomas. Photo: Canada Council for the Arts / Martin Lipman

When Brydon Smith first saw Dan Flavin’s minimalist fluorescent light sculptures, he was intrigued. In fact, he didn’t quite understand them. Could a fluorescent tube be art?

To find the answer, Smith decided to live with one for a while. It was the 1960s; the tubes were still expensive—and, with three young children to support, he was broke. But, with his next paycheque, he bought a light fixture and was soon convinced that Flavin’s careful arrangements of colour, light and sculptural space were out of the ordinary.

That kind of immersion in art was typical of Smith over his 35-year career as a curator of contemporary and modern art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and National Gallery of Canada (NGC). “What I do at the Gallery is an extension of my lifestyle,” he once said to a reporter. “He was completely committed,” said his partner Ann Thomas, the NGC’s Curator of Photographs, in an interview. “Art trumped everything else in his life.” 

Smith was recently honoured with a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts for his extraordinary contribution to the visual arts in Canada—for his bold and prescient acquisitions, his landmark exhibitions, and his championing of radical, significant artists. Many who have worked with Smith say the award is long overdue.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1938, the son of an office worker at a steel mill, Brydon Smith  studied sciences at McMaster University before coming under the spell of visual art. In 1964, armed with an M.A. in Art History from the University of Toronto, he landed a job at the AGO as assistant to chief curator Jean Sutherland Boggs.

At the AGO, the young Smith proved himself fearless. He purchased Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis and Jack Bush’s Dazzle Red. When he bought Claes Oldenburg’s playful Floor Burger—a giant hamburger sculpture, made of painted cloth and stuffed with foam rubber—he provoked an onslaught of public outrage.

Smith responded in a characteristically approachable, disarming manner. In a letter to the Globe and Mail, he urged readers to “spend some time with the work, looking at it and thinking about it,” for they might gain valuable insight into life, art and themselves. “Go to the gallery now,” he entreated, “and see the Hamburger while it is still alive.” 

When Smith left the AGO for the National Gallery after three short years, Toronto art-lovers got out their handkerchiefs. Robert Fulford wrote in the Toronto Daily Star, “The resignation of Brydon Smith as curator of modern art at the Art Gallery of Ontario is the saddest news on the art scene in a long time.” In the Telegram, Barrie Hale lamented, “God only knows how we’ll replace him.”

Invited to Ottawa in 1967 by Jean Boggs, then the National Gallery’s Director, the 29-year-old Smith was appointed Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and given a budget to purchase the American art for which he had such a good eye. 

Among his early acquisitions were Andy Warhol’s Brillo Soap Pads Boxes, which had previously been labelled “merchandise” by Canadian border officials; and Jackson Pollock’s No. 29, 1950, the artist’s only work done on glass. Pollock had chosen a transparent painting surface so that his filmmaker friend Hans Namuth could capture his working process from underneath. Smith negotiated the purchase from the artist’s widow, Lee Krasner, for over a year, but had already been dreaming of it for four.  

At the same time, Boggs hired two other under-thirties, Pierre Théberge and Dennis Reid, to work in contemporary Canadian art. Within a year, the three were being described in the media as the “brash young men” for their aggressive pursuit of cutting-edge art.

Dennis Reid remembers how exciting it was to be around Smith in those days. “I was really interested in what Brydon was doing,” he said over the phone from his Toronto home. “He always took hold of things in a very authoritative way. He was just so serious about what he was doing, and that influenced us all.”

Both Reid and Ann Thomas admired how Smith worked with artists. “He was essentially a partner with them,” says Reid. Thomas recalls that once, when she was considering her possible influence on a photographer’s work, Smith advised her, “You know, it’s not your role to tell photographers what to do. Your role is to look, and listen to what they have to say.”

For curator Adam Welch, one of Smith’s lasting contributions is his involvement in the planning of the Gallery’s landmark building on Sussex Drive, which opened in 1988. Smith managed the technical and financial aspects of the project, and ensured that there would be a suitable space to showcase his most prominent acquisition, Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire. Anyone who has stood in the Abstract Expressionism gallery and contemplated Newman’s canvas, which soars up to the cathedral ceiling, will agree that Smith nailed it.

“Brydon radically transformed the visual arts in Canada,” says Welch, who, along with Sandra Dyck, Director of the Carleton University Art Gallery, nominated Smith for the Governor General’s award. “He set a high bar for curatorial practice in this country.” 

Retired now from the Gallery, Smith still attends every exhibition opening, despite health problems. He can still carry off a bowtie like the best of them—as well as his famous striped Voice of Fire suspenders.

Art is still Brydon Smith’s lifestyle, and he is forever in the National Gallery’s blood. “He has built an incredible legacy there,” says Dennis Reid. “It’s fantastic.”

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