Primordial Fire, Jock Macdonald, (1957).
Apparently Canadian artists are really big on using numbers in their names. Painters Eleven (also known as P11) were an influential group of artists active from 1953 to 1960. Eleven abstract painters from Ontario: Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Hortense Gordon, Tom Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Jock Macdonald, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Harold Town, and Walter Yarwood came together and went on to hold their first exhibition at the Roberts Gallery in Toronto in 1954. Their exhibition was actually the first major commercial exhibition of abstract expressionist art in Toronto.
Top: (L-R) Tom Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Harold Town, Kazuo Nakamura, Jock Macdonald, Walter Yarwood, Hortense Gordon, Jack Bush, and Ray Mead. The two canvases facing forward represent the late Oscar Cahén and the canvases facing the wall are for William Ronald who had left the group in 1957. (Peter Croydon, 1957). [Source]
Although abstract art has much earlier roots, P11 was all about the relatively new abstract expressionism movement that began to develop in New York during the 1940s and the 1950s. Art historian Denise Leclerc describes P11 as “ambitious.” They wanted to “create an impact, to make a statement about the importance abstract art was assuming in international circles and in their own work.” (Nowell). At the time, Canada wasn’t feeling the abstract vibe yet. Landscape paintings still dominated the art scene. Even more modernist styles, such as impressionism, were considered controversial—so you can imagine critics reactions to their first show.
Garden, Alexandra Luke, (1958). P11 initially formed in her in Oshawa home in 1953.
To learn more about each artist, please click on the images below:
Jack Bush (1909-1977) was born in Toronto and was originally heavily influenced by the Group of Seven. After being exposed to American abstract expressionists in 1950 however, he completely changed his style. He switched to large abstract paintings while in P11. Later, he would “refine his palette” and this work became internationally famous. He is known for his “muted, glowing colours that appear to be absorbed by the canvas.” (Thielsen Galleries/Nowell).
Oscar Cahén (1916-1956). Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, he immigrated to Montreal in 1940 where he worked as a graphic designer. Upon moving to Toronto in 1944, he met Walter Yarwood and Harold Town, and became part of the avant-garde art scene and became one of Canada’s leading magazine illustrators. His style when from dark expressionism to light abstractions. Sadly his life was cut short. He died in a car accident in 1956.
Hortense (Mattice) Gordon (1886-1961) was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and was the oldest member of P11. She painted abstracts as early as 1930 and worked as a teacher for much of her life. She liked to travel and study in France during her summers off. Her style focused on geometric abstractions and she was a mentor to the younger P11 members.
Tom Hodgson (1924-2006) was born in Toronto, Ontario. Talented from a young age, he studied with Arthur Lismer (Group of Seven) for a time. He also represented Canada at the Helsinki (1952) and Melbourne Olympics (1956) as a canoeist. He favored large abstractions, rich watercolours, and enjoyed painting his wives, lovers, and children. He was the last surviving member of the group.
Alexandra Luke (1901-1967) was born in Montreal and moved to Oshawa in 1914. She actually trained under Jock MacDonald while attending the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1945. Her work was influenced by surrealism. She was crucial in the founding of P11; their first meeting happened in her studio. She collected tons of paintings over the course of her life, including many P11 works, and bequeathed them to The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa. As such, they have the largest repository of P11 work in Canada. Fun Fact: The gallery was named by her husband, who named it after his grandfather.
James Williamson Galloway “Jock” Macdonald (1897-1960) was born in Thurso, Scotland and moved to Vancouver in 1927. There he worked with Fred Varley (Group of Seven) at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and was an art teacher. He was a fan of various forms of abstraction and semi-abstract styles and was influenced by surrealism and watercolors. He served as a mentor to both Alexandra Luke and William Ronald.
Ray Mead (1921-1998) was born in England and studied in London. As a member of the Royal Air Force, he was stationed in Hamilton (where he later immigrated to) during WW2. Mead worked as a commercial artist for the MacLaren Advertising Company throughout his life. Rich colours mixed with blacks and whites summarize his artistic style. He actually took a decade-long break from painting during the 1970s, but a dream where artist Hans Hofmann (who had either inspired or worked with many P11 members) gave him a painting lesson inspired Mead to get back to his work.
Kazuo Nakamura (1926-2002) was born in Vancouver and was a prisoner in a BC internment camp during WW2. He trained under Hortense Gordon in Hamilton before moving to Toronto. He stands out from the other P11 members for his more quiet, somber paintings. He used simpler structures, monochromatic colors, and his work shows a love of science and math through his usage of patterns, linear perspectives, and processes.
William Ronald Smith (1926-1998) was born in Stratford, Ontario. While living in Toronto, he worked as a display artist. He left the group in 1957 after securing a spot with the Kootz Gallery in New York two years earlier. There he enjoyed much success and acclaim for his immediate, expressionist paintings. He later moved back to Canada and worked in radio and television while continuing to paint.
Harold Town (1924-1990) was born in Toronto and loved to work with all different kinds of mediums: painting, sculpture, collage, works on paper like etchings, linocuts, lithographs, etc. Despite this, he is still best known for his fine abstract expressionis. Flamboyant and patriotic, he was determined to show that innovative art could develop in Canada. Fun Fact: Town came up with the group’s name. He based it off of how many painters showed up to the meeting.
Walter Yarwood (1917-1996) was born in Toronto and was largely self-taught. He worked as a freelance commercial artist and briefly shared a studio with Oscar Cahén. His style is described as lyrical and favored dense colours and broad strokes. He decided to give up on painting however in 1960 and chose to work as a sculptor instead. He received many commision to create major sculptures for government buildings, universities, and airports. In his final years, he returned to painting and focused on airy landscapes.
Despite their nationality and having a number in their name, P11 were quite unlike the Group of Seven. They did not have a united artistic vision. They were a diverse group of individuals. Their different ages spanned across decades, their backgrounds varied, as did their occupations. What united them was their commitment to abstract expressionism and solidifying its place in the Canadian art scene.
Watercolor, Kazuo Nakamura (1953)
As such, when they felt that they had achieved their goal, P11 voted to disband. By 1960, their work had been embraced by audiences and critics, their art adorned the walls of commercial and public galleries, and P11 were considered to be at the top of their game—what better time to go out? On a latter note, they were technically “P9” by this time because Oscar Cahén had died in a car crash in 1956 and William Ronald had left the group. Although some of the more senior members would pass away over the next couple of years, the younger ones went on to have storied careers and influenced Canadian art for years to come.
So what do you think of the artwork by Painters Eleven? Are you a fan of abstract art or do you prefer other styles?
“Painters 11,” The Robert McLaughlin Gallery. Accessed from: http://rmg.on.ca/painters-11/
“Painters Eleven Exhibition,” Thielsen Gallery. 2010. Accessed from: http://www.thielsengallery.com/displayexhibit.cfm?exhibit=52 (Lots of great pictures!)
Nowel, Iris, P11 Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2010.
Shearer, Lynda M. “Painters Eleven,” Canadian Art Group. Accessed from: http://www.painters-eleven.com/home
Zemans, Joyce, “Painters Eleven,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/painters-eleven/
If you would like to see their works in person, check out the P11 collections at the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and especially the Robert McLaughlin Gallery.