Paterson Ewen:

a story of economics and the modern Canadian painter

Ms. Fraser has published two works on Mr. Ewen's work: "Paterson Ewen, The Turn from Non-Figurative to Figurative Painting, Journal of Canadian Art History (Vol. XXII, No. 1 (1990) pp. 25-52; and Paterson Ewen, Works on paper, 1949-92 (Art Gallery of Hamilton, 1992).

Art history is replete with stories of modern artists shunned by a scornful society. Yet, for each of these narratives, there is another in which the reverse occurs: society is rejected by the modern artist. Like many modern Canadian painters working in the 1950s and 1960s, Paterson Ewen held his art aloof from the larger marketplace. When Ewen had an opportunity to make money from a particular group of his paintings in 1963, he stopped making them because he didn't approve of the purchasers reasons for liking and buying them. If I were to create an analogy to this, I might imagine Ford Motors taking a top of the line car off the market because it was selling too well. In the case of Paterson Ewen, however, his attitude towards the marketplace can be explained by his adherence to a paradigm, a model of what it was to be an avant-garde artist coming of age in Montreal in the 1950s. But as the market for art grew through the 1960s, this paradigm became highly problematic for Mr. Ewen.


Paterson Ewen's (born in Montreal, 1925) formal and informal education fed his understanding of what it was to be a modern painter. He attended the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School (1947-49) where he fell under the influence of modern landscape painter Goodridge Roberts, as well as the director of the school Arthur Lismer, member of the well known painters of the Canadian landscape, the Group of Seven. During this time, Ewen employed a landscape composition within which he manipulated formal elements. Soon, however, he was introduced to a group of artists who worked more freely with composition, and without identifiable subject matter in their paintings. These artists belonged to the French "avant-garde", Les Automatistes. In 1949, Ewen married a member of this group, Francois Sullivan. Ewen had a foot in two apparently opposing worlds -- "traditional" and "avant-garde". But were they so starkly different?

The genesis of the concept of the avant-garde is a separate study in itself,1 but in Montreal in the 1940s and 1950s it had been reduced to something quite simple. It described new artist vs. old artist, good revolutionary vs. bad academic, white hat vs. black hat. The problem was that all the artists, in reality, wore grey. For example, the supposedly staid Group of Seven landscape painter, Arthur Lismer, expressed views which parallel those of Paul-Emile Borduas, leader of the Automatistes. Lismer's belief that "where there is revolt, there is life"2 was no less avant-garde than Borduas' "splendid anarchy".3 Further, Ewen himself discovered that Borduas was less revolutionary than he had at first assumed. In 1986, Ewen recalled:

I got very upset the first time I went and sat [in Borduas' studio]. I knew enough by then, even though my own paintings were not avant-garde by any means, to know that you didn't put hardly formed objects in the middle of space and then have a ground behind them. ...Borduas was supposed to be an automatic painter, yet he said that he got a lot of his forms from looking down into the Richelieu River. That's what is in a lot of his paintings -- underground flora floating in front of a background. ...what were supposed to be very avant-garde paintings by Borduas in Quebec were really behind the times.4

The movement whereby the new rejected the old, the new became old, and a newer new replaced it, is the concept of the avant-garde by which all modern artists lived. "The tradition of the new"5 , was a dialectic founded on the principles of anarchy, revolt, upset of the status quo. It was a concept, a means of organising, understanding and encouraging change in art. It was a concept that Lismer, Borduas, Ewen and all members of the modern art community of Montreal in this period believed in and followed.

By pausing to ponder this concept and its application, we may consider an important economic implication. Avant-garde art must, by definition, startle viewers out of their complacency, and thereby uplift and change them for the better. And because it is shocking art, and even critical of society, the artist should not expect to make money from it. Further, if avant-garde art does sell and if it sells well, it can be concluded that it has been accepted by the public -- that it has ceased to shock. Thus, this art ceases to be avant-garde art. Bottom line, an avant-garde artist must not make money from his art.

While this is logical conjecture, it hits close to the mark. It appears that Ewen, who adhered to the paradigm of the avant-garde artist in this period, made one concession to a specific and narrow portion of the marketplace. Ewen wanted to profit by his art but he could only do so, as we will see, if the buyers, a priviledged few, fully understood his paintings or were sympathetic to his aesthetic mission.

Ewen strove to create art that was abstract, intellectual, and progressive. Conversely, he also strove to ensure that his art was not decorative, sentimental or academic. In 1955, he described his movement from being a painter of landscapes to a painter of abstract canvases:

"In the last nine years that I've been painting, I've worked toward abstraction for five, and it was only in the last year that I've been able to unblock, to let go of the subject entirely." For him, the subject became so forbidding that to escape it, he stopped painting for an entire year. ... "An intellectual effort is necessary to understand painting and the study of formal qualities is indispensable."

But to be a painter, is it only a matter of having a stock of knowledge? No. "The painter must in one moment take all that he has acquired for this, with pure reflexes, and with some anxiety follow his path." Always, according to Ewen, "This is the only way to avoid academism."6

Ewen created his abstract works out of a sense of importance. In 1956 he stated that they grew out of a meaningful dedication to a personal and profound, if vague, communication through pure form:

I'm trying to use the knowledge I've acquired to create a painting as original -- as personal -- as possible that will express a point of view in terms of plastic discovery and will have artistic order. I've chosen this direction because I feel the basic values of all painting are non-figurative.7

In 1961, he more clearly defined his artistic direction:

I want to continue, with resolve, my current direction to be more and more abstract, away from visual Nature, to try to touch the deepest human sentiments in man, which is Nature also, but an interior one.8

Only once at that time, to this writer's knowledge, did Ewen define the audience/buyer of avant-garde art. On the occasion of his third solo exhibition since 1958 at Galerie Denyse Delrue in 1961, he responded to two questions put to him by a reporter:

1) Do Canadian artworks sell well? 2) Who buys them?:

Yes, but it is quite difficult. This is my third exhibition here and it is the first time that I have sold paintings. This is a gallery of contemporary or avant-garde art ...

Some rich collectors, doctors and more and more psychiatrists...There are also theatre people, architects. But more often, the young sincere amateur artists... 9

Ewen believed that his marketplace included well educated professionals with money, or those already in the arts. An elite group of people. He did not indicate why they bought avant-garde art, but one can deduct from these comments that it was because they could be sympathetic to it -- they were educated and sincere people.

Most of the canvases in the 1961 exhibition contained geometric shapes that the artist had drawn into a thick black impasto. The drawn outlines of the shapes revealed layers of colour beneath the black. These paintings and those in his next solo show at Galerie Denyse Delrue in 1963, were highly textured. The new paintings, however, were mostly monochrome, about 40 x 50 cm each. In each, the artist scraped and pushed a thick solid-coloured impasto across a ground of colours. Coloured flecks within the monochrome appear to undulate from left to right. The paintings were another experiment in his reduction of formal elements, his move to become "more and more abstract". Upon realising that the monochromes were selling well, however, Ewen decided to stop painting them. His stopped because too many buyers liked the paintings. This could only mean that they were being accepted and ceased to shock. Had his monochromes slipped into the decorative? In a 1988 interview Ewen recalled:

I did a couple of blue ones and a couple of yellow ones and a couple of white ones and they all sold immediately. 10

They were such good decorations and just the right size. So I had to stop doing them...or... you just turn into a pot boiler. You know, like do you have any more of those sort of thing(s)? Nope, all sold out. Are you going to do anymore of these? No. Oh, why not -- I like that period so much? They're not bad paintings, but they also are, can be used as decorations. 11

For the painter of abstract canvases in Montreal during the 1960s, there were many taboos. While the avant-garde Montreal painter was supposed to be freer than the traditional landscape painter, it seemed that he would not create anything that could be perceived as decorative, traditional, academic. At the same time, a very narrowly defined market reduced his chances of selling. As well, the pressure of keeping up with changing abstract styles was ever mounting.

And feeding off of and encouraging rapid change in style was the growing art market. Dealers wanted new "avant-garde" works to sell to clients. And as market activity increased in Montreal and other major Canadian cities, the place of the art critic was of singular importance in determining what was hot and what was not. A full study of these machinations is beyond the scope of this essay, however. Suffice to say that style in painting moved in a straight and very fast line towards minimal form -- less was more. More no-nos in painting included using too much paint (blobs and brushstrokes were suspect), oil paint, too many colours, last year's techniques, and more. Some artists felt the pressure more than others. Ewen recalled his experiences with another Canadian modern painter, Guido Molinari, with whom he shared a studio in the mid-1960s:

...sharing another studio with Molinari, I picked up techniques -- both of how to lay on [acrylic] paint and how to get a perfect line. Molinari was a fanatic about that. He confessed to me once, "Sometimes I go home and I can't sleep because I keep thinking this isn't perfect." If even one of those tiny little spots on the edges was noticeable, his work really wouldn't work... My work was never that accurate or detailed in technique but then it wasn't really supposed to be. 12

Ewen was consistently perceived by critics as painting behind the times and his works sold infrequently. Critics found his minimalist works repetitious. A review of Ewen's last show at Galerie du Siècle (named Galerie Denyse Delrue until 1962) in 1966, sums it up:

Paintings not quite "op", not quite geometric, Pat Ewen, succeeds in finding an intersection between the two tendencies. He has profited by experiences of his predecessors and has prolonged a movement which in the work of Barbeau, for example, lingered only to initiate progress. Ewen is not an innovator. He continues and carries an old idea too long. 13

By the end of the decade, Ewen very nearly exploded in frustration. He was never quite avant-garde enough. At the same time he refused to paint what people wanted to buy. He was trapped in the middle of a modernist dilemma. By 1969, he was without a job or money, separated from his family and living in another city, London, Ontario. Disappointed by his lack of sales, he asked his dealer of the time to terminate his contract and return all his artwork. In response, the dealer withheld Ewen's art and demanded that he reimburse the gallery $1,313.63 for "shipping, framing, advertising and other advances". 14 Ewen was forced to sell works from his own collection. He was angry and spewed at a reporter in January, 1970:

Because of the persons who have bought my paintings, I have determined never to paint another canvas... I don't know what I'll do. But I'm determined that it won't be this sort of thing. 15

Again in January, 1970, during a panel discussion at the opening of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the 20/20 Gallery in London, Ewen declared:

As objects, my paintings fit into a category which I reject. 16

To Ewen it seemed that:

... no matter how hard you try to free yourself you will become elitist anyway. 17

These statements are dramatically different from those Ewen expressed earlier in the decade. The paradigm of the modern artist for Ewen had obviously become untenable with its narrowly defined marketplace, and aesthetic taboos of academism, sentiment, decoration, use of more than one colour, last week, or even plain old fun:

I really felt like playing instead and I thought I was making an anti-art gesture in the formal sense with those last paintings. Daubing rows of dots on plain canvas with felt. ... I began reading. I got all kinds of amateur books and old textbooks about phenomena. ...I began to get the feeling as I read that what we usually call the more simple things are immensely complicated so I just accepted my limitations and put down the parts of these happenings that were for me fun to do. 18

Ewen's peers, curators, critics, found that he had broken the boundaries of the modern paradigm of the artist and art. His pop inspired images of phenomena used a visual vocabulary everyone understood and enjoyed, for personal and collective reasons -- fog made out of wire fence, tin lighting, tar skies. Ewen's phenomena art appealed enormously to everyone -- blue, white and grey collars -- right from the start. But what about Ewen's disdain for the larger marketplace? It disappeared along with his adherence to the paradigm of the modern visual artist in 1970.


1 Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-garde (Harvard University Press, 1968).

2 Ken Johnston, "The Professor is a Rebel", New Liberty (1951) p. 44.

3 Paul-Emile Borduas, Refus global, trans. Ray Ellenwood (Toronto, Exile Editions, 1985) p. 41.

4 Transcript of taped interviews by Matthew Teitelbaum, Saskatchewan, 1986, pp. 149-150.

5 Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (N.Y., McGraw-Hill, 1965).

6 Rodolphe de Repentigny, "Comment le peintre Pat Ewen passa du paysage lyrique a l'abstraction", La Presse (January, 1955).

7 Anon, "Their Objective is Non-Objective", Weekend Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 36 (1956).

8 Anon, "Pat Ewen chez Denyse Delrue", Le Devoir (Nov. 18,1961).

9 Jacques Keable, "Vernissez, vernissez, il en restera...", La Presse (Nov. 25, 1961) p. 3.

10 Transcript 1986, pp. 219-220.

11 Ibid, pp. 256-257.

12 Ibid, p. 196.

13 Laurent Lamy, "Paterson Ewen a la Galerie du Siecle", Le Devoir (June 4, 1966).

14 Dunkelman Gallery Archives, MG 28 III 110 Vol. 2, Public Archives of Canada.

15 Lenore Crawford, "Ewen Art Works Lauded", London Free Press (Jan. 7, 1970).

16 "Robert Millet, Paterson Ewen, Barry Lord, Royden Rabinowich, Greg Curnoe, etc., Jan. 6, 1970, 20/20 Gallery, King St., London, Ont.", tape recording.

17 Ibid.

18 Nick Johnson, "Paterson Ewen, Rain", Artscanada, No. 196/197 (March, 1975) p. 41.

Back to the Bank