Painters Eleven April 30, 2019
Painters Eleven was an influential artists’ group from Toronto in the 1950s. They were instrumental in helping to introduce abstract painting into the mainstream of Canadian art.
In 1950, Toronto was still dominated by the art of the Group of Seven. But in 1952, Alexandra Luke organized the first public exhibition of abstract artists in Ontario. That exhibit included seven of the members of the future Painters Eleven group (Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Thomas Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, and William Ronald). With the addition of J.W.G. (“Jock”) Macdonald, Harold Town, Walter Yarwood, and Hortense Gordon in 1953, they became the ‘Painters Eleven’.
The group first came together when William Ronald organized the ‘Abstracts at Home’ exhibition at the Robert Simpson department store. Soon thereafter, they met again in Oshawa, to discuss their common interests in abstraction.
Although artist, ‘Jock’ Macdonald had explored abstraction as early as 1934, the majority of the group (many a generation younger) became aware of it more than 10 years later. Their sources were varied: Mead trained in England, Cahén in Europe. Luke, Gordon, Macdonald and Ronald traveled to the United States to study with prominent German-born painter and teacher, Hans Hofmann. Though the New York art scene provided an important example for the group, the Canadians developed their own style.
In February of 1954, the first exhibition of Painters Eleven opened at the Roberts Gallery. The exhibition drew large crowds, but sadly, resulted few sales. Nonetheless, subsequent exhibitions were held at the Roberts Gallery in 1955 and 1956, and at the Park Gallery in 1957 and 1958.
Initially, critical response in Toronto ranged from bewilderment to hostility. In Canada, the modernist approach was looked upon as strange, and even subversive. Gradually, however, reviews became more favourable. In 1956, Painters Eleven gained international recognition as guest exhibitors at the ‘American Abstract Artists‘ organization in New York City. Exhibitions of some of their works continued in regional Canadian galleries, as well as at the National Gallery of Canada, to 1961. The 1958 Park Gallery exhibition was the last annual group showing. In 1960, the group finally disbanded.
The popularity of abstract expressionist art was, at first, slow to catch on in Canada. Eventually however, it became accepted, largely due to the influence if the Painters Eleven group. Today, the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, continue to exhibit their work.