TALKING WITH RON BLOORE
January 10, 1978
As this conversation jumps unpredictably from subject to subject, some of the topics have been highlighted white as they come and go. Slight corrections [and clarifications] to the text as received are inserted [within square brackets]. Cream subjects that turn blue are elaborated upon with additional facts and those that turn red are dilated upon with opinions on the separate Notes and Comments page which begins with a helpful chronology.
J.M. - first of all, let's talk about St. Louis and your training as an art historian at the University of Toronto. How did you get to Regina?
R.B. - My art historical background is over done. It's absolutely over done. I saw something in some English publication the other day and it said, ‘Erudite images'. So I called a whole series of paintings Byzantine Lights... I mean... Forget it. I happen to be an artist. Most artists going start off as full-time painters, lots are curators too.
J.M. - You were a University of Toronto type.
R.B. - I was at University of Toronto.
J.M. - And you studied with Charlie Comfort.
R.B. - With Charles Comfort for whom I have tremendous respect, from whom I have learned a tremendous amount.
J.M. - You worked with Charlie this year?
R.B. - I worked with Charlie. What I learned from Charles, ultimately, was years later: a total honesty, a total integrity and total sense of responsibility.
J.M. - And also immaculate precision. I've been working with him this year and I interviewed Charlie and this was a man that re-wrote his text totally. He's very careful about what he wants to have done with his words.
R.B. - Charles is right. Right?
J.M. - Yes.
R.B. - He's been greatly maligned in this country.
J.M. - Yes he has. He's a very good artist actually.
R.B. - I went to his last opening a few months ago in the Roberts Gallery and Louise was there. It was marvellous. Really, really marvellous. She wasn't supposed to be there. The doctor told her not to go. But there was Louise and Charles.
J.M. - Your years at University of Toronto were way before. Vickers was there?
R.B. - Vickers was there, sure. Vickers became editor. When I went there Homer Thompson was head of the department. He was marvelous. Most nervous lecturer I've ever seen.
J.M. - Whom did you respect?
R.B. - Probably Homer Thompson simply because he could use a god-awful slide, those old glass slides, way back when, and it looked like a battered up stone. Before you knew it, you ended up loving this thing as the greatest imaginable piece of Hellenistic art or whatever it happened to be.
And WinniFred Needler. I gave a talk to (I know this sounds prestigious) the Royal Ontario Museum, some Congress of Canadian Archeological types which for some reason or other asked me to talk. It was a very strange sort of situation. But in the talk, I made reference to Needler, a very important professor I had in Egytopology, and she was so embarrassed. Oh, it was so touching.
J.M. - The professors at University of Toronto... You were the scholarship student.
R.B. - We didn't have scholarship students.
J.M. - Were you the bright young man?
R.B. - No. No. No. The first year I only got seconds and then after that I got firsts because I figured out their system. But I didn't stand at the first in the final year because I ran afoul of Vickers. I knew I was no longer head of the class. But I didn't pick up much from him I would say. [Peter] Brieger, for example, I remember as fantastic with his lisp, his accent; it was very difficult as you know, to understand him. I still remember one lecture from him, when he talked about Vierenheiligen and years later I was in Hamburg and was able to get up to Viersenheiligen.
J.M. - I've seen it myself. It's so wonderful.
R.B. - It's a wedding cake turned inside out.
J.M. - Why St. Louis? Is St. Louis that good?
R.B. - No. After University of Toronto I went to New York University Institute of Fine Arts. That was a fastidious art historical type school in America. I think I also had a chance to go to Iowa. And then, there's a point whether you're going to go towards painting or you're going to go towards art history and I always play everything safe, very conservative. Regardless of my NDP membership. I went there, which is quite good. Really fantastic. But after a couple of years I simply ran out of money, out of D.E.A. funds - Department of Educational Affairs funds - and I was simply told that St. Louis was looking for someone or Washington University was looking for someone. So I said fine I'll go as grad assistant and finish up my M.A. there.
I recall that summer. I came back to Canada and I was working to get some money. How the hell was I going to get to the State of Washington? By September I'd finally figured out, of course, it wasn't the state of Washington, it was Missouri. And I'd figured out how long it was going to take me to hitch-hike out to the State of Washington.
Then I was picked up somewhere in Cleveland by Fred Hart who was teaching there [i.e. in Washington University in St. Louis Missouri] so I went out to work with Fred Hart, Ted Kidder for oriental archelogy and George Millonis for the Greek and ended up with an M.A. in Schang and early Choo Bronzes after a couple of years. I've taken my time doing these things.
J.M. - Did you actually visualize yourself as an art historian?
R.B. - No. I remember one time, New York University - Craig Smythe was director of it at that point - wrote me a letter and asked me to come back to New York University to work for my Ph.D. and I sent him a letter, which was a typical grad student just before the end of things. “I am fed up with universities. I never want to see the inside of a university again. Thank you very much.” But that's the state you reach, as you know.
J.M. - And when did you begin painting yourself?
R.B. - I always fooled around with painting. Since about the age of four and a half I decided to become a painter. But I didn't figure out how to paint logically, consistently, honestly, until after being one year in Europe.
I came back to teach at the University of Toronto - must have been about 1957 - and I happened to be working and happened to come out with something which was this kind of breakthrough to no reference any more to figuration. And I could see the possibility. It's just like going through the sound barrier.
J.M. - Was your earliest work figurative work?
R.B. - Oh sure. What the hell, I can remember as a kid copying a postcard of A.Y. Jackson which, peculiarly, was in the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery hanging there on loan from the National Gallery when I went out to work there. I thought - Oh God, fantastic. But I also copied Picassos. I learned a lot from that. The synthetic cubist one, the one in Philadephia in the Art Museum, “The Three Musicians” the synthetic cubist job. I had to do that, stylistically. Because that was modern art.
J.M. - Was there an artist in your background or in your family?
R.B. - My dear old aunt - eighty, ninety - something like this I mean, my mother's end of the family lives practically forever. They of course came up with Uncle George, and Uncle George was some kind of tickler in England who was probably a little weak in the wrist but they don't understand that either. He painted. I still have an uncle living in Brazil. I remember we had in our dining room two small watercolours which he did after the end of World War I when he was in the army of occupation. “Something... on the Rhine.” I can still see those things. They were on the west wall of the dining room. So you know, if you want great artists in the background, yes we've got that, a couple of English water colours of the most minor kind.
So what does it mean - an artist in the background? You know, maybe one of my kids will turn out to be an artist and somebody like you says interviewing them later, “well, my father was a painter but he was nothing compared to...” It doesn't mean anything.
J.M. - Another thing that is interesting in terms of your bibliography, that you relate to a male creative figure. Women artists relate to a female creative figure, in general.
R.B. - Well, I'm not relating to these people.
J.M. - No, at least you saw them in your surroundings but women artists very definitely do relate to a creative woman in their background. Of course, it's a very tentative thesis on my part. It's just a hypothesis really,
R.B. - Sure, I mean, one of my aunts who is ninety-some-odd now, paints oil. We have little things by her too, as well.
J.M. - You were at the University of Toronto?
R.B. - And teaching at the University of Toronto for Brieger [in 1957].
J.M. - You were teaching medieval?
R.B. - How could I teach medieval, Joan? I've never had a course in bloody medieval art. I'm in there, see, and I go into Briegher's office after being hired out of England. We're talking about what I'm going to teach and Briegher says, “You're going to teach English Gothic.” I said, “Look, dear Professor Briegher I've never had a course in gothic architecture.” He says, “where'd you just come from?” I said, “England.” “English Gothic” by the book. I mean, that was the dullest course ever given. I even exceeded myself on that one.
J.M. - Well, okay. This wasn't really something that was so influential.
R.B. - It was important in this sense though: that I was totally unwilling to stay at University of Toronto.
J.M. - Somewhat later the imagery in your paintings can be related to, among other things, archeology, and to medieval art.
R.B. - Well, I mean, what the hell, with Byzantine Lights - seventy plus of those things.
J.M. - Kind of easy to do.
R.B. - But you know, shortly I'm going to give a talk called “Giotto's Error” because of the painters right now. The whole mistake of Western Art was made by Giotto. He painted the sky blue. Duccio didn't do it. Cimabue didn't do it. None of my great Byzantine men did it. They knew what they were doing. Giotto paints the sky blue - what the hell happens? No longer did the Byzantine figures loom into space. No, you got a little picture window of the world and it all becomes geometric - dull as hell. Really, I'm quite serious about this painter. Wipe it all out from Giotto. It's all Giotto's fault.
J.M. - Interesting that Ken Lochhead is interested by Russian icons.
R.B. - Those are awfully modern.
J.M. - His favourite pictures of the National Gallery are two Chardins.
R.B. - Oh? This is probably a mistake? They're all a mistake.
J.M. - Oh but it's so much like him.
R.B. - Oh well...
J.M. - But you were the art historian. How did you get to Regina?
R.B. - University of Toronto was paying me 4000 bucks a year.
J.M. - You had come back from Washington...
R.B. - I had been in Europe for a couple of years. I went over. I don't remember the dates. [1955-57]
I got my M.A. at St. Louis [in 1953 and got married and had a son] and I stayed on for two years teaching, okay? I had Greek archeology to take over from George Millinos. George Millinos was a fantastic lecturer, unbelievable. He would give a public lecture in a big hall on campus about Greek archeology. He'd have to repeat it, because people were turned away. I swear, he could've sold shovels at the door on the way out. He was absolutely mesmerizingly electric. He used every trick of the trade. I learned a lot from him. Maybe that's why I'm a ham. But he could speak English perfectly. In the middle of lectures he'd stumble for a word, and the whole audience would throw up the word he was pretending he was looking for. Then he knew he had them. So, yes, I taught a great deal. I taught archeology, modern art, renaissance art.
J.M. - And you were making $4000?
R.B. - No. That was in St. Louis [1951-55]. In University of Toronto [1957-8] I got $4000,00. I needed money because I had essentially borrowed from the Attorney of the a United States. Regardless of the fact I had an American wife and I had a child who was, by their laws, also American. But that's a long story.
I simply ran out of money in Europe, as most good people do, I suppose. That's also, the experience at the Courtauld, something else that I'm not particularly happy about. When I came back I had known about the job in Regina before I left England. But Regina, being very careful, wouldn't hire me. University of Toronto did. Brieger did bring me back, or gave me a job. And I had to borrow money from my parents to get [from London to Toronto].
It was pretty horrific in terms of the number of hours. They could tell when I was really exhausted because I'd clean the slides off my desk so I could go to sleep on it between lectures. I was just simply low man on the totem pole. I saw people like Brieger once a week. They'd come to the office for friday afternoon tea. It's unbelievable.
I had one particular student whom I said I just can't pass. And I was told to pass that person to get him out of our hair. I refused to do it. I just can't do it! In the meantime Brieger was very nice in a sense. Still, I'm going on with Regina. One day I walked in and said, “I'm going to Regina. They offered five hundred bucks more a year!” Wow! five hundred bucks more and maybe you wouldn't have to live in the back of somebody's house. I'd only been to Regina once before on a troop train during the war. And the guy, Brieger, said to me “You can't go to Regina, there's nothing in Regina” It seemed to me a fairly rational reason to go. I had to leave. In fact when I turned in my grades, I had my first wife in the car. She drove the car in the drive. I said, “don't turn off the engine” and I turned in this grade sheet and that is with the one person failing. “I want to get the hell out of here. As soon as I come out!”
I don't know whether that person failed or not. The idea was to simply pass him on to somebody else and he'd never graduate. That kind of person - I knew from my experience in the United States - inevitably graduates. Same rationale: “get him out of my hair.” But that's all and well.
I had to teach a course at night at University of Toronto for which you got paid twenty-five bucks. That was the only way you got some extra money to survive. In that way I lectured all day. And I said to myself, Jeez Bloore, you've got twenty-five bucks for tonight - which is the only time I taught Chinese archeology [the specialty of his Masters Degree] - to a bunch of high school teachers. At least I can have a double martini. It had always been my ambition to have a double martini before supper when I lived in America. Oh, I'd really made it.
So I went to Regina. There was no attempt to ever get me back [to U of T, like there was from NYU], which is understandable because...
J.M. - You're the one that got away?
R.B. - No, after a while, in Regina, I went in to see Dean Riddell, and I went in and said to him, “Look, I'm not going to finish up my Ph.D. People are hung up on Ph.D.'s. Ph.D.'s are for film and television. There are more important things to do. I'm going to be a painter!” Oh, he just about fired me on the spot. But he didn't. We had our ups and downs. I had made up my mind. I had the Courtauld trouble and what-not.
How would I get into there [i.e. China]? Well? Simply because, in the states I'd been working on Chinese art and archeology.? There was not a snowball's chance in hell, at that point, for a North American ever to get into China. So I switched topics, shall we say.
Somehow or other along the way because I'd worked as staff at New York University for a while on one course [back in 1952]. In fact I was the first grad-year student [to lecture a] course at New York University. I didn't know what the hell I was getting into. Everybody came!
J.M. - What appealed to you in the work of Eustache Lesueur?
R.B. - [Nothing.] He's a very dull painter.
Because of Fred Hart, because of George Millinos and all the rest of it. Because the American system is so beautiful. If you're in it and they like you, they don't care if you're American, Canadian or what the hell, or Nairobi. They look after you. So they were giving me everything possible within their academic and scholarship means. But the Courtauld was something else.
I was actually in Paris [after the Rubens symposium in Belgium]. Fred Hart had come up from Italy to Paris and he came over and said, “You know you've been accepted at the Courtauld!” and I said, “I've never heard this.” I went there, and having lived in North Amarica, two things, social and academic:
I went in to see the registrar Clara something or other and I explained to him who I was. They had some vaque knowledge of who I was. I said, “I have a wife and kid and I'm looking for a place to stay.” I ran into a white fag and [a blank stare]. You just don't go to a British Academic Institution and expect that kind of thing [i.e. that kind of help]. Because, in America I would expect it. Because, everybody gets to work and meets you [and hosts you graciously there].
Well later on of course then, I find out [Anthony] Blunt and his fair-haired boys chase all over Europe. The only time he ever spoke to me, (except two or three times in his office which had a marvellous Cézanne in it I guess. Well he's a modern artist anyway so forget it.) he caught me in the stairway one time. My father-in-law had sent me a shirt. The students were not allowed to use the elevator in the Courtauld, see? You had to use the staircase. I was going up and he was coming down and I had this red shirt on with good pearl buttons my father-in-law sent me and he stopped and fingered the buttons... You know, forget it.
I'd been trained in a Germanic American art historical tradition. You know: all the facts before you do anything. After, a while after I got there, he said “well there's some drawings here... Eustache Lesueur... you write samething about them.” I said, “I don't know. I'm here to do good research, right?” So I never completed it. But in the meantime, because the Courtauld is a crazy place on the Ph.D. program, you never go to lectures, you never do anything! Finally I get over to Paris. No letter of introduction, nothing. My french is absolutely atrocious, but my first wife could speak french quite well, being American.
I did a fantastic amount of research. Gallerie Nationale, the whole bit. In the Reserves de la Nation the key thing of the Lesueur series is you don't have any certain dates. But I finally figure out about the dates, positive dates.
The guy only lived to be thirty-five. That's why at the age of thirty-five I said to hell with it. What am I doing researching a guy who died at the age of thirty-five? Here I am thirty-five and I might live a little longer - do something more important.
So I've been rereading, well, everything. All the quide books, the whole bloody bit, through the late sixteenth century on through the French Revolution. Every rough-in. Tracing these paintings that have moved from collection to collection. One of the books was always considered by art historians to be disreputable, absolutely disreputable, because the guy was an eighteenth century so-and-so, and he was also a picture dealer and so he was flaunting things. Everyone's read this stuff and I've read it two or three times (that french is a little easier to read than todays french) except: I don't know about that. There's something strange here. Because the guy says “I have the autographed manuscript, studio manuscript of Eustache Lesueur.” Why would a guy make that kind of statement? The only statement... And then I noticed, stupidly, slowly, that he then switched into a list of Lesueur's works and he switched type face. He switched into italics - only use of italics in the whole thing. Oh my God! If he's got the autographed studio manuscript for commissions of Eustache Lesueur? He had broken it up in a series of paragraphs. These could be taped [and matched] year by year, no dates mentioned anywhere along the way. No, [but] with the three I knew: It's there, it's there, it's there. I got the whole key to Eustache Lesueur dating! No one else knows where he's got this.
So later on I go back to London. That was a great trip back. I finally got to see Blunt. I explained this to him. “No, it's not true.” I said, “But, but...” There's no argument with a Brit of that order, because I'm just a Canadian colonial. And I'm not one of his boys.
Three months later he called me in to set down. “You know what? You could be right!” I said “Yeah, I know I am right.” But I have to go back to Canada to get money, to work.
I came back to Canada. But it's funny because, you know, going through University of Toronto after the war, in a sense, there's a kind of tremendous amount of British propaganda. In a way, the whole bit was still: ultimately, you should try, I think within the people I knew, to get to Britain. But my God, my father was right when he came out from Britain before the first World War but didn't go back to live. It's just a different mentality, different training, different attitudes.
J.M. - What happened to you when you went to Regina? Were you terribly shocked?
R.B. - Why should I be shocked? I'd seen a hell of a lot.
J.M. - No, but did you feel that it was a culture shock?
R.B. - No. I think culture shock is simply a matter for people who don't have any. No I mean really, I can still recall, as I said, I've been there, through there, in 1944 in a trooptrain in the summer time. If it had been the winter, it would have been a different story.
I was flown out to see if I would be acceptable in Regina. Put up at the Hotel Saskatchewan. I still always stay at the Hotel Saskatchewan simply for old times sake. But what shocked me was, when I went out there this man at the airport named Steve Riddell drove me into town. He started to show me the houses and I had not fairly agreed to go. The houses in Regina are as small as the prairie is large. It's an inverse proportion type thing. I still don't understand it. But the houses in Regina are just like Monopoly set houses, no bigger than that. I walked in and was shown the gallery which had never been operated as a gallery. (I'll get around to that point shortly.) I thought, Bloore you've never added up a budget in your life. There are five gallery rooms, three levels. You've never bossed anybody in your life. You've never had a secretary - never had anything in your life. Unbelievable. Trained as a good artist you never have contact with that sort of stuff.
J.M. - You were a curator?
R.B. - I'd never trained. No, I was stricly a lecturer. All I do is drape myself over a lecturn and go to sleep and say next slide please! I'd never had any background and experience that way which is interesting. And I still recall driving up there as we got close to it, with my first wife and the boy, then I turned and said, “Mark I'm really sorry but there's not very much here.” You couldn't see anything and there was a sign that said, Regina Five miles! and you still couldn't see anything, or, next to nothing. But, it was a very sensible decision - very rational. In a short period of time, certain factors, elements, began to fall into place. I could operate quite rationally.
And part of the rationality was the Regina Five rather than the Regina Six. Because Canadians paint by numbers. But this is jumping ahead - the whole Clement Greenberg bit. Because I had been out of Canada since between 1949 and 1958, something like that. I did not know until two or three years after I'd been vaguely instrumental in getting Greenberg out there [see below]. Clement Greenberg had never been in Canada before. I didn't know that.
J.M. - The Gallery - a focus point - and now Ted Godwin and the studio.
R.B. - Godwin. Just passed on to us from Max Bates of Calgary and I just knew of Maxwell Bates because of Art McKay, Roy Kiyooka, Doug Morton who had all been in Calgary at some time and had been in contact with this, the only architect I've known who spent his time working in salt mines in Germany during the war. The poor guy was caught by the Germans just after the war started. He worked the salt mines in Bavaria and did drawings there too. Some of which he still has.
So he sort of passed us on. The west is quite different from the east or central Canada, whatever the area's called. Godwin came in and Roy told me about him. And I didn't think too much about any of the guys out there as painters. McKay was painting cowboys or something. I can remember two or three like that - bloody awful things - half-assed mid-western abstraction. Roy's stuff was the same way. They were pretty suspicious of me - as a good westerner is going to be suspicious of someone from down here.
J.M. - Who introduced the art magazines? Like Art in America?
R.B. - Art in America?
J.M. - You were reading Art in America...
R.B. - Oh, Art News. That's how Barney Newman got there. He had a big two-page reproduction of Big Blue Painting in Art News, I think. It was simply, those things are coming into the limelight.
J.M. - What was happening in your painting at the time?
R.B. - It was non-figurative. Possibly one of the earliest was in the Windsor show - I think it belongs to Lea Collins - if you look carefully I think you can see a foot-print and that was my boy - stepped on it in Toronto. I put it out on the back step - the back house we were living in and he didn't know it was there and stepped on it, I think you can actually find a slight indication of a foot print in it. It was from Toronto. I was totally non-figurative when I went out there and none of the other guys were.
J.M. - They never saw a figurative work by you?
R.B. - Oh no. They couldn't have seen a figurative work by me.
J.M. - They never knew you did figurative work in their lives.
R.B. - No. Would it be a hang-up for them? Except for Doug they couldn't do anything. Morton could, Morton could. He could draw. He could paint really.
J.M. - But it has made them feel that you were in the avant-garde of their own work because they never saw figurative work by you and therefore they assumed you never did figurative work.
R.B. - That's a stupid thing. I mean really, you didn't get that out of some of the guys, did you? I sometimes call it figurative but I wouldn't call it art.
J.M. - All right here it is, in the words of Kenneth Lochhead “Ron was really abstract. He never did figurative art.”
R.B. - Well he again is a painter, see, not a historian.
J.M. - “Ron had the Tenth Street touch.”
R.B. - Tenth Street touch? I can recall - that's an interesting point - because in 1949 or 50, I saw the first Tenth Street exhibition [in New York] and I didn't know what the hell I was looking at, in a sense. But I can still recall going in. On the right hand just after you went in on... The exhibition I saw was on the south side of the street. There was a big Bradley Walker Tomlin and I can remember some other things. I have a visual recall of that show.
J.M. - Bradley Walker Tomlin was a very important name. [Bill] Ronald looked a lot at Bradley Walker Tomlin. Now going back a little bit. Talk about the fact - and this is terribly important for Ken - that you introduced a scraper.
R.B. - For Ken? Okay, well, I'm in Toronto teaching at the University Of Toronto. Ken Lochhead, Saskatchewan, gets a sabbatical. He is going to Rome, Bella Italia, So he drops off and we give him a bloody awful supper but what else on four bucks can you give him? He comes back from Italy where, curiously, he ran into a chap by the name of Ed Boccia whom I had known in St. Louis. He taught at the Art School. There was an Art School in Washington University as well as the Art Historians. They kept us in separate buildings. Very discreet, very proper. He came back and his retrospective exhibition in Windsor includes, I think, one of those works of... Left Hand gallery as you went in, sort of a blasé figure. Jeez, it was bloody awful. He had lots of these things. He finally, one time at Emma Lake, showed them to me. We had a long session, ‘til about four o'clock in the morning. That kind of stuff [in this exhibition catalog].
J.M. - Numbers nine and ten in the exhibition.
R.B. - I haven't seen that [catalog]. And lots of that kind of thing. So I explained to him - I knew he was supposed to be an important painter, or such, of the country, and I guess I'd had enough to drink and he'd had enough to drink, so I let him have it. I told him it was all shit. He didn't know anything about colour, in particular, which is rather amusing. Said to go back to square one and start with black and white.
J.M. - You were telling Ken this?
R.B. - Of course, he doesn't paint for about a year and a half. If you look very carefully, there are great gaps. Okay. This doesn't look like Ken at all. And we used - Doug and Ted and Art and I - used to spend hours with Ken, drinking beer in the Hotel Saskatchewan or maybe in the West Inn or maybe in the King's Hotel trying to keep up his spirits. But Ken is very, very secretive. You don't know what he's doing. Then he starts the black and white trip. He knows quite a bit about colour because when Greenberg came along he could buy it.
J.M. - What happened with the scraper?
R.B. - Oh, I don't know. McKay stole it. I don't mind anybody borrowing technical methods. I was using scrapers on masonite. I started that in Toronto with stove pipe enamel. That's another story. We won't bother with it. I was still pouring stove pipe enamel and all that sort of stuff out west when he started to paint the copies.
The guys - I know - they thought it was pretty strange. I was sort of an interloper. But they were nice too, because they gave me space in the summertime to work up in the studio and the School of Art.
J.M. - You felt that was very important, the scrapers?
R.B. - Not really. The technical methods are nothing. Material is nothing. but I got mad later on when McKay started to steal my images. Then I blew my stack. When he started to steal the circles, then I had to quit making the circles.
J.M. - Douglas was always using ovals.
R.B. - Who?
J.M. - Douglas Morton.
R.B. - Morton. Yeah. Morton's shapes are quite different. That stuff's coming out of [André] L'Hote and Martin Bloch and that sort of stuff. And they're sexy as hell.
J.M. - Martin Bloch.
R.B. - Yes Martin Bloch. Right.
J.M. - He doesn't tell you how sexy the girl...
R.B. - Doug loves a good set of cans. A good set of buttocks in particular. People don't see this. It's incredible. He's one of the most erotic, sensuous and underestimated painters in the country. I suspect that may be one of the reasons why people don't want to confront him.
J.M. - This is why: Eroticism is in the eye of the beholder.
R.B. - No. That's passion.
J.M. - Six kids later... Now, when you were in Regina among the painters there, among the people there who did you look to as interesting for your work?
R.B. - No one, But one person's formal criticism that I did listen to, and the only guy that could do it was Doug Morton. He had the most phenomenal eye. I can still recall one time coming down - Doug and I had a small studio in the basement of the Wascana Hotel (That was a piss-hole. It used to stink down there) - he came in and looked at the painting - this is when I used to still use colour or, other colours, and he looked at it and said “you've got these problems with it: A,B,C,D” and he was absolutely in order, at a glance. Incredible formal eye that guy's got. Very subtle eye, very logical eye. People don't know this. It's true. The only guy I'd listen to in terms of formal criticism.
J.M. - What about Richard Simmons?
R.B. - Oh well, hell, Simmons wasn't there any more then. He would just bomb through periodically. Great romance. Richard has great romance - oh God yes - great romance. No, I would never listen to a non-painter on that sort of stuff. That was the only thing we were concerned with, making images that function well.
J.M. - What about the group as an “in group?”
R.B. - Yes. We were two groups, quite clearly established by the gallery - read: Bloore. Because the interesting thing of course was that Ken ran the School of Art which, properly crowned the Art Gallery - I always liked tnat symbolism. He was the director of it, professor and all the rest of it. Right. So he ran it just the way he wanted to, by the law, with total totalitarian control. Quite simple. It's the only way you can operate a gallery. Total control. I could make a decision on exhibitions. No-one ever questioned me on that. But spend fifty bucks for anything, then you would have to call a committee man. I never pointed out the ludicrous side of that situation.
J.M. - Talk a little bit about Professor [William] Riddell your close friendship with him.
R.B. - Well, Dr. Riddell - I suppose one should say Dean Riddell as he was at that particular point. We had our ins and outs. In times, he could be incredibly supportive, particularly when the gallery was getting hell from the public. But he could also read me the riot act in his office. I remember Ken, one time, walked into the office. We were going to go up to the Saskatchewan [Hotel for a drink], and Ken walked in the office and he realized the situation was a little tense and Ken's whole face went absolutely red and he got out of there as fast as he could. He never understood what was going on.
And I can understand from his [Riddell's] political view that if the gallery had decided: this certain artist should be recognized and supported by, as it were, the Gallery, and others in the community were not to be supported by the gallery, he could run into a little static with letters to the president, letters to the premier.
Some of the people in the out group were John Lows, who is now at Concordia. Donald Harvey came in, a Brit, and he really didn't understand anything in a sense. That got to be a little rough, because he was working for the Saskatchewan Arts Board. That's another aspect of the whole thing. John Nugent. Yes, he's working for the University out there now, but he was totally out. He was a good friend of John Miller. John Nugent a good friend of John Harvey. He began to coalesce along... Then Don Harvey, then Molly Lawrence and who else, man and wife, Beth and Mac Holme. They were in the out group. Clara Samuels, out group as far as I'm concerned. They didn't get in. I banned all local exhibitions. I banned all provincial exhibitions. I think I killed off the Saskatchewan Society of Artists. I hope I did. They seemed to think they had a right to an exhibition every year. Forget it. You don't have. They had no rights.
J.M. - In 1961 the Canadian Museum Association met in Regina.
R.B. - Was it '61? I'd have to check that. I don't recall.
J.M. - ...as director of the gallery. Richard Simmons said, “Bloore and a local show!?” And Evan Turner [Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art] came early.
R.B. - What you have to know was, of course at the age of thirty-five I was gung-ho. Trying to function well in things, teaching, running the gallery. I knew every painting in the gallery in those years and a few other things. Some were successful - some weren't.
I was director elect, or whatever it's called, [in 1958] - before I went west - I was [already] down to a Museum Association Meeting...
J.M. - Now [back to May 1961], Evan Turner came early. Richard Simmons checked with Turner and he wanted the whole show for the National Gallery of Canada. But not the architect.
R.B. - Not the sculptor and not the architect.
J.M. - That's right. Get rid of Clifford Wiens. Architects aren't artists.
R.B. - Some argument like that. It would be in the files out there, regardless of what Bill says.
J.M. - Roy Kiyooka was left out against the will of the others.
R.B. - That was out of the May Show [in '61]. That was the show that was put up for these guys to see, against which Simmons [the National Gallery Director of Extension Services] had warned me “Don't do it. You can't put on a local show and have the Canadian Museums Association there.” I was saying before: At that age I was gung-ho, enthusiasm, that sort of stuff. I attended a Canadian Museum Associations meeting that was before I ever went out there. And then the following year, I had another one, and they were sort of looking around for somewhere to go and I simply said, “Fine. Come to Regina! The Saskatchewan Provincial Museum and Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery will host this whole thing.” That was a bird watching type museum. That didn't exactly work out the way I wanted it to but, I did put on the show for the local people. Although Simmons had warned me at a Canadian Conference of the Arts meeting not to do it. I couldn't quite see it because I thought the guys were pretty good. I made a selection. There was an ‘out' group and an 'in' group. And they knew what was coming up and I said “Okay, on such and such a date bring the stuff in. I don't select anything.” I selected people. And as the stuff came in, it was just [that it was too much stuff and some] stuff which was not very good. Can't win them all.
J.M. - So it was never acknowledged [by the NGC], the fact that another [version of this] show existed?
R.B. - No. This perpetuates the... The best thing about it, he called them Regina Five. We never did. We never called ourselves a group or anything. Except in the 'in' and the 'out' bit phase.
These guys had been recognized at home first. But that doesn't fit the myth that you are never recognized at home first. So you can't say the fact that this was [already] a show. No, it's dear old Richards Simmons, never wanted to admit he might be picking up something. But he was good to us. Always came through.
I can remember the early years out there when you could look up at the con-trails, the planes going - the Ambassador or something in that plane... “Why the hell don't they come down here?” After a while every Goddamn plane came down! And we got fed up with it. People coming to take a look at this sort of [new political] situation. What is going on? The most amusing thing along this line was a British High Commissioner was doing this tour of Canada and the provinces. And apparently the protocol is that they always ask, what would you like to do in the city? And he said, “I want to meet the Regina Five.” Can you imagine what that did to a provincial government? what it did to the Dean? They couldn't believe it. He was a great entrepreneur. He was marvelous. We had a great time.
J.M. - Clement Greenberg?
R.B. - American critic whom I knew very well after the Regina Five opening in Ottawa, which was also fun. In fact the local newspaper, The Regina Leader Post, covering this momentous event, reproduced a Morton painting upside down with the inevitable quips underneath. But after the opening in Ottawa which was very well done - McKay, Douglas Morton and I went on to New York. Ken stayed in Ottawa because his parents lived there and we went down to see the show of Barnett Newman. And we were over at Barney's one night. I remember Ken gave me a problem, I guess, of asking Barney, whom he didn't know, whom he might recommend [for Emma Lake] and Barney said, “Well you guys don't need painters out there. I suggest a critic: Clement Greenberg. But,” he said, ”don't tell Clem that I reccommended him.” Otherwise he wouldn't come. We went back to Regina and forgot about it and Ken came down with a story and McKay said, “what did Newman say.” and I said, “Clement Greenberg.” About whom I knew essentially nothing, at least did not know his previous contacts with Ken. Or in any sense what he might be like. What Barry Lewit would call a guru from the Imperial Cultural Centre of America. I didn't meet him until a tremendous amount of time later because I was in Greece when he gave that particular [Emma Lake workshop] thing. And I came back from Greece and took a look at the exhibition [bookings] which had been worked out extensively by Gerald Finlay at Queen's University - who was their replacement [for me]. I have had nothing but complaints, even from my father, about Finlay. The whole exhibition schedule was obviously devised by Clement Greenberg. I like people to tell it to me, but I don't like it told to me in my own office. Then I started to cancel the exhibitions. Wow - the lines burned between here and New York and Washington. I thought this is an academic institution - academic in a way - and we have a responsibility to offer people a multiplicity of choice. Not straight down the bloody line. I got a little bit difficult, a little ecstatic - had to go see my old friendly druggist and get some tranquilizers from under the counter to survive. It was pretty rough. You don't take on that without complications. The senator thought the whole roof was going to fall in on him. We have met two or three times. Those are nasty stories, some of them. Best to forget about them. Ten or fifteen years later they are fun.
J.M. - You were not leader of the group?
R.B. - There were no leaders. Just like the group, there were no leaders. Very close, except for Lochhead. Lochhead was always distant. He did not quite participate the same way as everybody else did. We never thought anything of going over at ten o'clock to Roy's place or Ted's place and say, crack open a case and talk and argue al] night. But Ken - no. But he would have participated otherwise. J.M. - At the time, then, did you have dealers?
R.B. - No. The only dealers there were were not in Canada. No. What?
J.M. - No eastern connection.
R.B. - No. I never thought about that. The important thing was to get the things done. J.M. - In talking to Barnett Newman, can you remember anything that Barnett Newman said, specifically.
R.B. - No.
J.M. - He directed you to go to several shows.
R.B. - He told me to see the Jasper Johns show. I remember that. He told me to see a sculpture show - Smith, I guess was the name. Never got to see the Smith show.
J.M. - He apparently told you to see the Matisse cutouts.
R.B. - Yes, I was there. The Chagalls, I thought were God awful, and still do. The Matisses were fine.
J.M. - Did you look at much of Barney's work?
R.B. - Never been in his studio.
J.M. - You never went to his Studio at the time?
R.B. - No.
J.M. - You went to his home?
R.B. - Yes. His apartment.
J.M. - He had his own work hanging?
R.B. - Yes. He had a big apartment. He hung some dozen things in it. Also one about this broad: about an inch wide.
J.M. - Did you talk anything about art.
R.B. - I really don't recall. When he came up there to Saskatchewan, to Emma Lake, I was just another person there of the group. Was McKay who sort of had to run him, to use some of my terminology.
J.M. - Barnett Newman. You can't remember talking anything specific about art. Did he mention his interest in archaeology?
R.B. - Oh something about the bird thing. That was published everywhere.
J.M. - But he was actually an ornithologist?
R.B. - I wouldn't say that. He taught high school biology until much later. He never talked about it.
J.M. - When you left Regina you went to Europe?
R.B. - Yes.
J.M. - Did the Regina Five exist more as a group after most of them left Regina?
R.B. - Oh, it never was a group. Just by that accident of hanging. I don't think they existed that way, or whatever we have to mean by that. After Godwin and I returned from Greece, I was so mad at McKay.
R.B. - Because he had been riding my shoulders for too long. I don't mind a guy stealing techniques but stealing imagery. Things got a little thick.
J.M. - What about Roy Kiyooka in those snow things?
R.B. - I don't recall his snowflakes. I think have a vague recall of what you mean.
J.M. - Because he felt he had introduced the hore-frost imagery first.
R.B. - That's fine. He put a hell of a lot in. Simplify. Enough!
J.M. - Let's go back to the paintings that you did in Regina. Now basically what about that scrapper blade? Were your works being done basically with the scrapper blade?
R.B. - With paint scrapper. I started that in Toronto.
J.M. - You were using a little bit of colour?
R.B. - Yes. I was using colour. Of course, I was using lots of colour. It is so bloody simple. You can figure out exactly how it is going to work. It is just a pure formal solution. It has nothing to do. So I gave up colour. When I went to Greece and painted for a while, in Athens, I went in and bought a bunch of tubes of colour because I thought, I will get back into that, and I still have those tubes of colour in my studio today. I tried a few canvases but it got to be a bloody bore and I went back to white. The first white one was in 1958 which I still have.
J.M. - You were not a group. But just for fun, let's work through the material I've collected with the other artist’s.
R.B. - I was just lucky in that I ran the gallery and therefore had a little control over what was exhibited. That's all any good curator would do and believe the curator should function with some artist’s that lived in the community. Consider that a directorial job. You couldn't exhibit everybody.
J.M. - Who started calling it the Regina Five?
R.B. - Simmons...
J.M. - Newman said you should certainly see the Chagal Window.
R.B. - Who said that?
J.M. - Doug.
R.B. - Well that's good.
J.M. - And the Miro show.
R.B. - Doug likes Miro right now. That's a blue sky. Someone told me the other day that Miro said all the painting since the paleolithic years have been a mistake. I could have mixed it up with the Barney stuff because I saw him more than once in New York. I can recall one Saturday he said, you guys meet me. We met him off Broadway, up some stairs and it was a boxing ring and the boxers were trying out and I was standing there and I could smell the sweat. It was nauseating. For ages it seemed to me and then Barney said, “Let's go. Now you understand what professionalism is.” That is how Barney communicated. Only, that kind of thing can, possibly, have nothing to do with art.
J.M. - Douglas works through detailed works that he has done and this development improved through work by work. For Douglas the value of the Regina Five was that he could bounce off of his peers.
R.B. - Yes, I can still recall going to his place called Edward Street near the airport in Regina. We were going down to his basement - this must have been in 1958 - and seeing some of the craziest things that I have seen. He had very fine paintings. Particularly one of somewhere down the south coast of England - white cliffs - all that sort of stuff, soul painting, very good, and he also had pieces of masonite down there which were shaped and curved with holes cut in them and those were earlier than 1958. Of course, because I don't think he had been working for a while. Really crazy stuff. Morton had a very consistent evolution from the landscape thing or figurative things through to what he is doing now. You can see the shapes that he has in some of his present paintings in the clouds of some of his early paintings.
J.M. - Now Ken, among the group, was looking to Art.
R.B. - McKay?
J.M. - Yes.
R.B. - For what?
J.M. - He was interested in his opinion.
R.B. - McKay is really a frustrated sociologist in many respects. Interesting guy.
J.M. - Quite a lot of material about the Emma Lake workshops too.
R.B. - Ken had had them from 1955 on. It was a very good program. Quite remarkable. You see this is the problem. Earlier I said Vickers said I can't go out there, there is nothing out there. It is quite ridiculous because if you take a look at the history of cultural and university developments it occurs culturally in terms of time. The prairies were ahead of eastern Canada, the rest of Canada. They virtually all had faculties of Fine Arts of some sort or other - artists being taught. University of Toronto was the only one and Central Tech at that time. You could have Manitoba, Regina, Saskatoon and probably Edmonton, I'm not too certain. And Banff of course was, out there. They were much more interested in a University level in intellectual examination and odd material than professional accomplishment. There is a place called Davidson in Saskatchewan. It is half way between Regina and Saskatoon. It has an opera house in it. The east doesn't really understand the west. That part of the west.
J.M. - For Ken, it is very possible that you were the leader of the group.
R.B. - There was no leader.
J.M. - You had a strong 'parental facility’.
R.B. - Okay. I had a job and my job was to propagandize, as you do for your people. But that was simply part of the job. I was paid to do it.
J.M. - You had a concern for modernism.
R.B. - Concern for quality, not modernism. By modernism, Ken means non-figurative stuff. I gave Ernie [Lindner] his first show, gave Maxwell Bates his first show. How modern can you be? Great guys. The only thing I did in Saskatchewan was followed in the footsteps of Norah McCullough and gave recognition to Jan Wyers. That is the only thing that I accomplished in Saskatchewan.
J.M. - What did the Regina Five mean for you?
R.B. - That is hard to answer because we didn't think of ourselves as the Regina Five. I can recall when we put up the May show walking down the stairs to the lower level and Doug turned to me and said, “you know the sad thing here is that there aren't any younger people in the show.” Doug was very concerned that way. Godwin, we always referred to as “the kid” so “the kid” has had his heart outside him [sugically] and all that sort of stuff - practically died.
J.M. - The concern of Art with LSD. It has nothing to do with his paintings? R.B. - No.
J.M. - It seems a well established 'fact'.
R.B. - Hell, that is not LSD necessarily. That can be peyote, that could be pot. The magic mushrooms were possible within Saskatchewan culture, Indian culture. I don't think peyote grows naturally in Saskatchewan. Some cacti do. Prickly Pear does not grow in Saskatchewan. So it was only an aspect of subculture. I don't know how it came in. I suspect the first pot was brought in by Americans or Bob Murray.
J.M. - Is Bob Murray American
R.B. - No, from Saskatoon.
J.M. - He was really the main student of the school.
R.B. - If you want to call it ‘student'. We are still alive and well but weren't students.
J.M. - Why would you have been a strong parental figure? Could you have children?
R.B. - How many kids did Wiens have? How many kids did Morton have? How many did Lochhead have? How many did Godwin have? All these guys had more than I had at that point. Building the crates and all that stuff - absolutely as illegal as hell, and the ‘out' group would find out about it and wouldn't like it.
J.M. - Could you see the Regina Five just as an ‘in group'. Every one had spoken of it in these terms.
R.B. - No.
J.M. - Ken did too.
R.B. - He was always referring to it. But the ‘out' group don't matter.
J.M. - Would it be better to not call them the Five from Regina and just see them in terms of...
R.B. - There is a group of Indians up in Northern Ontario; it calls themselves the Group of Seven. There is another group of One Hundred and Nine. There is even a guy who calls himself the Group of One in Toronto.
J.M. - What should the name of the group be?
R.B. - We don't think of it as a group. So we all end up non-figurative. We all end up admiring guys like Wyers, Max, Ernie Lindner. That's not a group. It just happens to be. I've determined that it would be that way because I understood how it worked and wanted to put the place on the map. Read history, you can learn from it.
J.M. - Were you the most aggressive person or was Art?
R.B. - He was never agressive. He could never be aggressive. He didn't have the position which required being aggressive. I had a position which required being aggressive. You have got a job and you make it the way you see it.
J.M. - But Art is very agressive.
R.B. - No. Not really. No. Quite the contrary. Roy could be aggressive. Very aggressive. In a case like Roy - Roy had to measure up to MacDonald. And Roy projects himself as the greatest teacher in Canadian Art since J.W.G. Macdonald. That is part of Roy's ambition. I can recall walking down a street one night in the winter in Regina and Roy was talking about school and lack of teachers. I turned around and said, “you are lying through your teeth because you love it.” He is aggressive and abrasive. He didn't get along with the administration either.
J.M. - Ken was very gentle and distant. And perhaps now he feels a bit neglected.
R.B. - I don't blame him for feeling neglected. The Windsor show, it was a crime that it didn't go across the country. They did try to book it with you.
J.M. - When did they phone me?
R.B. - I don't know when they phoned you. But I knew they tried to book this thing. Vancouver was going to take the show and then backed off from it. Did you see that invitation Winnipeg sent out? Great big colour reproduction and Ken is going to be out there and talk and wander through the exhibition with the people. But that is not good enough: Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Windsor.
J.M. - Doug is a hard worker and steady.
R.B. - I guess. Out of the whole bunch Doug interest me more as a painter than the others. It is probably my kind of way of working at things.
J.M. - And so the eroticism is very much there.
R.B. - It is not erotic in the Playboy sense. It is good, healthy love for humanity for the earth mother image, for re-generation. That's all there. Marvellous stuff. Morton comes on with what some people call fairly aggressive colour. But in actual fact he is using what is very subtly related colours. I know that from watching him change his paintings over a period of time.
J.M. - He is truly a French painter.
R.B. - This is part of the difficulty that Doug had. That nobody has been able to relate [him to] anything else at the moment that is going on. Did you know that Doug used to play goal for the hockey team of Paris?
J.M. - Why didn't Doug receive more recognition?
R.B. - Because people are incapable of relating the stuff. And I think unconsciously people are rebelling against maybe the sexuality of the work which was absolutely helping, enriching, powerful. He gives it width with the colour and the structure he has. It is a perfect combination - male / female - in his paintings. But the beautiful thing about Doug is - it didn't bother him. Most guys would have given up. But Doug was out there five and six days a week, working at it. What else can you do? He gave up his business. He could be a millionaire by now. I remember one time over at his house Cliff Wiens designed for him, we were talking and Simmons was there. Doug pulled out a buck and said, ‘I. bet anybody can make that! And at that point he decided to get out of business. He proved he could do it.
J.M. - Richard was a rare breed and I think in my view he was a little less aggressive than you and Art.
R.B. - I don't understand Art as being aggressive.
J.M. - Art has his own territory.
R.B. - Yes, part of it was mine.
J.M. - Out of the group Art and you were the closest in terms of personality, to me, as an outsider.
R.B. - Godwin and I could get along because Godwin painted in a totaly different manner. So we could share our studio together.