Painters Eleven and The Robert McLaughlin Gallery
Jock Macdonald, Untitled (1954). Collection of The Robert McLaughlin Gallery; Gift of Mary Hare, 1990
For anyone whose interest in Painters Eleven has been piqued by the National Gallery’s Jack Bush retrospective, a trip to The Robert McLaughlin Gallery is probably in order.
Located in Oshawa, Ontario, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG) is home to Canada’s largest collection of works by Painters Eleven. A significant portion of these were donated by Painters Eleven co-founder, Alexandra Luke, and the RMG ensures that at least one work by each of the artists is on display in its Painters Eleven gallery at all times.
The group that would ultimately become Painters Eleven first presented its work in October 1953, when paintings by seven abstract artists were featured at the Simpson’s department store in Toronto. The idea of combining abstract art with home furnishings was the brainchild of artist William Ronald — then doing commercial work at Simpson’s — and his colleague, Carry Cardell. It was during a publicity shoot for the exhibition that the seven artists suggested adding others to their number, and that they become a more formal group. Their first official meeting took place at Alexandra Luke’s cottage at Thickson’s Point near Oshawa.
Alexandra Luke, Symphony (1957). Collection of The Robert McLaughlin Gallery; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. E. R. S. McLaughlin, 1972
Painters Eleven remained in existence from 1953 to 1960, promoting both the individual artists’ work and the role of abstraction in Canadian art. Canadian abstraction followed a wave of abstract art that began to appear in the United States following the Second World War. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline were seminal figures within this revolutionary movement that often looked to Surrealism for inspiration. Unlike earlier art movements in Canada — such as the Group of Seven, in which artists evolved along similar lines — the abstract expressionists of Painters Eleven did not share an artistic vision, apart from their commitment to abstract painting.
Founded in 1967 as the Oshawa Art Gallery, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery was originally located above a shop on Simcoe Street. In 1969, it was renamed The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, following the gift of 37 works from the collection of Alexandra Luke, and a generous donation towards construction of a new gallery by her husband Ewart McLaughlin. The RMG was named after Ewart’s grandfather, the well-known Canadian industrialist who founded the McLaughlin Motor Car Company that would later become part of General Motors Canada. Luke’s donation included work by all of the members of Painters Eleven and helped to establish the RMG’s unique focus on collecting and exhibiting the work of this seminal group.
Since 1967, the RMG’s collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints by members of Painters Eleven has grown to over 1,000 works. Numerous exhibitions have been organized over the years, including 1979’s Painters Eleven in Retrospect, as well as solo exhibitions of individual members. The collection also includes extensive archives containing reviews, interviews and photographs, which are available for public consultation by appointment.
Jock Macdonald, Orange Impulse (1955); Collection of The Robert McLaughlin Gallery; Donated by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1988; gift of M. F. Feheley
The RMG’s latest exhibition featuring a Painters Eleven artist is the upcoming Jock Macdonald: Evolving Form, that was organized in coordination with the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The exhibition will open at the RMG in January, 2015. This ambitious show is the first solo exhibition of Macdonald’s work in over thirty years and explores the artist’s entire career, from paintings influenced by the Group of Seven to his earliest forays into abstraction in the 1930s, to more mature works from the mid- to late 1950s. The related publication includes curatorial essays, forty of Macdonald’s letters, and his Nootka Diary. In addition, the RMG has recently launched an accompanying website: jockmacdonald.org.
When Painters Eleven held its first full exhibition in February 1954, few observers may have realized how great an impact their work would have. Some 60 years after the group was founded in Alexandra Luke’s living room, new retrospectives and publications are once again highlighting their continued influence on Canadian art. Nowhere is that legacy more evident — or more proudly displayed — than at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery.
Other celebrations of the Painters Eleven legacy include the new eBook, Harold Town: Life & Work by Gerta Moray, available now for free download from the Art Canada Institute website and the major retrospective Jack Bush, on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 22, 2015.