RUSSELL BINGHAM PHOTOGRAPHY
Interview: Terry Fenton
Artist, critic and art gallery director Terry Fenton was Director of the Edmonton Art Gallery during a particularly exciting and influential period of its history. This interview was done a few years after Fenton left the EAG to eventually take the position Director of the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. It was first printed in the Edmonton Review, the newsletter of the Edmonton Contemporary Artists Society and was the record of an e-mail conversation with Russell Bingham that took place between November, 1995 and January, 1996.
RB Can you tell me something about your background?
TF I was born and raised in Regina and studied art while at Regina College (then a 1st year college affiliated with the U of S in Saskatoon) 1958-60. In my first year I was in an academic program (English Lit.) with minor in art/art history. I stayed a second year as a fine art studio student. My art teachers were Art McKay and Roy Kiyooka. Art History from Ron Bloore, then in his first year as director of the MacKenzie which was at that time called the “Norman Mackenzie.” As 1959 was the year of the Barnett Newman workshop at Emma Lake, I had the good fortune to be present, as it were, before and after. The change was dramatic. All who had attended were pumped up. Bloore’s direction (radically flat, sometimes allover) was confirmed. McKay painted on paper for a year and then began painting with enamels on masonite, at first a la Pollock and subsequently using the mandalas that established him. After that I completed my degree in Eng. Lit at U of S, Saskatoon. I didn’t meet any Saskatoon painters at the time (although Eli Bornstein had spoken to the six Regina art students in my 1st yr.) Regina 5 artists looked down their noses at most Saskatoon artists (apart from Ernie Lindner) and I suppose the attitude stuck.
After graduating I worked as a social worker in Edmonton for three years maintaining contact when possible with Regina painters. Ron Bloore looked me up once when he was in Edmonton and in 1965 he hired me as his assistant. Within three months of starting I had attended the Alloway/John Cage Emma Lake workshop and met Clement Greenberg who juried a Saskatchewan Art Board show in September ‘65. Alloway was nice but a bit pretentious — or so it seems to me now. Cage was charming and interesting. I argued with Greenberg for the three or so days he was in Regina (I was his driver.) What amazed me most about him was that he took me seriously. Subsequently we became friends.
I was hired by the EAG in 1972, left in 1987, started at the Leighton Foundation in 1988 and then went to the Mendel in 1993.
RB What was the Gallery like when you arrived in Edmonton? What was the art scene like? Was it a bit of a come down after Saskatchewan?
TF It was by no means a comedown. In fact it was a grand opportunity. The EAG had a new building and had done several ambitious things under Bill Kirby. Karen Wilkin had recently been engaged as a curator and had ambitious exhibitions planned. The staff was small – as I recall, seven or nine people – but that wasn’t unusual in those days. The collection was there in nucleus, with some very good things on loan from the Poole Foundation and Dr. Stern of Montreal: Canadian holdings of real quality. The gallery had a real board of trustees that proved to be an asset. Al Pyrch was collecting contemporary painting seriously, something that didn’t happen in Saskatchewan, where to this day collectors tend to be regionally-absorbed.
The art scene wasn’t as sophisticated as Regina’s had been, but then Regina’s was faltering and Saskatoon’s was more or less in transition. What I liked about Edmonton at the time was (a) the gallery was long established and (b) that despite that fact, there were no eminence grises, i.e. no established artists to hold things back. As Canadian art scenes went, it had potential.
RB As the new director, what did you see was your role? What did you hope to accomplish and how did you set about doing it?
TF Don’t know how to answer this. I had been increasingly frustrated at the MacKenzie and wanted to do more in the way of linking the local artists and collectors to the international scene. I also wanted to develop policies and objectives to achieve this. We had two artists” workshops in the early 70s at a time when Emma Lake was in the doldrums. We soon began to collect art — regional, Canadian, and international.
RB Talking about the workshops, one of these was the Steiner workshop which was a watershed event for the Edmonton art scene I think. Can you say something about this workshop and can you think of any other watershed events like this?
TF Yes, it was a watershed. In a way the most important: Al Reynolds, Bob Scott, Doug Haynes, Ann Clarke, Ron Myren, Graham Peacock, and Harold Feist attended (as I recall). Steiner had led a remarkable workshop at Emma Lake in 1969 and there he had influenced Doug Bentham. One of the first artists I showed in Edmonton was Doug, so that the sculpture scene in Saskatoon (Bentham, Rogers, Brian Newman, and Bill Epp) was a factor that can’t be discounted.
The Steiner workshop in Edmonton was good but was confounded by the fact that it was held in town. Because of that, many artists who didn’t attend were hostile. Apart from that, though, the effect of the workshop was generally positive for those who attended. Steiner’s effect on the sculpture scene was profound, simply because he got Al Reynolds directed towards sculpture and Al moved quickly into ambitious abstract work. Tommie Gallie was there, too, and did sprawling floor pieces. I doubt, though, that Steiner had a decisive an impact on him. Only Tommie can answer that. Anyway, the long-term impact was substantial, because of Al’s commitment. Not long afterwards, Cathie Burgess began to work — and the EAG organized a few sculpture shows: “Doug Bentham,” “Sculpture in Steel” and “Tim Scott” in particular. And the gallery purchased work by Bentham, Scott, and Caro.
Obviously, I was in some position to affect things at the Gallery and I was a strong believer in constructed sculpture, especially in the tradition I saw leading from Picasso and Gonzales through Smith and Caro. (I wasn’t then an admirer of the Russian constructivists. I see more to admire today, but nothing as yet to match the quality and invention of the Picasso-Caro line.)
Al Reynold’s commitment was very important and shouldn’t be underestimated. He picked up from Steiner and that led him into an idiom of his own more directly than had he followed Caro. Al’s wooden sculptures from the 70s haven’t been given their due. Some were inspired. Cathie Burgess also started out working in wood and did some original things. I saw a beautiful one the other day at Greg Hardy’s. Then, too, Ken Macklin had started to work and I think Clay Ellis had moved to town.
The Caro Emma Lake Workshop in 1977 was very important. As I recall, Cathie Burgess and Ken Macklin both attended (as well as Bentham, Newman, Foulds, and Otto Rogers from Saskatoon.) Caro came to Edmonton afterwards and met Al Reynolds – whose work he admired. (Caro’s Emma Lake experience was instrumental in his establishing the Triangle Workshop in 1982.)
Emma Lake was good for Caro, who made over twenty sculptures (assisted by Doug Bentham and occasionally by participants) - these pointed a new way for Caro and included two or three works that reappear in exhibitions and publications.
Hide’s arrival in the fall of 1977 (after the Caro workshop) coincided with a growing frustration by existing sculptors about working in wood. It was just too restrictive (though I doubt that it would be for Cathie today.) Soon everyone was working in steel.
It’s hard to recall other watershed events - perhaps the Jack Bush exhibition. For me, a special watershed was the acquisition of a first major painting, a Olitski, I think in early 1974.
RB How did the arrival of Peter Hide change the dynamics of the Edmonton sculpture scene?
TF The change was threefold: by establishing a strong assembled sculpture program at the University he established a long (and continuing) stream of graduates and masters students who enlarged the Edmonton scene; secondly, he brought with him a radical concept of contemporary sculpture, one which provided an alternative to Anthony Caro – who seemed, at the time, a suffocating influence; finally, he added another working sculptor to the Edmonton mix. His addition may have created the critical mass that was necessary to clarify and intensify sculpture in Edmonton.
RB Sculpture, as you say, developed clarity and intensity which was manifested in a kind of Edmonton “look” – for a time anyway. Did a similar kind of process happen in Edmonton painting? What were the forces that came into play here?
TF It’s harder to generalize about painting; it developed in so many ways and a bit more across generations. I”ll speak only of abstract painting, even though its only part of the picture (though a bigger part in Edmonton than elsewhere.) Doug Haynes had been painting abstract pictures in the “60s and by the early 70s was working in an advanced idiom which owed something to Motherwell and something to Europe. Graham Peacock was painting “color field” paintings in the early 70s.
By the mid 70s, Bruce O’Neil in Calgary and Harold Feist were painting in their various ways — O’Neil in a kind of eccentric figure-ground manner and Feist all-over - and they kept in touch with Edmonton. Ann Clarke made some remarkable paintings in Edmonton in the mid-70s; and then Bob Scott and Terry Keller began to emerge, Bob initially with a pattern-painting, neo-expressionist look. Then and now, I can’t see any discernible Edmonton “style” except that, generally, Olitski and Poons seem to have had a greater influence than Bush and Noland. Curiously, the opposite is true in Saskatoon.
RB The Bush/Noland influence is certainly important in Saskatoon and probably in Toronto as well (or has been), but I think Poons and particularly Olitski have had the biggest effect on contemporary abstract painters. It has been a dominating and in some ways an inhibiting effect. It seems to me that the “New New” painting is more about trying to find a way around Olitski than it is about anything else. In some ways, Edmonton abstraction has been seen as conservative in the sense that many of the painters here have been branded as unadventurous and unwilling to step out of the Olitski mold. What do you think?
TF “Conservative,” “adventurous,” the words are meaningless if the art doesn’t measure up - and not to Olitski and Poons per se, but to the measure of high art. That’s a platitude, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The problem, as I see it, is that our culture equates radical-seeming novelty with originality. Hot new art is expected to grab attention. Unfortunately, some of the best new pictures seem shy and retiring — wallflowers, as it were. As for the Olitski influence in Edmonton, I’d have to say that it’s pretty well assimilated into individual painterly styles — and it’s easily overstated. Haynes, after all, was never really influenced by Olitski: he looked to Motherwell and Gottlieb. Painterliness sems to be the common thread, and painterliness in acrylic abstraction was re-introduced by Olitski. Edmonton artists picked it up. (I say re-introduced, because artists like Frankenthaler, Motherwell, and Gottlieb carried aspects of their oil-painterly manners into acrylic. Olitski brought a new facture — he found means of painting with thicker paint.) As for “New New” painting, from what I’ve seen (and I haven’t seen recent work) they attempt a synthesis of Noland and Olitski: painterly color, radical shaping, etc.
I think that the “way around” Olitski is overstated. I’ve written about the peculiar reputation of Olitski — underrated to some, overrated to others. I suspect that the sense of Olitski being a kind of obstacle goes back to the early 70s when his paintings seemed to point in a new, painterly direction. The problem, I suspect, came from the fact that they were allover paintings. As with Pollock before him, alloverness appeared to pre-empt all the possibilities. In fact it didn’t — no more than color bands did in the “60s. But one factor that did make itself felt was that the differences among allover paintings tended to be subtle. To an expanding art world that prized novelty, this was equated with conservatism. Anyway, the “way around” was sometimes achieved by going through Olitski (Poons and Griefen), or by assimilating Noland, Frankenthaler, and Bush (Hughto, Roth, Walsh.)
RB Going back to sculpture, “getting around” Tony Caro has seemed to preoccupy some contemporary abstract sculptors. Do you see the Caro dominance of sculptural style and form as a real problem, or has this, too, been a bit overstated?
TF Overstated, too. The overstatement in sculpture was added to by two related conditions: (a) the fact that there were fewer sculptors and Caro’s prominence was exaggerated thereby, and (b) that Caro was as prolific as many painters and restlessly inventive. There was a perception, as well, that he was something of a magpie, thieving ideas from other sculptors and doing them better, but that, too, was overstated. Tim Scott was never worried about Caro — he just took what he needed and invented the rest — which is pretty much how art gets made anyway. Peter Hide got around him by going straight through him. I don’t see that Caro was ever a big problem for sculptors in Edmonton, before or after Hide’s arrival.
RB But Hide’s sometimes been a problem for sculptors here...
TF Not as much as Caro in England. In both cases the so-called “problem” is simply a function of their originality. Original art always offers something to other artists and imposes conditions in the process. Good artists find ways to escape the tyranny of the conditions. Edmonton sculptors have done pretty well at that. I haven’t seen examples of Hide’s influence stifling sculpture — rather the reverse in my opinion. And then, several sculptors are hardly affected by Hide at all.
RB We’ve talked about painting and sculpture. How about photography? When you were director at the EAG you hired a photo curator for a while and you also set up the Henry Singer Bequest to fund the purchase of photography. Do you have any thoughts on photography in Edmonton and your involvement with it?
TF Hubert Hohn (whom I hired) was an important factor. He was a genius at the technical side and that helped a lot of people. He went on to Banff, where wonderful things happened for a while, but photography eventually fizzled. Then there was Doug Clark, who found the negatives and organized the Hinton exhibition and built the gallery’s darkroom (is it still there?), and was the first curator of photography. Finally, Kate Davis came in a curator of photography, and Eleanor Lazare became the Gallery’s photographer.
But that doesn’t say much. I don’t have a strong sense of a photography scene in Edmonton, at least not after Hohn and Clark. There was (and remains) the great Orest Semchishen who, in my opinion, should be declared a national treasure. But I get no feeling of a common undertaking. Perhaps that’s the way of photography, which seems able to weather the problems of isolation better than painting and sculpture.
Clem Greenberg (who, by the way had a great eye for photographs) was puzzled by the medium. It’s capable of high art, but that level crops up in unexpected places — Atget, Lewis Hine, Doris Ullman, some snapshots, some news photos; where’s the common thread? One thing that I’ve found is that the photograph seldom uses colour effectively, perhaps because its virtual surface overwhelms its literal surface. A second thing is that it doesn’t lose in reproduction the way painting does — in fact it sometimes gains. And, more even than painting, it’s bedevilled by artiness.
RB Do photographs have to tell a story to be good?
TF No. They often excel at illustration, but they remain pictures. Sidney Tillim mentioned once that he thought Bernard Berenson’s account of illustration in “Aesthetics and History” could be applied equally to photography. In any event illustration isn’t just a fancy word for story-telling. The buzz-word for story-telling is “narrative” — very high sounding — and I don’t think visual art has been very good at that. “Narrative” leaves lots of room for high sounding explanation and analysis, which seems if anything to cast doubt on the efficacy of visual narration.
Berenson said, “There is no room for the ugly in art as decoration, only in art as illustration.” That might be one of the keys to expression in photography, which tends to lack a decorative aspect. (One can’t say this absolutely, of course. There are beautiful photographic prints, but when that beauty is at the service of an indifferent subject - as often with Weston — or “artifies” the subject — as often with Ansel Adams — or is applied to the grotesque or perverse (as with Abbott and Mapplethorpe) expression is diminished. Many, I know, disagree. I think something similar happens in literature with Edgar Allen Poe ~ the artful surface can’t escape the silly subjects. But after 150 years Poe’s popularity remains more public than Hawthorne’s, so where does that leave me?)
RB You seem to be saying that the subject counts in photography. How much does the subject count with landscape painting (which seems to be the last refuge of representational painting — at least on the prairies.) And how important is the connection between artist and subject in landscape painting (as a landscape painter yourself, you can probably answer this question with some authority.)
TF To begin with, “subject” in landscape seldom involves figures and figure groups — and even when it does they’re played down. In terms of the development of pictorial art, the landscape is, in a sense, an example of what had been background painting becoming the subject itself. As I see it, this was a revolutionary stage in the development of the picture: for the first time the picture was conceived as a unified analogy to the whole field of vision. In this, I believe, it’s a precursor of abstraction (and I’ve seen background subsume foreground in abstraction, too.) Curiously, despite the efforts of so many pictorial photographers, landscape in photography hasn’t done so well, especially with what might be called the “ordinary.” Landscape in photography seems to need the hyper-real, the extraordinary. This isn’t really so in landscape painting, which can extract something from the familiar and matter-of-fact. Constable demonstrated that; so did the Impressionists.
In terms of subject “counting”, I believe (though I can’t prove it) that the landscape painter attempts to recreate -or create the illusion — of one’s subjective response to the visible world. If this response isn’t an aesthetic one it’s pretty close to it. This explains much of what moves me most in landscape painting. I don’t think the subject as a motif per se is very interesting, and when one gets the feeling that the landscape is just a prop for pictorial invention, the effect is diminished. I don’t mean to suggest that landscape must be tied strictly to nature. There are too many counter examples (where the subject comes across in strength): Matisse, Avery, Soutine, Cezanne... One of the keys to landscape painting is painting “en plein air”. This isn’t simply a matter of painting from the motif as one might in the studio; that’s certainly part of it, but just "being there” in the changing light and the weather and with all the distractions and ambiance of nature.
Speaking for myself, I can only paint from some feeling for the subject, whether I’m there or not. Even when painting from photographs, I can only work from ones I’ve taken myself. I’ve found this to be true of many other landscape painters, as well.
As for landscape being the “last refuge of representational painting,” I don’t really think that’s so. Post modernism revels in figure painting of one kind or another – unfortunately most often in terms of failed pictures or works that purport to be “something completely different” from pictures (as Monty Python might say.) From what I’ve seen, representational painting in the United States inclines to figure painting, whereas in Canada it’s more often landscape. I suspect there are cultural as well as geographical reasons for this.
RB There’s a variety of landscape painting on the prairies that has evolved over the last couple of decades that seems to be a bit of a hybrid combination of traditional plein air landscape and modernist abstraction. It’s characterized by flattened space, decorative colour and painterly application. Your own painting, however, seems to express a different temperament. You exploit natural space, colour and especially mood, suggesting a commitment to the expressive power of (here we go again) subject matter that is a little surprising coming from a person who most see as a rather strong champion of modernist abstraction. How do you explain this paradox?
TF It isn’t a paradox for me, although it seems to perplex some people. To begin with, I paint the way I do because that seems to me what I do best. It’s also tied to the time and studio resources I have available. Also, the fact that I’ve tended to work for public art galleries means that I lack access to that system. Generally speaking, this means that I don’t have much market for large paintings and lack the time and means to produce many. So I work small to mid-size.
Yes, my paintings exploit natural space and mood, but the mood is achieved primarily through color, which interests me more and more. That, I believe, is the link with abstraction. Actually, I’m more concerned with the illusion of nature than naturalism per se. As I see it, the naturalistic space is just an armature for color, and the color isn’t necessarily naturalistic.
Color, as I see it, is one of the great keys to expression in painting — and it’s the hardest lesson to learn. Perhaps it can’t be taught. I remember as late as the “60s being told by artists and gallery people that Matisse was just a decorator. What amazes me in art is how people violate their instincts in order to appear hip. Read the “best and worst of the year” comments in the recent Artforum. The distinction between the significant and the trivial mostly eludes me.
RB Lets talk about Post-Modernism, which you referred to a little while ago... Post-modernism is sometimes discussed as being the latest stage in the linear, historical development of art, related to modernism as post-impressionism was related to impressionism. Sometimes it’s discussed as being something more grand and inclusive. A total revision of traditional (read wrong) values applying to all of culture, and a correction to the evils of modernism. What do you think? Is there really something important going on in visual art that is “post” modernism?
TF I found a book on the sociology of art by Arnold Hauser in the gallery library. Hauser is the Marxist historian who wrote The Social History of Art. Why is it that Hauser is so much better than most Marxist art historians, and why isn’t he quoted by today’s post-modern Marxists? Is it because he had taste and recognized its value as well as its limitations?
Hauser observed that art — some art -- influences society, but that it isn’t necessarily the best art. Richardson had a greater “influence” than Jane Austin. I mention this because I suspect that the post-modernists are more interested in influencing society than in making good art, and they’re often quite willing to forsake the latter in favor of the former.
The problem with questions about importance, is that they hinge on what kind of importance, aesthetic or social. There’s a lot of obfuscation around and about the latter. It strikes me that many post-modernists want to have it both ways. An essential post-modern belief is that of cultural relativism, which tends to examine and elevate the differences among cultures (with gender as a sub category), implying that these differences distort and even transcend the unifying character of humanity, per se. Modernist humanism – at least as I learned it — discovered high art in many cultures. (Roger Fry’s Last Lectures is one of many celebrations of this.) The irony was that the artistic “products” of modernism (as opposed to appreciation) overwhelmed many non-European cultures. European painting and music swept through many foreign cultures (especially in Asia) like a destroying angel.
I suspect that the post-modernist saw that phenomenon, concluded that modernism was yet another instance of Eurocentric colonialism and proposed a new art that would confound this. The method of this art appears to be the “intervention”: works of art and especially installations which exploit to subvert the apparatuses of Euroculture. These interventions tend to be made within the Eurocultural system (public exhibitions). Ironically, they tend to depend on Eurogovernment or multinational corporate funding. Another irony is that these interventions often involve hermetic knowledge. They put the “experts” in control. The new public art is often more mystifying than the old “empty” abstraction — that is, when it isn’t aggressively vulgar. There’s a lot of rock and roll status attached, too, especially to the latter -in fact a large part of the culture of post modernism appears to be the culture of rock... but that’s another story.
There’s another criticism of modernism, that “art for art’s sake” is devoid of content. The criticism is misconceived: content, per se, isn’t the issue. Modernist humanists believed that content was cross cultural and eschewed the immediate and anecdotal for that reason; their primary means of communication was the unique picture; communication was expression. Post-modernists want to reincorporate anecdote for what they believe to be new purposes. Their primary means tends to be the public exhibition. They’ve appropriated our so-called “temples of culture” for this purpose. Their communication involves various methods of deconstruction and explication. Post-modernists talk a lot about “strategies” and “contextualization.” As for something important in terms of pictorial development, I haven’t seen any. The fact that they tend to avoid the picture, per se, puts them — in terms of pictorial development — in the tradition of Dadaism and Surrealism. Even Minimalism, I believe, appropriated modernist abstraction in the name of that tradition. In the last 30 years that tradition has taken over from the Cubist Post-impressionist tradition that dominated after the War. A lot of historical revision is involved.
One more thought: Post-modernists don’t seem to talk about “civilizations”; instead they talk about “cultures.” This may explain why even the French seem to ignore Fernand Braudel, despite his interest in “structures.” Arnold Hauser is presumably too Eurocentric. All this seems to fit with the new (old) world of ethnic nationalism as opposed to the postwar balance of power.
Another thought: modernisms of various kinds all seem to be lumped together, the good with the bad — the CIA with Greenberg, etc. Somewhat related is the Vietnam/Cambodia syndrome. Maybe this was a major turning point. Why was there so much silence surrounding the genocide in Cambodia? Were the doves sticking to the principle of non-intervention come what may? Were the hawks afraid of getting embarrassed again by the doves? Did ethical relativism play some role?
RB You’ve made the point that much of the discussion that surrounds contemporary art is dense and theoretical, especially discussion of the post-modernist variety. How valuable is art theory anyway? Does it change or affect anything? Does it help to make art better? Are artists who have a “good theoretical grasp of what they are doing” better artists?
TF Art theory has been around for a long time and — apart from aesthetics per se, and that, as I see it, is about the nature of appreciation rather than about art making – It has more often than not hindered rather than helped. Most art writing obfuscates rather than clarifies. It always has. I’d like to think that the post-modern variety is a terminal stage of the disease, but I doubt it.
I can’t answer the last question because I don’t know what “theoretical grasp” means in relation to art making. It helps to have seen a lot of past art and shouldn’t hurt to have read the relevant art history. Plenty of artists have developed high-flown theories that they were able to transcend or ignore. Think of all the half-baked modernist manifestos. These in fact, are an interesting example — most come from the provinces rather than Paris. I suspect that artists at the centre had less need of theory to support their convictions.
In art, there’s an enormous gap between thinking and doing. Thank God. Didn’t Barnett Newman say something like “Art history is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.” That applies equally to art theory.
RB Before we leave the subject of art theory, what do you make of the revisionist take on modernism which sees it as a strategy of cultural domination with links to American post-war imperialism. According to this view, which you mad reference to a minute ago with your mention of the CIA/Greenberg theory, the purpose of High Art is to overcome in a qualitative way the art that came before it. Related to this, (EAG curator) Bruce Grenville has written about what he calls “weak modernism” which is a sort of modernism without the killer instinct.
TF This baffles me. Furthermore, it strikes me as a misreading of Greenberg among others. Greenberg spoke and wrote about rising to the challenge of the best art of the recent and distant past. Never, in my hearing or reading, about overcoming it. What had to be overcome in his opinion was the middlebrow art and attitudes of the present. Amen to that. I’ve never heard an artist – American, Canadian, or English — speak of overcoming art that came before him or her.
The equation with post-war American imperialism strikes me as being preposterous. French modernism dominated world art prior to WWII and no one, to the best of my knowledge, equated that with French imperialism.
RB Speaking about Greenberg, you said that when you first met him in “65 you argued with him the whole time he was in Regina. What did you quarrel about?
TF We argued; we didn’t quarrel; he relished arguments. As I recall, we argued about literature, in part — Yeats, Auden, Eliot, poets past and present, who was major, who minor. Greenberg’s knowledge of literature matched his knowledge of art. Possibly about Jasper Johns and Pop Art, which I “understood” as young artists and art students do, but hadn’t seen. Probably about Jules Olitski, as a painting of his had been purchased by the MacKenzie and I couldn’t (at that time) comprehend it. Certainly about the relative merits of some Canadian artists. I remember being surprised that he liked (and recognized) a painting by Goodridge Roberts in an exhibition of Quebec painting. In fact, I was surprised that he preferred it to abstract paintings by the “names.” I liked Roberts myself but hadn’t expected Greenberg to even know who he was. (In fact he was a great admirer and had said so in a Vogue interview a year or two earlier.)
RB In your writing and through your comments, you’ve obviously taken strong stands on matters of taste. Does this cause professional conflict. In this cultural/political climate, where pluralism is the accepted reality, is it possible for a museum professional to take firm positions regarding matters of taste?
TF I suppose my taste causes professional conflict, but conflict of some kind would be there anyway: there’s disagreement throughout the art world not just between my taste and the rest. Pluralism puzzles me. The real challenges for art museums in any art climate are to exhibit the art that’s being made and to stimulate taste. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and bridging them is where problems arise. Where there are good collections of older art, those collections are assumed to do the job of challenging taste — or so I suppose. What worries me more than pluralism and its problems is what appears to be a growing lack of public interest in visual art, good and bad alike. Jeff Spalding pointed that out to me. I think he’s right.
RB Is this really true? Sometimes there seems like there is too much interest in art and especially too much indiscriminate interest. Suddenly everyone wants to enroll in university art programs and artists have become the new fashion icons...
TF The enlargement of the art world began in the “60s. When I went to art school in Regina in the later “50s, in 1958 I was one of six students in a two year program; in 1959 I was one of two; when I returned to Regina in 1965 the art department had an enrollment of at least 50. But I do think that there has been a decline in public interest in art. Certainly the art market hasn’t recovered since 1991
RB How does Edmonton art measure up to the best?
TF Pretty well, in my opinion. Very, very, well in sculpture — partly because there’s so little of consequence elsewhere.
RB I want to press you on this. Can you be more specific? Can you illustrate with a comparison to some other place or time?
TF I holds up pretty well with Montreal of the “40s (the “Automatistes” and the “Contemporary Art Society” — though with not so many artists as Montreal) and with Toronto of “Painters 11” time. But differences of scale make the comparisons difficult — and the fact remains that Edmonton is a provincial city. The Edmonton sculpture scene is unique, the only comparison I can think of in terms of quantity and quality is with England in the “50s thru 70s.
RB Before we stop I want to go back to your quote from Berenson about the ugly in art. Is there a place for ugliness in good abstract painting and sculpture?
TF Only in the detail, never in the whole.
RB Maybe we’re splitting hairs here but wouldn’t you say that, for example, Jackson Pollock’s pre-dribble paintings often incorporated a rather hefty dose of ugliness and that this was often part of their power? And early David Smith? Mind you, elements of representation were still present in these examples, but...
TF Representation or abstraction isn’t the issue. The fact that ugliness was “incorporated” puts it in the part or in the illustration, not the whole — notwithstanding the fact that in Pollock’s case the part was a large portion of the picture surface. À propos Berenson: he said that there was no place for the ugly in the decorative, only in illustration. Picasso proved otherwise (notwithstanding his gifts as an illustrator.) Berenson recognised Picasso’s talent as a draughtsman but didn’t like his art. (Berenson didn’t like much post-Renaissance painting.) I suspect that Berenson and I would be at loggerheads over that.
Where Berenson allowed that the ugly could be present was in the illustrative side of representation, Picasso discovered that it applied equally to the facture, the handling, the substantial surface of art. Conversely, one of the things discovered, I suspect, by Picasso and passed on was that beautiful parts in themselves can detract from the whole. He probably learned the lesson from Art Nouveau, which he had been steeped in in Barcelona as well as Paris. In fact, Picasso’s collages are beautiful things, as are Pollock’s early paintings (which owe a lot to Picasso.) The fly in the ugly parts /beautiful whole ointment is that when the whole doesn’t cohere you’re left with an incoherent assemblage of ugly parts — but much the same holds true when the parts are pretty but don’t cohere. That helps to explain why there’s so much bad modernist — or quasi modernist — painting. Because the necessity for unity is so extreme, failure is more apparent. There’s plenty of evidence of that in the 20th century.
RB Let’s stop here.