Recent exhibitions such as the National Gallery's The
Crisis of Abstraction and the reinstallation of the Canadian galleries at the Art Gallery
of Ontario have prompted a re-evaluation of the origins and development of Canadian
abstract painting. For present day viewers, even with recurrent public challenges to
abstract art, it is difficult to conceive of the turmoil and fundamental challenges that
the advent of abstraction posed to artists themselves.
While it is true that explorations of abstraction, whether the evolution
of an analytical structure to capture the essence of the tangible world or the search for
a non-objective expression had dominated art in Europe and to a lesser extent in Canada
for nearly half a century, it was still possible for an artist like York Wilson to express
anxiety in a 1952 diary entry from the Canary Islands, ''In studio all day . . . want to
get a little less literal in painting ideas, but am afraid of being carried into
Despite a progressively more abstract orientation, Wilson's skepticism continued throughout the 1950s. In Venice in 1957 he wrote, ". . .abstraction for the sake of abstraction without conviction would be bad, and I am beginning to suspect that my thinking lately is often dealing with my lack of conviction about abstraction.''
For the first two decades of his career York Wilson worked within an
essentially figurative or representational idiom. Inspiration was derived from mundane,
everyday or local experience, with images frequently rendered in an ironic, bitingly
humorous or social commentary manner. Yet within a relatively short period of time, and at
mid-career, Wilson's essential approach was radically altered. The first of a life-time of
trips and residencies in Mexico between 1949-1953 prompted a fundamental shift. Wilson's
palette, his rendering of light, moved away from a subdued tonal range, while shapes
became more generalized to capture essential characteristics as opposed to precise detail.
By 1953 he had painted his first Non-objective canvas, and by the end of the decade with
the O'Keefe Centre's The Seven Lively Arts mural, he had established what came to be
considered his hallmark: evocative lyrical abstraction.
Convention has it that Wilson, like a number of more senior, established
Canadian artists, adapted his figurative approach to an increased abstraction in response
to the challenge to convention initiated by younger or more radical artists. This belies
fundamental aspects of Wilson's art, in particular his continuously reflective
investigation of new ideas and concepts, as well as his knowledge of progressive theory
and practice in an international rather than Canadian context. Above all, however, it
denies an essential feature of his art throughout five decades --- a rigorous
investigation of the mechanics of visual representation itself through a continued
refinement of its formal properties as the vehicle for expression. The geometric works
make this evident.
Executed between 1966 and 1971 the geometric paintings constitute a tightly focused body of work. Superficially distinct from Wilson's oeuvre, they are consistently linear or hard-edged in conception, boldly coloured, rhythmical in design, complex in the systematization of seemingly contradictory spatial depth and redolent with a distinctive atmosphere of the particular places or technological phenomena to which their titles refer. Linkages to Wilson's earlier and subsequent work do, however, exist. In the Cocktail Party from 1949, the multiple layering of the composition, a sense of figures placed over figures in careful tonal gradation, fosters the frenetic, busy atmosphere. Wilson's freer abstract compositions were equally characterized by a sophisticated manipulation of layers of texture, form and shape. The carefully controlled and precisely conceived striations of colour in the geometric paintings are an extreme manifestation of this layering, and it is this device which achieved their dynamic effect. In a similar way, Wilson's precise evocations of a rich variety of place in the geometric paintings is very much related to his consistent response to local experience, evident throughout his artistic production.
One of the distinguishing features of the geometric paintings is how directly they speak to the role of the unconscious, multiple experience and the mundane in informing artistic expression. The particular and precise origination of the series is best described by Wilson himself. However, Lela M. Wilson has provided further context. The first geometries were produced in Paris in early 1966 when the Wilsons lived and worked in the studio of the constructivist Luc Peire where a number of Peire's canvasses were logically installed. This Paris residency immediately followed a period of extended travel in the Far and Middle East where geometric patterns caught Wilson's attention. An excerpt from the Hong Kong diary from late 1965, early 1966 reveals a formal analysis of the landscape, ''Many coves with areas loaded with sampans and junks. Others less crowded but beautifully unconsciously arranged. Many strange sails on junks from jet black to tangerine, pale greens and browns and silver greys, some with tremendous surprise patches of totally unrelated colour.'' One talisman from the Hong Kong experience was a paper shopping bag brought home by his wife Lela. It immediately caught York Wilson's eye, since it had a geometric-like design, so out of place among the bluebirds and flowers in most Chinese designs. Somehow this bag made its way back to the Toronto studio.
The cumulative effect of familiarity over a period of time with European constructively, his early work in the commercial field, an intense exposure to a breadth of visual forms during the travels in Asia and the Middle East, all clearly served as stimuli for the geometric works. Yet the role played by the Daimaru shopping bag deserves particular mention.
By no means the sole inspiration for the series, the shopping bag, a Pop
or mundane object, did serve as a catalyst. While the majority of elements in current
commercial design, from shampoo bottles to lighters, reflect an appropriation of an
artist's original concept for commercial purposes, here in an atypical twist, the reverse
occurred through the unconscious extension of a commercial device into a significant,
dynamic body of work. (A close parallel is Jasper Johns' conscious identification of
stripes from a barber's pole as the basis for an extended series of painting.) What is
consistent about Wilson's approach is that the shopping bag comprised one facet of his
common experience. In characteristic fashion, he responded to and refined essential
elements from this ordinary experience to create strongly conceived images which filtered
the personal to capture the events and thinking of his time.
Many of the pieces in York Wilson: The Geometric Works 1966-71 have never
been previously exhibited nor has the series been the subject of considered investigation.
Yet they constitute an important aspect of Wilson's artistic production and the history of
abstract painting in Canada. It is hoped that the McMaster exhibition will provoke the
serious attention that they merit. All of the works in the exhibition are from the
collection of Lela M. Wilson and it is fitting that Lela Wilson's exceptional commitment,
enthusiasm, superb organizational skills and energy be fully acknowledged with sincere
Kim G. Ness November 17, 1994
Extracts from York Wilson's Journal
Safari and Aguas Calientes are two of my geometric paintings. My
geometric period was the result of two dreams. My wife and I had arrived in Paris in July
1966, on the last leg of our round-the-world tour that had started in Japan the year
before. My mind was brimming with millions of new impressions that had not yet settled
down, and which may have been the cause of the dream.
However one night I dreamed about a geometric painting in colour. There
was no storyline to the dream, just the painting. I had never been much interested in this
kind of thing, and the dream was unlike anything I had ever seen. The next morning before
breakfast I did a pencil sketch. Then after breakfast I decided that the colour was
important too, so I did a colour version. It took me all day.
The next night I dreamed of another very clear geometric painting. The
following day I went through the same procedure, pencil sketch before breakfast, then all
day doing a colour sketch. I didn't dream on the third night, but I was still so intrigued
that the next day I found myself experimenting with a third geometric painting. The result
was that from July 1966 until sometime in 1971, I was unable to paint any other style.
My geometric phase stopped as suddenly as it had started, and since that
time it has been completely impossible for me to do anything like it again, no matter how
hard I try to. It is because of experiences like this that it is difficult to understand
the creative process. York Wilson 1973.
Note: Diary extracts are published in Paul Duval, York
Wilson (Ottawa, The Wallack Galleries, 1978). York Wilson's 1973 description of the
geometric paintings and Lela Wilson's description of the genesis of the series are cited
from correspondence from Lela M. Wilson to the McMaster Museum of Art.
Catalogue of the Exhibition