Globe and Mail (Toronto) Books, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007 Speaking abstractly, the eye could dance forever Saturday, August 25, 2007 IRIS NOWELL ABSTRACT PAINTING IN CANADA By Roald Nasgaard Douglas & McIntyre, 432 pages, $85 Right off, this is a beautiful book. It is beautifully designed, beginning with the jacket, a gorgeous detail from Claude Tousignant's painting Les Taches. The interior design splendidly showcases the book's 200 paintings in full colour with - praise be! - not a single black-and-white image. Roald Nasgaard, professor of art history and past chairman of the art department at Florida State University, served as curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario from 1975 to 1978, then as chief curator until 1993. He has earned numerous academic and museum appointments and awards, and has written widely on art. For this book, Nasgaard notes that he "visited the studios and exhibitions of at least one hundred artists across Canada who could be said in some way to be working abstractly." That is, artists working in the field of abstract art, and Nasgaard does much to clarify this often misunderstood genre. There exists a common (U.S.) fiction that abstract art originated in New York in the late 1940s with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But abstraction properly dates back to the turn of the 20th century with the Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky, who exhibited his abstract art in Munich in 1901. Picasso, Matisse, Braque and other Cubists followed a short while later in the famous Paris Salon d'Automne of 1905. In Canada, abstract art existed quietly in the 1920s, but blazed into the Canadian consciousness in the late 1940s with les Automatistes in Quebec, led by Paul- Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Thereafter, in the mid-1950s, the abstract expressionists who founded Painters Eleven in Toronto were largely identified by the flamboyant paintings and personas of William Ronald and Harold Town. Nasgaard presents the various abstract genres and artists chronologically and regionally, beginning in the 1920s with the country's pioneers of abstraction. Bertram Brooker (1888-1955) is deemed to be our "first" abstractionist; Nasgaard calls his Sounds Assembling (1928) a masterpiece. But before Brooker, Lawren Harris ventured toward abstraction with his Above Lake Superior (c. 1922) and other northern paintings in 1924. There is also Kathleen Munn, whose paintings of 1926 to 1928 are defined by Nasgaard as "more radical" than Brooker's work of the same period. Significant among painters whom Nasgaard calls "later pioneers" is J. W. G. "Jock" Macdonald. His Formative Colour Activity (1934), with its exquisite flowing golden yellow and orange petal-like swirls, signal the origins of several fields of abstraction that Macdonald worked in before he joined Painters Eleven in 1953. It is a pleasure to see these early paintings as a prelude to the book's 200 exciting, diverse images. Following the pioneers, Nasgaard takes his chronological review to the 1940s with Montreal's les Automatistes, then Toronto's Painters Eleven and Vancouver's abstractionists of the 1950s. Into the 1960s, we have the Western Canadian Emma Lake and the Regina Five painters, as well as Montreal's les Plasticiens. Through the 1970s, Nasgaard covers Toronto's second generation of abstractionists. Then we have conceptual painting in the 1980s and 1990s in Halifax and in Western Canada and, finally, artists at the turn of the millennium. In each chapter, Nasgaard offers a concise, informative overview of the specific abstract art genre, followed by profiles of painters working in that genre. He outlines each artist's background and, most engagingly, recounts the many distinctive working methods and materials the artist employs. This detail is fascinating and beguiling, a charming glimpse into the artists themselves. Nasgaard relies heavily on critics, curators and art historians to provide the high points of the artists' careers - reviews of exhibitions, awards and prizes won, etc. - quoting extensively from previously published accounts in newspapers, magazines, art journals, exhibition catalogues and books. Though he visited more than 100 artists and exhibitions, I counted only 20 first-person accounts. However, all provide valuable insights into the work. For the most part, Nasgaard's academic writing is instructive, but at times it is pedantic and tough going. For example, singling out two "dazzling paintings" of the Montrealer Fernand Leduc (b. 1916), Untitled (1945) and Napoleon's Last Campaign (1946), he writes, "They are less pictures of objects and space than accumulations of excited brush strokes, dabs, splatters, drips and scrapings, layered into convoluted, vertiginous and fluidly transitional movements between tactile foreground and aquatic depth." Now and then, however, Nasgaard reveals a rather poetic side. For instance, of the monochromatic entwining swirls in Black Painting 1 (1993), by the Albertan Chris Cran, he writes that "the eye, caught in the cold reflective glare of their elegant, carving, switchback striated brush stokes, could dance forever." And on the strength of his curatorial/academic background, Nasgaard adorns his text with authoritative grace notes, as when he captures the greatness of Riopelle in one succinct paragraph. Almost without exception, Nasgaard situates an artist as having been influenced by another artist, if not several others, as well under the influence of various abstract art movements: Cubism, Surrealism, Post-Impressionism and the like. Such is a curatorial imperative, but Nasgaard gets somewhat carried away with Harold Klunder. That Klunder was born in Holland (in 1953), Nasgaard writes, "may have something to do with his preference for colours that relate back to nature and for artists who paint thickly, like van Gogh, Adolphe Monticelli ... Soutine, and British artists like Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud and then Eugene Leroy. (Nor does Klunder forget his debt to his Toronto predecessors, like Ronald and Coughtry.)" Then we read that Klunder was "equally interested in ... Karel Appel and Asgar Jorn, for the same reason that he was in the Automatistes" and that in his most recent work "the imagery, here and there at least, has become more biomorphically abstract, more surreal, more like [Arshile] Gorky's." And lastly, Bram van Velde is "another artist whom Klunder admires." One has to wonder, where's Klunder? I take issue with Nasgaard's opinion that the artists who became Painters Eleven (1953-1960) were influenced by British abstractionists. Space does not permit a thorough refutation; suffice it to say that many, by their own accounts, claim New York as more an influence on them in their early years - to the extent they admit any influences at all. Among Nasgaard's flimsy reasons for claiming a British connection is that the nascent Painters Eleven may have seen an exhibition of British abstract painting in 1949 at the Art Gallery of Toronto, had read about them in art magazines and possibly viewed 16 paintings of British artists the gallery purchased from 1950 to 1953. Nasgaard devotes much attention to the late American critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg has attracted respect and opprobrium in about equal measure. Although he was well regarded for his vigorous championing of abstract art, many contend that he had discredited himself by the mid-1970s with pompous, self-serving posturing. In Canada, Greenberg was deemed to be a seminal force in Jack Bush's career, and several Regina painters valued his Emma Lake workshops, but Painters Eleven Town and Walter Yarwood wanted no part of the man when he came to Toronto in 1957. Despite Nasgaard's apparent admiration, he does deal with the "anti-Greenbergians." Oddly enough, there is no sex in this book. No nudes. No couplings. In an avant- garde art book? Nasgaard points out that Tom Hodgson's "favoured subject matter was always the female body," but we do not get to see one of them. But I've carped enough. Just open this book anywhere and you will find page after page of paintings, each more exciting, brilliant and beautiful than the last. Roald Nasgaard says the eye could dance forever on the Cran painting. Permit me to comment on the rest of the paintings: The heart could sing forever. Iris Nowell has written a memoir of Harold Town and a biography of Joyce Wieland. Her Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art is forthcoming.