If you had the power to impose mandatory art history education in Canadian elementary and high schools, what would you do first?
First of all, I’d impose it. And second of all, I think I would do what one of my art history professors at McGill did. He started with the present, and worked his way back. He said to his students that, because you’re fresh and enthusiastic, we’ve got to start with the tough stuff now. And the easy stuff comes near the end. I would probably take that kind of approach because people need to know what’s going on in their world today more urgently than they need to know what was going on 200 or 300 years ago. I would certainly work in that direction. I think that it’s very important that people have an art historical background, because it’s not just for art history. Our world is almost entirely invented—there are even large parts of what we consider to be nature—which are really not—that are the result of our intervention in the world. So, we need to understand these sorts of things, and art history helps us to read not only the images of the world, but what everything means. Why streets and buildings—for example—are the way they are. There’s so much that you can learn from art history. It’s a very important subject, and it’s not taken very seriously at all.
It seems that most kids growing up, even university students, have little knowledge of visual culture, its history and significance. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had competent instructors teaching kids about visual culture as part of the curriculum.
One of my pet peeves is abstract art which is, of course, the new pornography. It is deeply offensive to far too many people, who don’t know a damn thing about it. What we don’t understand immediately is that it is a culture that is well over a century old. But if you look at it globally, it’s one of our very first instincts. We made patterns from the first moments that we made art. The oldest ceramics that we have are not figurative, they are abstract. Monochrome painting is something that goes back to the 16th century in China. Why is it so shocking to somebody in the 21st century, that we’re interested in the escapism of a pure field of exquisite colour? I mean, the Chinese were interested in it over generations, trying to develop the right glazes to get that colour just right. All this stuff I find a little bit frustrating. It’s less frustrating now, when there’s such an overheated art market, when I realize that there’s a large part of the international economy now that’s very interested in new art, over any other kind of art.
But it’s not happening in Canada.
Not at all happening in Canada (laughs).
In Germany and in the US, for example, you have a vibrant culture of connoisseurship and critical taste, and a vibrant market. So why don’t we have this in Canada?
We have everything, except for the market. We have a connoisseurship that is equal to what you would see in Europe or the United States. In some areas we are more familiar with what’s going on in the world than a lot of our American colleagues. What we don’t have is the enthusiasm on the part of Canadian elites for Canadian art. And that’s too bad, because the way the art world works, is that if the national economy is not willing to guarantee the price of these works, then it’s very difficult to export it. The only reason that there’s so much American art—and a lot of it mediocre—in the world, is that Americans do guarantee those prices. So you’re not taking a risk as an Italian, for example, or a Frenchman—the French are big investors in American art because they think it’s a good investment, it’s stable, they’re not taking any wild risks with these things because if they ever get bored with it or feel that they’ve made a mistake after a couple of years and can’t live with it they can always sell it to an American, and at least get their money back. This is not the case with Canadian art. It’s quite infrequent that Canadian artists have that sort of market support in Canada.
I’ve met Americans who are astonished at the richness of our visual culture right here in Quebec, especially with the Quebec abstract painters.
Yes! The thing I hear about all the time is the astonishment. This little exhibition going on right now on the development of abstraction in Montreal (Noah’s Ark), who knew about all of this stuff? Look for instance at Riopelle and Jackson Pollock, experimenting in the same kinds of areas, without knowing each other, each having no clue that the other existed, exactly at the same time, it’s the Zeitgeist. The development of abstraction in Quebec is quite rigorous, and very impressive. We plan to make quite a bit of it at the MACM in the future.
What about young Montreal artists like [photo-based hyper-realist] Nicolas Baier?
Well, he’s one of my favourites, definitely. I think he’s . . . there’s not going to be much left to photography when he’s through with it. There will be very few questions we can ask that medium.
Is he still making furniture?
I don’t know. I know that he had a sideline as a carpenter, and the idea of taking a carpenter’s mentality, and putting it to work for the betterment of photography, is really quite novel. But he’s not the only one. My personal favourite is—and I realize that this work is so recondite that the average bear isn’t going to come within a 1000 miles of it—is Alexandre David. I think he’s like a second generation minimalist artist, an installation artist, and I think he’s absolutely fine, he’s a fine, fine mind. His sense of space and proportion, the way he can fill a room with plywood, what he can do with plywood blows my mind. I have seen three installations of his so far, and all have been spectacular.
There’s also Pascal Grandmaison, who I think is very subtle, he’s good, he’s great. There’s some very original artists around, like the ones we’re showing right now. I think all of these artists have the potential to have international careers. But it makes me nervous, because many of the artists who were painting in the 60s had international careers, but they were very brief, and there was no follow-up. Molinari and Tousignant, people like that, they’re all in American collections, in storage, which is shocking. I’ve worked in American museums that had them in storage, and I couldn’t do anything about it, even as a curator there. They were hot all over the world during the period of Expo ’67, and then it just kind of petered out, whereas their American colleagues, the interest remained, because there’s a very, very large audience for American art in the United States. So I would hate for that to happen again, to a new batch of young artists, because there was nothing really in between . . . pardon me, excuse me, there were a number of women actually who were quite successful in the 80s, Angela Grauerholz and Geneviève Cadieux for example, and also Barbara Steinman. These were people who showed abroad, and showed rather spectacularly abroad in the case of Angela Grauerholz with her installation Documenta. Angela seems to have kept her international audience, Geneviève probably to a lesser extent. But it’s important to know that’s it’s possible to live and work in Montreal and have an international career.
Do you have anything to say to the worldwide whitehot magazine audience?
Come and visit us!
Robert Kilborn is a Montreal writer.
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