Vancouver Art in the Sixties
Vancouver's artists had already achieved national attention in the 1950s when B.C. Binning, Jack Shadbolt and their students dominated the small regional art world through their example and activism. The generation that emerged in the 1960s made the city's "scene with no scene" even more celebrated, and it gained not only national but international exposure. As in the previous decade, Vancouver found willing outside voices to tell it that it led Canada in progressive contemporary art. The enthusiasm of visiting curators and critics on national junkets funded by the Canada Council confirmed that Vancouver and its institutions rated at the top of the national scale. As David Silcox's candid 1983 account reveals, placing Vancouver's artists on an international stage was part of a national plan, enacted by Silcox himself and others using the resources of the Canada Council.4 Examples of this successful boosterism include the endorsements of the Toronto critic Arnold Rockman, notably his juror's statement for the 1966 BC Annual, Painting '66 "I should say without any hesitation that the best BC painting in 1966 is not merely a regional manifestation of excellence but appears to be in the vanguard of the whole country."5 In 1966 the Council announced that its largest grant to a public gallery would go to the Vancouver Art Gallery, a decision that spoke to the city's success in achieving the status of a national vanguard. The image was consolidated in that same year, when the Council sponsored the foundation of the artist-run experimental centre Intermedia.

Video screening at Intermedia, Michael de Courcy, Henry Rappaport, Al Neil, 1970

In 1967, Artforum editor Philip Leider was persuaded to write an evaluation of the city's art in which he compared the success of Vancouver to the aspirations of other cities "away from the geographical centre of their trade." In his judgement, only Los Angeles (where Artforum had recently established its headquarters) had almost succeeded. San Francisco (frequently bashed by the Clement Greenberg coterie of Artforum writers) had been the most pitiable failure, "as was witnessed in the disastrous history of the San Francisco figurative school." Washington, DC, had produced "ambitious" art, but those artists had moved to New York, leaving no legacy in Washington itself - an extreme example of a regional centre barely knowing of its own existence. Leider concluded inconclusively that Vancouver had the potential to sustain ambitious art, as it most resembled Los Angeles: "Whether Vancouver can long sustain the bright and promising artists it now is graced to have, much less nourish second and third generations, is a challenge the community must face."6 However cautiously put, Leider's analysis was seen as a vote of confidence from New York.

The staging of Vancouver art as an international contender in the 1960s revealed tensions, differences and conflicts. Some of these were felt and articulated at the time; others operated beneath contemporary awareness. On the local scale there was friction between generations - between modernists and postmodernists. Curator Alvin Balkind divined the divide in his 1966 exhibition Beyond Regionalism, in which he encapsulated the situation as the fading away of British Empire Vancouver with the regional school of modernist paintings of abstractions based on nature, and the rise of an urban sensibility plugged into an international discourse.7 Of course, arguments about what constituted important art were not merely local. The pages of Artforum bristled with debate about the direction contemporary art was taking and the direction it ought to take. For the proponents of post-painterly abstraction and for those of Minimalist and/or Pop Art, the fate of painting was the subject of the liveliest New York debates as well as a topic of intense local interest.8 At the beginning of the decade, the status of painting as the activity of art was hardly in doubt. By mid-decade, despite its continuing central role in the modernist argument, painting was being eclipsed by process, conceptualism and involvement with new media. By the end of the decade, painting appeared to be over. The Bomb had exploded, as Jack Burnham wrote: "Art that renaissance product, no longer exists; only the art world and its burn off are left."9

An essay like this, focused on painting, is a priori arbitrary. Painting in the sixties can only be isolated as a practice in exceptional circumstances. The break between one artistic (and cultural) episteme and another that took place in the sixties was dramatic in the field of painting, if such a field - uncontaminated by other practices - could even be said to exist. Perhaps it was the introduction of acrylic paint that led to the fascination with plexiglass and plastic as media. As an example of the increasing vagueness of the category, Iain Baxter's Bagged Landscape, inflatable plastic constructions, were regularly classified as paintings. The attrition rate for painters was high, especially in Vancouver, where the scene's volatility must have had something to do with the very "remoteness" and small scale of its "scene with no scene." That is, the lack of a non-institutional market for contemporary Canadian art accelerated the collapse of painting, which was simply becoming less and less viable. It became especially impractical to produce the large-scale canvases that signaled ambition, as there was never a market for them. Those who painted struggled with the very idea of painting, which was called into question by an increasingly official "avant-garde." Many painters whose debuts as young people in mid-decade had seemed to promise such brilliance stopped painting before the decade was out. Some of them left art altogether. Even today, despite persistent attention to the decade that marks the divide between the modern and the postmodern, interest in the painting production of the sixties remains dormant.

But if the idea of painting as an autonomous activity and the discourse of high art, which barely survived the decade, were being negated, something else was being advanced. This something else - a complex of phenomena - is most readily apparent around the idea of communication and its ideological nimbus.

First, "communication" as the desire to transmit something, and thus to engage subject matter, bears the brunt of the Greenberg/Fried-led assault on Minimalism, Pop Art and Duchampism. The mid-sixties was a time of fervent liberal nationalism in Canada, culminating in the centennial of Confederation in 1967 and the International and Universal Exposition (Expo) in Montréal in 1967. From the Canadian point of view, the hostility of New York modernists to communication in art and especially in painting was also read as anti-Canadian, adding to the growing suspicion and resentment of the hegemony of the New York art market - then a mere inkling of the behemoth it is today. Furthermore, from a Canadian perspective, the language of much America criticism must have appeared aggressive and chauvinistic, a high cultural form of imperialism in sync with the terror being unleashed in Southeast Asia. Thus Minimalism, Pop Art and Duchampism arrive in Canada.

Gordon Payne, Drain #1, 1969

Second, in the 1960s, communications media and technology were seen as a national value - something quintessentially Canadian, given their importance in providing Canadians with an image of the country.10 Within this national multimedia mix, the integrity of painting or of the art object continually dissipated into environment, process and system. And Vancouver, defined as "remote," was imagined most vividly in terms of these ideologies of communication.

Third, in the local record it is communication (as the exploration of new media, the attempt to enact Marshall McLuhan's ideas in art and the introduction of new subject matter) that readily identifies what is new and distinguishes it from what is old.

Helen Goodwin, et. al., The Medium is the Message, 1965

Helen Goodwin, et. al., The Medium is the Message, 1965

McLuhan espoused the idea of the sensorium as the work of art: "if politics is the art of the possible, its scope must now, in the electronic age, include the shaping and programming of the entire sensory environment as a luminous work of art."11 One could add much more to the mix that stimulated the sixties crisis in painting. Besides the darkness of the war in Vietnam and the erosion of the regard for authority that it engendered, the role of LSD and other psychotropic drugs as a utopian experiment played a special role in Vancouver's scene with no scene.12

It is through the lens of communication, as the antithesis of modernist painting (or Art with a capital A), that one can see how profoundly the practice of painting was transformed in the sixties, tending toward communicability (and reproducibility) through an expanding sensorium while increasingly courting a kind of negation or non-communicability that was the "ruin" of the autonomous work of art.

Given the currency of multimedia and communication theory in the sixties, it is ironic that the catalytic figure for the generation of young Vancouver painters who emerged in the mid-sixties was to a considerable degree a New York modernist.13

Video screening at Intermedia, Michael de Courcy, Al Neil, Roy Kiyooka, 1970

Roy Kiyooka came to teach at the Vancouver School of Art in 1960, preceded by two of his Regina students, Brian Fisher and Claude Breeze. Kiyooka's role in instigating a change in local painting is often portrayed as a medium for the ideas of Barnett Newman, whom he had met and workshopped with at Emma Lake in 1957.

But accounts of Kiyooka's pedagogy reveal that he was effective because his approach was holistic, not because he promoted a party line. It is true that Kiyooka took seriously issues of scale and flatness and introduced the post-painterly vocabulary of "hard-edge" into the local practice of painting. He himself credited the source of his hard-edge ideas as his Emma Lake encounters with Newman and Will Barnet. Kiyooka's formative years as an abstract painter took place in Regina, and he knew the Montréal painters, who had been painting hard-edge since the fifties.14 And, like everyone else, he would have been aware of the work of Frank Stella. Kiyooka's arrival in Vancouver augured the emergence of a new generation, many of whom had been his students, protégés and friends (distinctions he did not often make). It also signaled the end of the dominant regionalism of the Vancouver art scene. Kiyooka was an internationalist whose Canadian artistic world was rooted in Regina, Montréal and Vancouver.

Roy Kiyooka, Convergence (The Bridge), 1965

He began to move into hard-edge around 1960-61, when simple geometric elements superimposed themselves on the painterly field that had been established in his 1959 Hoarfrost series. Kiyooka's hard-edge paintings were imbued with his somewhat troubled awareness of himself as culturally and racially alien to the Canadian mainstream. Besides pushing Vancouver painting toward the hard edges of New York and Montréal, in the local context the paintings contributed to the idea that Vancouver looks to Asia as well as to Europe. They were self-consciously "eastern," deploying a sense of balance and a vocabulary of shapes, notably a reiterated oval that invoked a hybrid space between east and west. The oval shape does evoke the arches of the Granville Street Bridge, as Kiyooka suggested, but the ovals -- or circles, as in the Magic Ring series of 1965 --

Roy Kiyooka, Small Magic Ring, 1965

also evoke mandalas and tantric geometry. Some of Kiyooka's students took up his vocabulary, inventing their own "researches into the harmony of values."15 All of the students learned to work in series. Perhaps more surprisingly, by the mid-sixties, older artists such as Gordon Smith, B.C. Binning and Takao Tanabe moved to reinvent themselves in mid-career as hard-edge abstractionists, working in series.16 Kiyooka was the leading hard-edge theorist, and his importance to Vancouver painting in the sixties is hard to overstate. In 1965, just as the new generation was taking centre stage, he left Vancouver for Montréal, but even then his involvement with Vancouver remained crucial. He was instrumental in the choice of Yves Gaucher as a juror for the controversial 1967 BC Annual (see below). But one imagines that, had Kiyooka lived in Vancouver during 1966-70, he would have been the very epicentre of the "scene with no scene." Perhaps it was his very abdication from the central role on the local stage that made a space for his former students to come to the fore.

In Kiyooka's absence, the most watched of the young hard-edge painters in the city were Bodo Pfeifer and Brian Fisher. Pfeifer had studied in Montréal and his native Germany before studying at the Vancouver School of Art with Roy Kiyooka and Jack Shadbolt. By the time of Canada 101, an exhibition of Canadian art held at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1968, the Musée des Beaux Arts had purchased one of his paintings.17

Bodo Pfeiffer, Untitled, n/d

Pfeifer's ideas, as reported in Vancouver Life on the eve of his 1967 exhibition at the Douglas Gallery, included the disposability of art - a widespread notion that was the ironic embrace of the increasing commodification of art. "I am opposed to the idea of precious paintings. Art should be lived with. Only a few pieces will survive the ages, even though they may be quite exciting when they are new. Let's just keep the best pieces for reference and chuck the rest."18 Within ten years of stating this, Pfeifer himself turned his back on painting in favour of gardening. His hard-edge paintings, celebrated at the time, have made appearances in recent exhibitions about the sixties, but less is known of his other ideas, such as paintings consisting of optional modules, a notion taken up by B.C. Binning in 1970. Most remarkably, as Pfeifer's painting vocabulary became more "minimal," his notions of painting headed toward the psychedelic sensorium: "He would like," Eileen Johnson concluded, "to build a computer that would change sounds to colours, then to confound the senses with a symphony in full colour."19 Toward that goal he began to produce sculpture incorporating light. This other drive, toward art as sensorial environment, art as life, art as communication, animated every painter of the sixties. The contradiction between this tendency and the high-art position that held painting, especially abstract painting, as autonomous and non-referential, inhabited most artistic practices of the day. Pfeifer, for example, on the one hand a proponent of ephemerality, integration into the environment and electronic media, could still be convinced that a painting, especially an abstract painting, was a self-sufficient creation requiring no interpretation or understanding: "Most Vancouver painters tickle the brain rather than the eye but my paintings are purely visual. Any literary association takes away from the concept of the painting."

Another Regina-Vancouver School of Art-Kiyooka-schooled hard-edge painter was Brian Fisher, who had achieved national recognition by 1967 at age twenty-eight, when he received a mural commission for Dorval airport in Montréal. His paintings, like those of Kiyooka, often used the mandala portal of an oval.

Brian Fisher, Passage, 1966

Brian Fisher, Mandala, 1968

Like Pfeifer's paintings they created a spatial illusion through folding, replicating and reflecting--a kaleidoscopic effect that again referred to the sensorium--and they presage the effect of rapidly receding space as cipher for the vastness of interstellar space that became a cinematic cliché after Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969). Using a psychedelic language, Fisher once told the critic Joan Lowndes that his ideal viewer would concentrate on one of his paintings for half an hour: "After this tuning up of awareness everything you look at will suddenly acquire heightened definition and intensity of colour."20 His arrays of perspectival lines vanishing into infinity and criss-crossed with verticals to create moiré patterns, allied him with Op Art, an association he was eager to discourage, for his impeccable paintings also harboured contradictions. Their illusionism placed them in opposition to Greenberg's dogma of abstract art as uncommunicative and anti-illusionist. Fisher saw his work in terms of both "process" and icon. In his own words, his paintings were "visual analogies, signposts to a mental process which also feels and generates the sensibilities that created them."21 Sometime in the early seventies, Fisher came to a dead end with the research that had made him famous. In 1974 he moved away from hard-edge abstraction to working with sponged ink on paper, having introduced chance into his work.

According to Joan Lowndes, Pop Art, or a variant thereof, made its first appearance in local practice in 1963, with the two-person debut exhibition of the work of Gary Lee-Nova and Claude Breeze.22

Gary Lee-Nova, Menthol Filter Kings, 1967

Claude Breeze, Transmission Difficulties: The Dignitaries, 1968

Both artists studied with Audrey Capel-Doray who, with her husband Victor Doray, were actively engaged in experimenting with McLuhanesque ideas of collage, concrete poetry and communicability.

Audrey Capel Doray, Icon, 1966

Both painters used hard-edge elements in their canvases, but they both turned to popular mass media for subject matter. American Pop Art had made an early appearance in Vancouver when Alvin Balkind showed works from Virginia and Bagley Wright's collection of Pop artists in January 1964.23 Neither Lee-Nova's nor Breeze's work referred to any of the artists in the Wright collection. Breeze's 1963 work was said to be derived from British Pop, specifically Bacon and Kitjai. Such easily read references contributed to the generalization promoted by Philip Leider, among others, that artistically Vancouver was more connected to California and London than to New York (he would have been ignorant of Regina and Montréal artists).

Presented under the sponsorship of one of the city's most respected senior artists, Jack Shadbolt, Claude Breeze's 1964 Lovers in a Landscape exhibition (Breeze was twenty-six) launched one of the most meteoric careers of the sixties.24 Figurative, sexual and violent, the Lovers paintings are a polyglot of acid colour, hard-edge elements and animated brushwork. Subsequent series explored the imagery of war on television, and futuristic images of man mutated by technology. Breeze's paintings mocked authority and assaulted the eye.

Claude Breeze, Lovers in a Landscape, #14 The Matriarch, 1964 - 65

Claude Breeze, Man Painting #12, 1966

Responsive to the growing image universe, especially the one on television that was bringing the Vietnam War into North American homes, Breeze's paintings appropriated a mixture of techniques and styles. His Sunday Afternoon (from an Old American Photograph), 1966, a painting based on a photograph of the lynching of two black men in the American south, was reproduced as the colour centrefold for the first issue of the experimental artscanada (1967), which also contained a record of an interview with Breeze by Barry Lord, the new editor. Lord, who had been an assistant curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, was working toward the thesis he would expound in his book The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People's Art (1974).25 Lord saw Breeze's work as polemical, political and anti-American, and he positioned it with the work of other Canadian figurative artists of the sixties, including John Boyle and Greg Curnoe. Arguing that the problem of the figure in the landscape was key to a national people's art--a "sense of who we are, where we are"--and that the landscape of British Columbia was a particularly brutal anti-pastoral confrontation of wilderness and capital, Lord claimed that Breeze's ability to integrate figure and landscape signaled a particular and recent progression in nationalist consciousness.26It is fascinating that the budding Greenberg acolyte Terry Fenton, who curated a two-person exhibition of Brian Fisher and Claude Breeze for the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in 1967 (the friends were Regina artists from this point of view), saw them both as "conceptual" painters, "as are the majority of artists on the West Coast--they have a tendency to concentrate their creative development on their subject matter, their imagery." He put it softly, though he considered this a flaw that would cause them to burn out.

Despite his involvement in performance (and despite Fenton's opinion), Breeze was, of all the sixties Vancouver painters, most committed to the idea of a practice of painting. He was rash enough to condemn the incipient conceptualism of the early seventies: "Mostly so-called conceptualists who move ahead by moving behind. Most of them are filled with garbage from American art magazines." Indeed.

Claude Breeze, The Homeviewer, 1967

By 1971, the year this remark was printed in The Province, "conceptualism"--whose "move behind" was partly to the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century--was so au courant that the "logo" for Richard Simmins' art column on Breeze's ten-year retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery, "Down with Social Depravity!" was a Supremacist black circle crossed diagonally by a white bar.27

What Breeze did share with some of the hard-edge painters was a hot palette of fully saturated colour. Some painters even introduced day-glo, fluorescent and metallic paint, most notably Joan Balzar, who introduced neon elements in her large-scale optical works in 1967.

Joan Balzar, Fusion, 1967-1968

The sixties was a decade of change in pigment and pigment-bearing media for easel painters, who almost to a person shifted from oil to acrylic paint. Acrylic has distinct properties and introduces new pigments. It does not hold the ridges of thick impasto the way oil does. The surface tends to be more matte, so acrylic was the ideal medium for hard-edge paintings in which the paint is applied with a roller. The flat, low-sheen surface was easy to reproduce. The retinal overload that hard-edge painting (as Op) aimed to induce was related to the multimedia presentations of music, performance and projected images that began as art events but established a style for rock concerts that persisted for decades. The psychedelic and the McLuhanesque met in a series of multimedia spectacles, of which the three-evening Trips Festival (1966) with its fifty-plus projectors was the grandest realization. The festival and its sensorium, meant to induce altered consciousness through sensory overload, was the work of the filmmaker Sam Perry, who had studied Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet in the late 1950s. The local history of these events, largely undocumented, began at the University of British Columbia with David Orcutt's experiments, culminating in an environment staged for the 1965 Festival of Contemporary Arts (Orcutt, Iain Baxter, Sam Perry, et al.) and included the Sound (later Motion) Gallery (1965-67), the Intermedia Nights at the Vancouver Art Gallery (1967-69) and the hilarious anarchic multimedia environment organized for a Liberal Party fundraiser with Pierre Trudeau, organized by Intermedia (1971).28 One of Breeze's best paintings from the sixties, Epitaph for Sam Perry (1966), was painted shortly after Perry's suicide and re-creates in acrylic paint the multilayered, kaleidoscopic imagery of the sensorium in acid hues.

One of the artists most dedicated to the psychedelic movement was Gary Lee-Nova. As Philip Leider observed, Lee-Nova's paintings owed much to LA's artist of militarized psychedelic biker ethos, Billy Al Bengston.

Gary Lee-Nova, Psychedelic Lollipop, c.1966-67

Importantly, Leider took care to note that Lee-Nova had only seen Bengston's work in reproduction, thus hadn't experienced their most critical aspect, the "burnished, lacquered surfaces, which were among the first post-abstract expressionist paintings to consciously attend the elimination of all effects of atmospheric, illusionistic space."29

Gary Lee-Nova, Dreadnaught, 1966

Lee-Nova's works were openly and polemically psychedelic. His 1967 spray-painted galvanized iron with neon sculpture, Hash Cannon with 14 Joints, was a hallucinatory abstract sculpture, certainly a parody of both the modernism of Caro and the Minimalism of Judd and Flavin. Lee-Nova's restlessness with painting was apparent, and by 1966 his attention was already more occupied by film, collaboration and environment. He also promoted the work of the American expatriate Jack Wise, who had studied mandala painting with Tibetan artists in India. His miniature, calligraphic worlds within worlds owed something to Mark Tobey, whom Wise had met. But they were more given over to literal renditions of psychedelic cosmology, itself based partly in Tibetan Buddhism. Wise's drawing for the 1966 Trips Festival is typical of his psychedelic Op style--the intricate organic patterning was meant to induce a retinal overload. Lee-Nova had also been involved with Sam Perry, whose films Lee-Nova's are said to resemble (Perry's are lost). The young Judy Williams was influenced by Wise and also practiced an exquisite psychedelic calligraphy that mingled figuration and script often organized as a mandala.

Judy Williams, The Moss is Dreaming, 1966

Paintings like Payne's Grey - A Horoscope (1965) and The Moss Are Dreaming (1966) were executed while on LSD. Gordon Payne (for whom Payne's Grey was painted) experimented with psychedelic, calligraphic mandalas in the mid-1960s, as in his rapturously coloured One (1965). There is a relationship between these cosmogenic compositions and the concrete poetry calligraphy, exemplified by the work of bill bissett, Judy Copithorne and Carole Itter.

bill bissett, balloon dream, 1964

From the vantage point of some forty-five years on, one can also see that the calligraphic tangle has also some relation to the much more ordered patterns of Fisher, Kiyooka and Balzar. Both are allegories of communication circuitry networks and the possibilities of activating the sensorium.

Michael Morris (another one-time Kiyooka student) returned from his studies at the Slade in 1965, bringing with him the gouaches he had executed in London as well as his enthusiasm for the new avant-gardes of destructionism (Ralph Ortiz), Actionism and Fluxus. Morris developed the gouaches into canvases throughout the next few years and earned a reputation as one of Canada's most promising artists. Critical response to his work focused on his paintings, although these paintings, following the major arguments of the day, tended toward sculpture.

Michael Morris, Untitled (London Series), 1966

Morris's hard-edge compositions were most often hand-applied without benefit of masking tape; the hand-held brush ironically undercut the notion that such compositions were autonomous, self-referential and impersonal, qualities that had been seen as critical values of the hard-edge approach. Furthermore, Morris's designs call forth a skein of references from Babylonian architecture via Art Deco, Busby Berkeley musicals and Hollywood glamour. Morris's sense of referentiality was conceptual, that is the referential structure informing the painting as a work of art. He worked with grey scales and colour spectrums partly as an homage to film, but more particularly to call forth the question of reproducibility; his scales refer to those used by photographers when they are photographing paintings for reproduction. This region of approximation, in which the "reproduction" can never reproduce the original, but in which the "original" is intended for reproduction, animated Pop Art and to some extent the entirety of painting during the sixties. It was especially acute in remote Vancouver, but only Morris attended to it as a subject for painting.

In 1968, Morris began his last series on canvas (later, in the eighties, he returned to painting while living in Berlin). These "Letter" paintings incorporated mirrors, thus they became environmental works. In the title of the series it is clear that Morris's involvement in the correspondence network was already deepening. It was a reproduction of his Problem of Nothing (1966) in Artforum--a painting thereby returned to its source--that had led to the contact between Michael Morris and Ray Johnson.

Michael Morris, Problem of Nothing, 1966

The title appealed to Johnson, who convened regular fictional meetings he called Nothings. The title, of course, crystallized the negation that high art was trying to hang on to. The relationship between Johnson and Morris led to the foundation of Image Bank (1967-70), a collaboration that included Vincent Trasov and--for the first years, in a dazzling way--Gary Lee-Nova. Image Bank was the main Vancouver terminal of a mail artwork that operated as a staging for individual works and the monumental archiving of popular, historical and sacred imagery according to arbitrary, poetic and sociological categories. It was, in a way, the first intimation of the type of communications universe that was opening up with telecommunications (faxes), jet travel, colour television and computers--such as they were in the 1960s. Image Bank launched Colour Bar Research in 1967 and carried on the research until 1971.

Michael Morris, Screen Test, 1967

Micheal Morris, 24 Letter Drawings, 1969

Colour Bar Research was a multimedia modular environmental series of paintings, photographs, objects and films. The most ambitious of the projects was the production of hundreds of painted wooden colour bars in three series: the colours of the spectrum (rainbow), the grey scale and the individual colours of the spectrum with gradated saturation. These were then placed in natural and/or gallery environments, and photographed and filmed. Eric Metcalfe and Kate Craig's Leopard Reality Triangles (1971) is another such environmental "painting," modeled on the Colour Bar Research and demonstrating how fully "authorship" was distributed into collaboration and viewer-participant interaction. It can be argued that the colour bar projects sum up the issues that beset painting in the sixties, providing everything required by the demands of communication and reproducibility but finally rendering painting as concept.

Thus, the idea of painting became increasingly expansive and difficult to contain. Emblematic of this shift was the demise, just about everywhere, of a system of annual regional painting (and sculpture) salons in the sixties. These had been crucial to the exhibition culture of the time. Prizes won in Montréal, Toronto and Seattle - and, of course, Vancouver - annuals were important career markers. The last BC Annual was held in 1968. On that occasion, everything submitted was hung "salon style." But the nail in the coffin had been pounded in during the previous year, 1967, with the controversy surrounding the 37th BC Annual.

The juror, Montréal artist Yves Gaucher, was underwhelmed by the 400 entries he was asked to consider, selecting but ten works.30 A scandal ensued. Artists protested the small selection, the commitment to avant-gardism that the selection represented, and some rule bending.31

Yves Gaucher in his Studio, 1969

Gaucher was scheduled to take part in a discussion with his Vancouver host, Roy Kiyooka, but this did not take place. Gaucher's judgement--seemingly so at odds with the enthusiasm radiated by the 1966 juror, Arnold Rockman, when he chose Painting '66, the 1966 edition of the BC Annual--was perhaps a sign that sixties painting in Vancouver was not on such firm ground as the scene with no scene had hoped.

Indeed, a younger generation was already experimenting with paintings that more lucidly entered the realm of negation, non-communication and concept. Ian Wallace's Remote (1967) was a hard-edge painting as a ruin of its own process.

Ian Wallace, Remote, 1969

A grey on grey grid, Remote left unrepaired the bits of paint pulled off with the masking tape. Other Wallace paintings from the late sixties were almost monochromatic, usually dark and site-specific. Tom Burrows experimented with monochromes and new materials, as did Glenn Toppings. Jeff Wall's monochromes and site-specific paintings (a square of clear varathane on a white wall) also took their cues from artists such as Carl Andre, Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner. But most of these artists did not pursue painting for long, or pursued it by means of photography. Wallace and Burrows returned to painting in the 1980s.

In fact, it was left to Gaucher himself to deliver to Vancouver a resolution of the tendencies to communication theory and the necessity to negate. In December 1967, weeks after he had juried the 1967 annual, Gaucher began the first of what became known as his Grey on Grey paintings, which received their first exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1969. These large canvases had their origin in earlier prints and paintings that "cited" the twelve-tone music of Anton Webern and classical Indian ragas (the anthem music of altered consciousness). Uninflected fields of grey applied with a roller were punctuated by narrow grey horizontals of varying length that Gaucher called "signals." Having mixed thirty shades of grey graduated between black and white, Gaucher worked with the ten shades in the middle range. His sublime canvases were aimed beyond the New York School as a kind of summation. Unlike Vancouver paintings, which, as Philip Leider had pointed out, drew sustenance from the world of reproduced images, the narrative provided by Gaucher for the origins of his Grey on Grey includes real-time encounters in major centres. A Webern concert in Paris in 1962 and the MoMA Rothko retrospective, also in 1962, were authentic encounters leading to the production of paintings that were fundamentally irreproducible.32 Yet, just as the work of Morris and Lee-Nova had done, Gaucher's paintings referenced the grey scale marshaled by photography. His paintings could be said to be abstractions (and omens) of the coming photographic regime. In them, one found the negation one expected of serious autonomous art, and even the injunction to approach the condition of music. But to a contemporary eye they also invoked the sensorium and communication in the abstract. As Doris Shadbolt wrote of them: "The observer who allows himself to be tuned in has the impression of experiencing them intra-sensorily as sound and motion as well as sight. . . The signals are read as being fixed in the ground matrix but also seen metaphorically: tokens of some high-frequency communication and in turn part of a constellation of that energy which rests, hovers, moves. . ."33

For Gaucher, the guiding metaphor of the Grey on Grey paintings was silence. And even as they vied for a place of succession in the New York firmament, the artist himself allowed that they were "not paintings anymore but environment conditions."34 Of course, Gaucher meant that the paintings created their own environment, but how perfectly they matched the environment in which they were first shown and in which they must have been first conceived.



"Transmission Difficulties: Vancouver Painting in the 1960s" by Scott Watson. Originally published in Paint: A Psychedelic Primer (published in conjunction with the _PAINT_ exhibition, Vancouver Art Gallery, curated by Neil Campbell, September 20, 2006 - February 25, 2007). Edited by Monika Szewczyk (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2006), pp. 14-27.


1. "Present Day Styles and Ready-Made Criticism: In Which the Formal Contribution of Pop Art is Found to Be Minimal," Artforum, Vol. 4 (December 1966): 39.
2. Meyer Schapiro, "The Liberating Quality of the Avant-garde," Art News, Vol. 56, No.4 (Summer 1967).
3. Yves Gaucher (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1969).
4. David P. Silcox, "An Outside View," Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931-1983(Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983): 153-159.
5. Catalogue for the Vancouver Art Gallery, Painting '66: Vancouver Centennial Award Exhibition (November 30, 1966-January 8,1967). The 1966 BC Annual focused on painting and another Centennial Committee-sponsored project, Sculpture '67, was to focus on sculpture. For the purposes of this exhibition, the definition of "painting" was extended far enough to include Iain Baxter's Bagged Landscape (1966), which shared the purchase award with Michael Morris's emblematic The Problem of Nothing (1966), and John Edward Taylor's Figure No. 1. Joan Lowndes called Rockman "that prophet of the West Coast" in "Spectrum '68," artscanada, Vol. 25, No.4 (October- November 1968): 122-23.
6. Philip Leider, "Vancouver: Scene with No Scene," artscanada, Vol. 29, Nos. 6-7 (June-July, 1967): 109-10. Leider's article, so important in establishing credibility for the Vancouver scene, made a stab at characterizing the city's art. Defining a nexus of West Coast sensibility that inevitably must have its capital in California (a state that then as now had roughly the same population as the whole of Canada), Leider invoked the notion of parody: "...the over-riding, enriching quality of parody which one finds everywhere in Vancouver painting and sculpture." Theorizing parody as a dialectical position that both acknowledged and criticized the object of parody, Leider argued that a new avant-garde "almost always announces itself by extensive parody of existing forms, and then by the creation of new ones." The notion of parody was refined through discussions of the work of Iain Baxter, Gary Lee-Nova, Glenn Lewis and Michael Morris, but could not include the unparodic paintings of Brian Fisher and Reg Holmes. While Leider meant the term "parody" to carry the usual associations of humour and mockery, he also meant his reader to see parody as a strategy of mediation between the course of art history, centred at this time in New York, and a region, a mediation sited in reproductions and texts rather than in objects. Thus parody involved a play of reproductions, imitations, communication and negation.
7. Beyond Regionalism, University of British Columbia, Fine Arts Gallery, 1966.
8. In the 1960s, the writers around the New York critic Clement Greenberg, including Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss, responded negatively to the advent of postmodern art, arguing that artists like Larry Poons, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler furthered the dialectical path of western art. Astonishingly, they insisted that Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol had the wrong idea (and so did Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson and just about everyone else). The pathos of the Greenberg circle in its later years, its pained and perhaps corrupt promotion of high modernist kitsch, is an intellectual drama that oversaw the wreckage of modernist values as marketable values. Surely the sinking of this bastion of absolute taste in matters of painting unsettled painting itself, even on Vancouver's shores. But, as John O'Brian has so well documented for us, Greenbergianism took refuge status in Canada, homing in on the Edmonton Art Gallery. The way in which these expired New York forms took on an afterlife in a northern Canadian city is as yet an untold story.
9. Jack Burnham, "Les Levine: Business as Usual," Artforum, Vol. 8, No.8 (April 1970).
10. This was an emphasis of the 1951 Massey-Levesque Report on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences.
11. Cited in Richard Cavell's helpful book McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002): 103. From McLuhan's "Culture and Technology," in Jeff Berner, ed., Astronauts of Inner Space: An International Collection of Avant-Garde Activity (San Francisco: Stolen Paper Review Editions, 1966). The earliest local artist to attempt to make McLuhanesque paintings was Audrey Capel-Doray, whose last series on canvas (1965), before she turned to sound, motion and light, was about the transformation of typographic man into electronic man. Capel-Doray went on to produce some of the most emblematic work of the period involving light, sound and motion before returning to painting in the seventies.
12. I have elsewhere begun to account for the history of LSD as it pertains to Vancouver's art world in the sixties. See "Urban Renewal: Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos and Squats - Vancouver Art in the Sixties," in Intertidal: Vancouver Art and Artists (Antwerp: Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, 2005): 30-49. Suffice it to note here that Vancouver and Saskatchewan are eventful locations in any history of the drug and its discourses.
13. According to David Silcox, Kiyooka was "the only Vancouverite who has gone 'New York'," in "Canadian Art in the Sixties," Canadian Art, No. 100 (January 1966): 56.
14. John O'Brian convincingly argues for the modernist ambition of Kiyooka's 1959-60 Hoarfrost Series. See "White Paint, Hoarfrost and the Cold Shoulder of Neglect," in Intersections: Interventions exhibition catalogue (Vancouver: Artspeak and Or Galleries, 1991).
15. The Montréal critic Fernande Saint-Martin characterized Kiyooka's paintings as such in "Lettre de Montréal," Art International, Vol. 9, Nos. 9-10 (December 1965): 33. .
16. Established modernist abstractionists, notably Gordon Smith and Takao Tanabe, turned to hard-edge in the sixties. Both of these older artists saw hard-edge as a viaduct to sculpture and environmental projects. Jack Shadbolt dabbled briefly with hard-edge, largely influenced by his hope to design Canada's new flag.
17. Kiyooka and Pfeifer's Montréal connections allowed some comparison between the Newman/ Stella-inspired hard-edge and the rather different practices of artists such as Guido Molinari, whose hard-edge reductions, in fact, precede those of Frank Stella by years but, of course, would have been all but unknown to the Americans. As far as one can tell, however, Pfeifer was not really interested in Montréal phenomenology or its roots in the negation of expression. Pfeifer's paintings - big, bold, with dynamic compositions - are also apostate from, say, the contemporaneous band paintings of Greenberg-sanctioned Jack Bush.
18. The artist quoted in Eileen Johnson, "Bodo the Bold," Vancouver Lift (September 1967): 38.
19. Idem.
20. Joan Lowndes, "Paint Still the Medium," The Province (January 23,1970). Lowndes is paraphrasing.
21. Idem.
22. Joan Lowndes, "Gary Lee-Nova - His Great Promise Confirmed," The Province (November 6, 1967). The New Design Gallery press release claims that "both of these artists take inspiration from the 'Folk Art of Today' - advertising."
23. Art Becomes Reality, UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1964, was borrowed from the collection of Virginia and Bagley Wright of Seattle.
24. Shadbolt's patronage was meant to sanction the exhibition in advance against censorship. As subsequent charges against gallerists Dorothy Cameron (Toronto, 1965: guilty) and Douglas Christmas (Vancouver, 1966: acquitted) show, there was considerable legal danger in the public display of representations of sexual acts.
25. Toronto: NCPress, 1974. Lord's book was a nationalist account written from a Marxist perspective, specifically the Marxism of the Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist (Maoist).
26. Barry Lord, "From the 'Deck' at North Surrey: Landscape and Figure in the Art of Claude Breeze," artscanada (August-September 1971): 28-36.
27. Richard Simmins, "Down with Social Depravity!" The Province (October 8, 1971): 6.
28. The character of this extraordinary event, in which the noise of a bomb-strafing mission was combined with the piped-in chants of demonstrators outside the building, is captured in a radio play by one of the organizers, Glenn Lewis. The transcript is in the Lewis artist's file in the library of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
29. The whole issue of the influence of reproductions in regional centres needs more documentation and theorization. Jack Shadbolt, for example, not only worked with reproductions, he also painted for reproduction. In a reproduction-based practice such as Shadbolt's or, as Geider suggests, Lee-Nova's, the surface was unimportant.
30. Two works each from Iain Baxter and Claude Breeze, one each from Tom Burrows, Audrey Capel-Doray, Bodo Pfeifer, Dallas Selman and Ian Wallace, and a collaborative work from Michael Morris and Glenn Lewis.
31. Gaucher had asked Gary Lee- Nova, who had not submitted, for a work (Lee-Nova declined), and the Burrows piece, contrary to the entry criteria, had been conspicuously exhibited before. Artists who protested included B.C. Binning and Ian Wallace (one of the selected artists!). Grace Melvin cancelled her membership in the Gallery. The Gallery used the scandal to speculate publicly that it might be time to stop the annuals altogether.
32. By way of this discussion, one might also consider that senior artists in the city, but especially Jack Shadbolt, painted for the effects of reproduction to the extent that the actual painting surface had little value and the work was in a sense fully realized only when reproduced. From the scene with no scene's perspective, reproducibility meant entry into the history of art; thus Michael Morris weaves the reproduction of his The Problem of Nothing in Artforum (May 1968) into the narrative of his career. Indeed, the reproduction of this painting initiated Morris's entry in the correspondence network.
33. Doris Shadbolt, Yves Gaucher (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1969).
34. Quoted by Joan Lowndes, "Man Who Paints the Sound of Silence," The Province (April 18, 1969).