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Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art, by Iris Nowell

Iris Nowell's Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art is a gorgeous artifact that the publisher rightly calls "a quintessential Painters Eleven Gallery." Pages of text are interspersed with splendidly reproduced full-colour images of the artists' works; archival photographs offer glimpses into their early days.

Through her 20-year relationship with Harold Town and friendships with Tom Hodgson and Walter Yarwood, Nowell came to know the rest of the group and fall in love with their work.

To appreciate abstract expressionist painting, she says, one must allow oneself to be possessed by the painting and surrender to its energy, power and rhythm. She believes the Painters Eleven were among the world's greatest abstractionists.

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When the group came together, influential European artists like Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall and Hans Hoffmann had arrived on the New York art scene.

Critic Harold Rosenberg was promoting the "action painters" - Pollock, de Kooning, Gorky, Newman, Kline. There were as many versions of abstract expressionism as there were artists, but their points of agreement lay in their outsize canvases, bold colours, sweeping brushwork and the conviction that the artist was free to distort natural forms at will, or to abandon them entirely. A work of art was an autonomous object in its own right, regardless of its subject or its lack of one. It was under this broad stylistic umbrella that the Painters Eleven joined forces.

Tom Hodgson, like many artists of the time, earned his living working in an ad agency. It was the days of three-martini lunches, Nowell says; the gin was replaced by Pouilly-Fuissé when they had learned how to pronounce it. Hodgson's studio, known as the Pit, was a magnet for ad men and artists and the occasional civilian. Hodgson loved to paint and draw from the nude (sometimes in the nude) and had a talent for persuading people to undress. "You could be standing in his studio one minute," Nowell says, "and the next, your clothes were in a heap on the floor. "

Jack Bush supported his family as a commercial artist and painted trite bucolic scenes in his spare time. Under the influence of the controversial American critic Clement Greenberg he abandoned his sombre landscapes and falling-down barns, got rid of what Greenberg called "the surface jazz" and began painting the carefully outlined enclosures of pure colour that became his signature motif .

Greenberg's archrival Rosenberg lauded the bold abstractions of William Ronald, declaring that Ronald's "Central Black" was not a picture but an event. The handsome young Canadian artist became a hit in New York, painting furiously and mounting one roaringly successful show after another. He returned to Toronto exhausted at the age of 39, his work no longer au courant amid new movements like hard-edge abstraction, colour field, minimalism and pop.

The two female Painters Eleven were enthusiastic abstractionists, probably too busy to join in bohemian studio high jinks. Alexandra Luke had to steal time for her art between her duties as a mother and the wife of a well-to-do businessman. Abstract painter Hortense Gordon was an art teacher, already in her 60s when she joined the Painters Eleven. She was active in artistic circles and instrumental in bringing the English-born artist Ray Mead into the fold.

Oscar Cahén's short life (he died at 40 in an accident) was marked by early hardship, as was Kazuko Nakamura's.

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Cahén's part-Jewish family had fled the Nazis, but Cahén was nevertheless interned in Quebec as an enemy alien. After his release, he stayed in Canada. The strength and vitality of his abstract paintings had a strong impact on the younger artists in the group.

Nowell describes Kazuko Nakamura as "the quiet, princely one." As a Canadian of Japanese extraction Kazuko was "relocated," along with his family, into the B.C. interior. After the war, he moved to Ontario and produced abstract paintings of a rare delicacy and precision that were described by one critic as a "a quest for a fundamental, indisputable meaning in nature."

Coincidentally, the young Nakamura had studied in Vancouver under Scottish-born, Edinburgh-educated Jock Macdonald, whose landscape paintings of the thirties were already veering toward his later brilliant abstractions.

Artist Walter Yarwood loved the wild country around Georgian Bay and the activities that went with it. At parties, Nowell says, he was the last man standing. In early days, he painted landscapes, moved on to abstract expressionism, produced a number of remarkable sculptures in aluminum and bronze and in the end returned to the landscape painting of his youth.

Harold Town "created a spectacular body of art - and a persona to match." He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't been drawing. He reacted badly to instruction, thought he could do anything and was usually right. He was a printmaker, portraitist, draftsman, figurative painter, abstract painter, maker of collages and assemblages, inventor of techniques. He worked every day of his life in one or other of his several studios and had no desire to be elsewhere.

By 1957, the Painters Eleven had done what they set out to do, which was to elevate abstract art to the mainstream of Canadian art. To mark their disbanding, there was one last wild party in the Pit, an occasion marked by heavy drinking, plentiful weed, rope-climbing, fistfights and a fire.

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Iris Nowell believed that a book about the Painters Eleven was hers to write. She has served them well.

Helen McLean's most recently published book is Just Looking and Other Essays. She is working on a new novel.

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