More arresting than a police officer's palm thrust into one's path, the three-metre tall bronze hand commands pedestrians to stop, take notice, and think … yet most walking along University Ave. between Wellington and King streets opt instead for the 'smartphone slouch.'
However, should one decide to lift one's eyes from tiny text to Sorel Etrog's imposing The Hand (1972), it could lead to the discovery of other sculpture nearby. To the south, another by this Romanian-born master who has called Toronto home for more than a half century – sits lurking in the bushes fronting 40 University, Flight II (1964) and, to the north, the massive Sun Life (1984) dominates. Those with eagle eyes might even spot a piece by British sculptor Barbara Hepworth just a stone's throw away.
If, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, architecture is "frozen music," then sculpture, perhaps, could be considered frozen emotion.
For those of us, such as myself, who are too young to have witnessed the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation of 1960s Toronto, there are ways to experience it. One way, of course, is through the architecture – John C. Parkin's former Sun Life building at 200 University; Viljo Revell's futuristic City Hall; the Ontario Association of Architects' former headquarters at 50 Park Rd., also by Parkin; and anything by Peter Dickinson – but even better is sculpture, which is unencumbered by practical constraints.
Like little breadcrumbs of dynamite that point to the atomic bomb of creativity that was Montreal's Expo 67, works by Sorel Etrog, Gerald Gladstone, Ron Baird and Walter Yarwood (to name but a few) opened Toronto minds by placing raw emotion right on the street; before these pieces populated our public spaces, sculpture, to most people, meant heroes on horseback.
"That moment is a moment that totally fascinates me," agrees Art Gallery of Ontario curator Greg Humeniuk. "Toronto was one of those cities that took off, so there's prosperity; concurrent with that, there's a change in the art world [with a] different focus on the contemporary art being made … and the collecting class is beginning to change."
Mr. Humeniuk, 43, first experienced Etrog's work as a University of Toronto student, pausing to admire Hart House's Survivors Are Not Heroes (1967) during different seasons and under different qualities of light. "I was always able to see it anew," he offers.
Right now, anyone can experience Mr. Etrog anew at the AGO retrospective Sorel Etrog (until Sept. 29), by considering dozens and dozens of pieces, ranging from bronze maquettes to seven large sculptures – "And by large I mean ones that are over 200 kilos, some pushing 500 kilos," laughs Mr. Humeniuk – as well as drawings, paintings, wall sculptures, a film, and Etrog's early painted wood constructions.
"He makes things that are meant to be looked at, meant to be engaged with," he continues, "both with the eye but also with the brain."
The AGO is also calling upon architourists to assist them in finding Etrog pieces in the GTA. At their blog, artmatters.ca, an interactive Google map titled "Seeking Sorel Etrog" pinpoints where many are located. However, when I first called it up, I noticed a piece I've always enjoyed at Scarborough's Guild Inn was absent. So, after driving out to make sure Spaceplough I (1981) was still there, I snapped a photo and sent it to email@example.com. Within a few hours, AGO staff had added it to the map.
But what about other works known to be in Mississauga, Hamilton or St. Catharines? Are they still there? Only you can help.
Since I need very little prompting to seek good sculpture (Etrog or otherwise), I revisited developer-turned-sculptor Al Green's Sculpture Park at Yonge and Davisville, which I first reported on in 2004. In the shadows of Mr. Green's forest of mid-1970s apartment towers, a little slice of sculptural heaven thrives. While one Etrog, Capriccio (1964) has been moved to the AGO for the exhibit, there are still three to take in: Fiesole (1965), Grand Odalisque (1965, surrounded by a water feature), and, about a half-kilometer away on the southwest corner of Davisville and Mount Pleasant, Winged Figure (1964). Of course, there are many of Mr. Green's pieces to admire as well, although one, Emerging Tower (1998), seems to have been shifted on its concrete base and had the top broken off…very sad.
As I walked, I remembered speaking with Mr. Green and Mr. Etrog separately for that column almost a decade ago, and how each spoke so highly of the other. Mr. Green, a lead sponsor of the current AGO show, told me of becoming Mr. Etrog's protégé when he "semi-retired" in the 1980s, about his weekly visits to Mr. Etrog's studio above the old Silver Rail at Yonge and Shuter – where he'd model with wax under the watchful eye of his mentor – and how the friendship had strengthened over the decades.
"That kind of relationship is a rare one," says AGO curator Mr. Humeniuk, echoing my thoughts.
Unfortunately, for all the times I've stopped, touched, and tried to understand the frozen emotion of a sculpture that has popped up in my path, it's been a rare thing, too, to have others join me.