Abstract
Illustration
Photographs

Painters Eleven 

©Photo by Everett Roseborough, Toronto     
Simpson's 'Abstracts at Home' Exhibition, 1953     
From left: Tom Hodgson, Oscar Cahén, Alexandra Luke,     
Kazuo Nakamura, Ray Mead, Jack Bush and William Ronald     

About the Painters Eleven…

In 1953, a group of Canadian painters adopted the name “Painters Eleven” and launched Toronto’s answer to the New York school of abstract expressionism. Toronto seemed the unlikeliest place for such a movement as the city lay quietly in a realm of church and Sunday prohibitions. Sidewalk cafés were prohibited as was the sale of tobacco on Sunday. The city was dull after dark and for many it was an orderly, unexciting strict Toronto life. A gloomy 1950 article in Canadian Art concluded: “There is something rotten in the state of Toronto art, and it is of the dead rot kind,” where according to artist Graham Coughtry, “every damn tree in the country has been painted.”

The group’s first collective exhibition opened in February 1954 at Toronto’s Roberts Gallery. While the Group of Seven possessed a distinctive style, Painters Eleven never sought aesthetic common ground beyond a commitment to modernism.

Stylistic differences between each member of the group tended to be personal rather than regional. In a group of great talent, it was Oscar Cahén who stood out as exceptional, and his loss in a car accident in 1956, was deeply felt.

Painters Eleven sought a united front against artistic traditionalism and by their continual presence they changed Toronto’s art scene, spoken of metaphorically in Canadian Art as having undergone a “blood transfusion,” with an unprecedented “quantity and variety of art.” Some of the group went on to earn international reputations. Painters Eleven led Toronto’s first and last great abstract expressionist movement while in New York the days of paint-splattered bohemians were already passing. Many artists who followed in the Painters Eleven footsteps were inspired by their work, many rejected it outright, but one thing remained certain, even though Painters Eleven voted to disband in October 1960, according to influential art critic Clement Greenberg, the group including Oscar Cahén, had within themselves “the personal abilities to say something as profound as anywhere in the world.”

Adapted by Gerrit Verstraete from an article by Graham Broad* “Painters Eleven: The Shock of the New” in Canada’s History Magazine, The Beaver, Vol 84:1, p.21 Feb/Mar 2004

*Graham Broad is an art lover and a Ph.D candidate in history at the University of Western Ontario. He is writing a study of Canadian consumers in the Second World War and is planning a book on Painters Eleven and the Toronto art scene in the 1950s.

“From the perspective provided by two decades, it seems clear that Painters Eleven – its meetings, its exhibitions, its innovations – constituted a decisive moment in the history of modernist painting in Canada. During its lifetime (1953-1960) it was described by Jock Macdonald, a member, simply as the ‘abstract artist group of Ontario’[1]. Critics and journalists of the period described it as ‘experimental,’ progressive and inevitably, controversial. To older artists in Toronto like Paraskeva Clark who came from Europe and admired the work of Cezanne and Picasso, Painters Eleven looked like an adventure.

For its artist members, Jack Bush (1909-71); Oscar Cahén (1916-56); Hortense M. Gordon (1887-1961); Thomas Hodgson (b.1924); Alexandra Luke (1901-1960); Ray Mead (1921-1998) Jock Macdonald (1897-1960); William Ronald (1926-1998 ); Harold Town (1924-1990); Kazuo Nakamura (1926 -2002); Walter Yarwood (1917-1996), Painters Eleven was simply the world they lived in at the time “the only answer” to the questions they were asking. The group was important; its members liked the fact that people saw “different ways and different things”, that change was in the air”. One of the good qualities in the group, its inner spark, was that the members were amazingly united in purpose and held a common faith in one another – a faith which was never explained verbally to each other but which existed.”

“That Painters Eleven existed at all doubtless developed the focus on contemporary art in Toronto and perhaps even in Canada. Bush felt that Painters Eleven was responsible for the tearing down of parochial fences. This we did not so much on purpose. but in instinctive desperation. One of the most apt descriptions of Toronto at the time, as I remember, was a backwater, and perhaps we were lucky it was.”

The group was a league for defense against the various artists’ societies which then controlled the scene, primarily the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists. The Art Gallery of Toronto was, as Town recalls, “afflicted with the presence of society exhibitions which repeated themselves ad infinitum”. For Town and the others, the jury system utilized by older groups to determine what works got into which shows was a matter of squalor and tyranny.

During the group’s first meeting, Town, always gifted with words, devised the group’s name. Eleven sounded better than a dozen; the number had a quality of flair, of idiosyncracy. Painters stressed the medium primarily used by the artist, although there were also collages (sometimes painted too), water colours, drawings and monotypes.

Town recounts that their thesis was a simple one. We weren’t really militant and we were terribly innocent. We never expected to sell any pictures and we paid for those exhibitions ourselves. We paid for the booze, the folders, the transportation and insurance.

Cahén was of special significance to the Eleven. Three years after his death, a prominent gallery director was to write that the artist’s spirit “still dominates and motivates the group”. and that the derivative exercises of more than one member reflected the dominant inspiration of Cahén. In fact, Cahén’s role in the meetings of the group does not seem a key one. Macdonald wrote of Cahén “I always turned difficult decisions about the programme of PXI actions toward Oscar’s consideration. I could always get a sane and sound opinion from him no matter how diverse the discussions were.

“Cahén’s influence was greatest on Hodgson, who felt that the senior artist was by far the “giant” of the group besides being the “best colourist anywhere.” Ronald was proud, too, that he picked Cahén as one of the initial seven artists. One critic wrote that in Cahen’s lifetime, he probably had more public notice and success on his home ground than any artist working in Canada[2] Certainly all the group found him an “impressive” painter with a particularly warm colour range. His use of dyes on large sheets of paper was a technique that had an influence on all the group. “You could say a bit of Oscar would turn up in all of us eventually,” as Mead puts it. [3]”

Extracted from Murray, Joan. Painters Eleven in Retrospect. The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, 1979.

[1] Autobiographical Notes, McCord Museum archives, McGill University Montreal. Probably accompanied a letter from Jock Macdonald to Maxwell Bates 21 October 1956.
[2] Pearl McCarthy “New Setting for Contemporary Art “The Globe and Mail (Toronto) November 2 1957 p15.
[3] Interview with Mead 4 September 1977
 




© Familie Cahén
Previously unpublished photograph circa 1953
From left: Harold Town, Oscar Cahén,
Jack Bush and Kazuo Nakamura
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