Powers of Perception: The Legacy of Brydon Smith

Richard Long, Sandstone Spiral, 198, stone and Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970, oil on canvas

Richard Long, Sandstone Spiral, 1981, stone, 3.67 m diameter and Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970, oil on canvas, 200 x 300.7 x 4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Richard Long / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York / CARCC Ottawa 2023; © Gerhard Richter 2023 (06122023) Photo: NGC

One cannot overstate the contributions of Brydon Smith to the cultural landscape of Canada. Beginning in 1964, Smith served the visual arts through his work as curator of contemporary art and later of modern art at two of Canada’s most important art institutions – the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada. It was at the National Gallery that his daring exhibitions – and more than 100 acquisitions – helped define this country’s position at the forefront of the visual arts.

Born in 1938 in Hamilton, Ontario, Smith attended McMaster and Queen’s University to study biology and chemistry, but soon changing to the humanities. Drawn to art history, he found an important mentor in the artist and professor George Wallace. Smith continued his studies at the University of Toronto, graduating with a Masters in Art History in 1965, after having been appointed Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario since 1966) the previous year.

Arriving at the National Gallery of Canada two years later, Smith and his close ally, director Jean Sutherland Boggs, reversed the Gallery’s decades-long, unwritten ban on collecting American art. Smith's first acquisition was a group of eight of Andy Warhol's Brillo Soap Pads Boxes. Other landmark purchases soon followed, including works by Robert Morris, Jackson Pollock and James Rosenquist. Indeed, his first exhibition at the Gallery was of Rosenquist’s work in 1968. This primed audiences in Ottawa for fluorescent light, etc. by Dan Flavin the following year. It was the artist’s first-ever museum exhibition and one that instantly caused a sensation in both Canada and the United States.

Smith's most important – and controversial – acquisition remains Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire, purchased in 1989. Commissioned for the Buckminster Fuller-designed American Pavilion at Expo 67, the painting is a singular icon of Canada’s expanding international role in the postwar period. In the highly publicized debates that ensued following its purchase – including in the House of Commons – Smith and then-director Shirley Thomson engaged in open and passionate conversations with Canadians about the merits of abstraction. Such an acquisition also demanded personal courage on Smith's part, defending the work against often hostile attacks. When his daughter Rebekah, then six, asked to see the painting that everyone was talking about, she told her father that there was purple in the blue, and orange in the red. Recalling this in a later interview, Smith said that the choice of intense colours, simply presented, was "phenomenal in the best sense." The fact that a child could perceive and be moved by the work was evidence of that.

Installation view, Donald Judd, Untitled, 1964, brass and galvanized iron with blue lacquer, Untitled, 1978, clear anodized and green anodized aluminum, and Untitled, 1964, brass and wood with red enamel paint

Installation view, Donald Judd, Untitled, 1978, clear anodized and green anodized aluminum; Untitled, 1964, brass and galvanized iron with blue lacquer, 102.9 x 213.4 x 17.2 cm; and Untitled, 1964, Brass and wood with red enamel paint, 54.6 x 125.5 x 92.7 cm.  National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Donald Judd / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York / CARCC Ottawa 2023 Photo: NGC

The present installation in galleries B206 and B207 features works acquired by this prescient curator during his three-decade career at the Gallery. The selection includes works by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Richard Long, Brice Marden and Gerhard Richter. Louise Lawler’s large-scale photographs are a more recent acquisition, works she conceived during Judd’s 2020 survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Dan Flavin's the nominal three (to William of Ockham) and icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin 1933–1962) were among Smith's earliest acquisitions and emphasize the artist's "predilection for an art in light and shade."

Smith first met American minimalist artist Donald Judd when the latter agreed to contribute an essay to the 1969 Flavin exhibition catalogue. Six years later, Smith's ambitious 1975 survey of Judd’s work, conceived in close collaboration with the artist, was accompanied by a catalogue raisonné – a complete list of works by the artist at the time, which remains an essential reference to this day. In his foreword, Smith comments on Judd's "emphasis on form and how we see form is most apparent in the so-called stacks and wall progressions in which the same box-like forms are repeated vertically up the wall or horizontally along the wall. Identical forms repeated in this way give the viewer the same visual experience as seeing that form from different points of view." In Judd's Untitled (1978), made of anodized aluminum, the spacing of the green elements is determined by a mathematical progression of inverse natural numbers. Describing his response to seeing the artist's first progression in 1968 in New York, Smith wrote, “it was love at first sight, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it ... it was simple and open, yet complex ... The longer I looked the more interesting it became.”

Brice Marden,Three Deliberate Greys for Jasper Johns, 1970, oil and beeswax on canvas.

Brice Marden,Three Deliberate Greys for Jasper Johns, 1970, oil and beeswax on canvas, 183.2 x 382.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.© Estate of Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York / CARCC Ottawa 2023 Photo: NGC

Celebrated for his monochromatic paintings, Brice Marden's panels of Three Deliberate Greys from Jasper Johns result from his technique of mixing oil paint, beeswax and turpentine. Applied in several layers over a prolonged period, the paint surface is distinctly matte and waxy, with a textural richness that counteracts the initial impression of austere and monochrome opacity. His choice of technique and canvas size pays homage to artist Jasper Johns, whose work was a significant influence.

Although primarily known for his earthworks, British sculptor Richard Long also created works for galleries, including sculptures and photographs accompanied by text. Since classic earthworks cannot be exhibited because of the site-specificity – and, in some cases, impermanence – some land artists bring natural materials indoors to produce work. Sandstone Spiral is such a sculpture and is an extension of Long's outdoor works in both form and material. The spiral, having its roots in prehistory, is a recurring motif in his œuvre, reflecting his attraction to ancient sites.

Louise Lawler, Untitled (Cadmium), Untitled (Second Night), Untitled (Sfumato) and Untitled (Brass and Blue), all 2021, all dye sublimation prints on aluminum panel.

Louise Lawler, Untitled (Cadmium), Untitled (Second Night)Untitled (Sfumato) and Untitled (Brass and Blue), all 2021, all dye sublimation prints on aluminum panel. Purchased 2022. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers. Photo: NGC

Although not acquired by Smith, Louise Lawler’s four photographs are installed alongside four works by Judd in gallery B207. Smith was an important advocate for Judd’s work, and Judd continues to be an artist of major influence to this day. Since the late 1970s, Lawler has taken other artists’ work as the subject for her own, often with an eye to how they are displayed in private homes, museums, auction houses or vaults. These four photographs were taken without artificial light over two nights in January 2021 at the Museum of Modern Art. They capture the essence of that exhibition of Judd’s work – among the most ambitious overview to date – which had closed shortly after opening due to the COVID pandemic. Barely visible and partly effaced in the shadows, Judd’s works are upstaged in the images by museum infrastructure: illuminated exit signs and lights for mechanical systems.

Brydon Smith supported and defended some of the most original and challenging contemporary artists of our time. He passionately championed an inclusive, progressive and ambitious outlook that brought the world to Canada, and Canada to the world. In 1970, Smith said, “I’m interested in breaking down conventional ways of seeing, in keeping our powers of perception as open as possible; it’s only then that we have any possibility of seeing what’s there.” This installation is a tribute to Brydon Smith and our indebtedness to him for enabling us to see, to perceive and to experience the world around us more fully.


The works are on view in B206 and B207 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and 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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