Gordon Smith: “One hundred painters deep”
(Photograph by Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun, October 20/12)
Gordon Smith is one of my favourite artists. The first time I met him I was struck by his gentleness, the inquisitive twinkle in his eyes and his interest in just about everything except talking about himself. The extra few seconds he takes before releasing your handshake seems to be his way of bonding with you. To be a guest in his home or to visit his studio, in an exceptional West Vancouver setting, provides a powerful context for his art.
He lives surrounded by nature in a home that is one of the first designed by his friend and colleague Arthur Erickson, nestled in the trees overlooking Howe Sound. The interior walls of this modernist glass home display a varied collection of art acquired from his travels and from his many friends as well as a choice selection of his own works.
Gordon Smith is the consummate artist, educator and art patron. He actively supports local visual art iniatives, he still mentors younger artists, but most of his time and energy are focused on being in the studio. His body of work executed in many different media encompasses a diverse range of interests including: his displacement to Canada from England during his youth; his experiences of participating in World War II; the natural beauty and power of the British Columbia landscape; and, the tension between abstraction and representation. When he describes himself as “One hundred painters deep” (interview with Ian Thom in 1995) he is acknowledging the myriad of artistic influences that have stimulated his creative thinking. To illustrate this point Robert Enright has observed that: “Good painters never forget what they know; they simply find new ways to make that knowledge work” [catalogue essay Gordon Smith, ENTANGLEMENTS, Equinox Gallery, September/October 2012].
Smith’s artistic journey may have kicked into high gear as a result of his 1939 bus trip from Winnipeg to San Francisco to attend the Golden Gate International Exposition. It was here that he was able to see firsthand the then-radical works by Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, as well as other modernist European and American painters.
While Enright suggests in his catalogue essay that there is no systematic chronology to Smith’s work, I think that with a bit of interpretive flexibility one can trace distinct periods of a 60-plus year career that loops back and forth but always returns to longstanding interests. From the highly skilled, technical drawings of the Eaton’s catalogues in the late 1930s and his realistic sketches during WW II, one can follow his development as a painter from the soft grids inscribed in his landscapes in the 1950s and the hard edge compositions of the 60s, to his expressive explosions of colour in the 70s and 80s, followed by his brooding abstractions of the 90s including the powerful “Black Paintings”, to the magical evocations of his “Snow Paintings” in the early 2000s, and now his return to a more minimal yet equally expressive abstraction in several series started in 2011.
Untitled (Barrack Box and Kit Bag, 1944)
Burrard Bridge, 1953
City Under Snow, 1960
Cumberland Basin, Nova Scotia Series, C.B. # 8 1980
Juno II 1990
North Shore Pond 2011
Gordon Smith’s work is widely collected and he is represented in major public and private collections in Canada and internationally. He first came to public attention in 1955 by winning the purchase prize at the First Biennial of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery of Canada with his piece Structure with Red Sun.
Structure with Red Sun, 1955
Since 1955 he has earned a Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2009 and more than 16 other major Canadian and international awards, honourary degrees and/or commissions.
When I am viewing an artist’s exhibition I will often notice something that might remind me of the work of another artist. I don’t mean that one is replicating the other; it is just an interesting connection that two artists would have been exploring similar issues yet be separated in time and place. For example, in 2003 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, I saw a retrospective of Nicolas de Stael (1914 – 1955). He was born in Russia but lived and painted in France. I had never seen de Stael’s work before and I was drawn to the breadth of works in the exhibition that demonstrated his transitions from early figuration through to brightly coloured abstractions on to represntational landscapes, then nudes and finally still lifes.
My light-bulb moment came when I saw de Stael’s 1953-55 Agrigente series of paintings (see figures below) and I marveled at how he was able to construct space through the sheer use of colour just as Smith did in a series of paintings in the 60s (see City Under Snow, 1960 above).
Montage Sainte Victoire, 1954
Gordon Smith retired from his teaching position at the University of British Columbia in 1982 but his daily painting regimen hasn’t let up and the mystery, depth and beauty of his creations continue to draw rave reviews. In 2012, he celebrated the month of his 93rd birthday by completing a major commission entitled Cypress, West Vancouver 2, 20012 (diptych). This breathtaking work is large (60″ x 180″) and immediately draws you into the winter scene where you can almost feel the sensation of ducking and twisting to avoid the entanglement of branches as the snow crust crackles and breaks under your feet.
Cypress, West Vancouver 2, 2012
For me Gordon Smith is a true Canadian treasure. His remarkable artistic achievements will be his legacy to future generations. As a great admirer of his work, it was especially exciting to be in his company for the opening of Antoni Muntadas’ exhibition in Madrid last November that revealed Gordon Smith’s continued keen interest in visiting international museums to look at contemporary and modern art firsthand (refer to my posting Muntadas: Entre/Between).
I give the last words to Gordon Smith as quoted by Marci Lipman in a 1979 publication Twenty Painters/Twenty Paintings:
“I have lived and worked by the ocean most of my life – each day throughout the year I look out over the Straits of Georgia – I see the sea and the sky with all their changing moods. I do not set out to reproduce what I see but to recreate how I feel about the subject, and in the process of painting, subject and technique become inseparable – for me painting in this way tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint…”