Selected text

Variations on Anne Kahane

This article was originally published by The Zwig Foundation Collection

          In our collection, we host a number of unique artworks from around the world. One of our most unassuming, yet intriguing works is the piece Horizontal Figure, by Anne Kahane. Kahane uses tool marking techniques to create a reclining human figure with an uneven surface that plays with light. The sculpture is small, but its reflective surface attracts the eye making it hard to miss against our grey concrete walls. As she explains in an interview:

“Wood suits me: I like the challenges of its restrictions. […] Unpolished wood has a quality of breathing and scintillating, of catching every flicker, like a drawing.” (CCCA)

Though she uses one uniform block of wood to create Horizontal Figure, she has worked with her material to allow it to engage with any environment. Kahane was always interested in how an artwork could exist once she was no longer there to describe it. Even when the sculpture is sitting still, it is dynamic, changing as we alter our perspective and move around the room.

Through our discussions, I came to appreciate a similar intention in Coon’s work. With each object, Coon has an awareness of how it will act and exist in its future home. The inspiration for her work, Cabinet of one colour, comes from a number of sources including, Yves Klein’s monochromatic paintings, Olafur Eliasson’s Room for One Colour and Goethe’s description of a potent and primary blue:


“This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue, it is powerful - but it is the negative side, and in its highest purity is a stimulating negation. Its appearance then is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.” (Goethe)


Goethe describes blue as a somewhat mystifying colour, that holds contradictory themes within its aura. The colour can create a sense of calm, while also maintaining an ability to engage us and stimulate thought. Coon took this idea and applied it to her cabinet, explaining:

“I liked the idea that it could be a colour that was both visually exciting and kind of tranquil in the space.” (Nicole Coon)

The Cabinet maintains a simplistic form, and by using only one colour, Coon creates something that could easily fit within any home. At the same time, however, she has created an object that will not sit idle within a space. The translucent blue glass changes the objects within, rendering them all shades of the same colour. As well, the colour of the cabinet is playful and pleasant, creating dimension within any interior space. Coon’s objects maintain their ability to engage with their environment, even when she is no longer there.

Together we discussed physical expressions of pain, comfort, and joy and I was reminded of a piece by Peter Hujar titled Orgasmic Man. The photograph is of a man who appears to be in extreme pain, but the photo was in fact taken while he was experiencing an orgasm. As an unknowing viewer, I was initially inclined to believe that this is a natural expression of discomfort. But upon further reading, I learned that the image was indeed one of extreme pleasure. Though we do not know Kahane’s original intention with this particular work, we can understand through our disparate interpretations, that the meaning could be similar to that of Hujar’s Orgasmic Man. Together, Nicole and I came to an understanding that perhaps Kahane was trying to express some sense of human vulnerability. 

Our intention with this series is to recognize subjectivity when it comes to exploring art. For that reason, our difference in initial opinion was the most inspiring aspect of this process. The similarities and contrasts that arose through our exploration of Kahane's sculpture provoked discussions and encouraged us to reevaluate what we had surmised initially. Without prescribing an intended understanding of the works, Kahane and Coon leave space for viewers to explore on their own. There is room for us to create conversations such as this one, and invite new perspectives in to expand our general understanding of the work. We are given autonomy and asked to explore for ourselves, ignoring prescribed definitions and context, instead, favouring our emotional and physical response. The initial differences in our opinions, led to an exploration of our personal perspective, eventually pushing us to come to a new understanding of what Kahane might have meant. In the sense that we look to art to expand our world view, gain empathy and learn about the people around us, it is important to remember that a description of an artwork posted to a wall by an authoritative figure, is not the only possible description. Art can empower us to think for ourselves; however, this is something that is often easily forgotten.

For more information on Nicole’s work visit her website.

Sullivan at the modern - Review

This article was originally written for and published by The Zwig Foundation Collection.

The entrance of the new exhibition Sullivan at the Modern sets a distinct stage upon which to view the rest of Françoise Sullivan's work. Faced with the unexpected round Tondo 6, as well as captivating photographic images of the artist dancing with nature, and engaging with industrial developments, one is immediately made aware of Sullivan’s interpretive and improvisational approach to art-making. The collection of works in the exhibition are mostly acrylic on canvas, however, in this first room we see a variety of creations from dance, to photography, to pastels, to paint. The artist herself is incredibly versatile, with her hands in several unique art forms. However, one thing is markedly clear - Sullivan approaches her work, no matter what form it may take, from the same expressive place. By beginning the exhibition with these works, the modern.toronto provides us with a valuable vantage point through which to view Sullivan's work.

Born in Montreal in 1923, Sullivan would begin dancing and choreographing at an early age. At 17, Sullivan enrolled at Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts in drawing and painting but maintained a keen pursuit of dance throughout her studies. Receiving accolades in nearly every area of creative expression, Sullivan never felt limited by her medium. Instead, she explored and expressed herself triumphantly through every material she touched. Throughout her career, her artistic style retains its robust spontaneity, creating a steady connecting line from her early work until now. As a founding member of the famed group, Les Automatistes, and a signatory of Paul-Émile Borduas’ revolutionary Refus Global - which also included her well-respected essay, “La danse et l’espoir” (“Dance and Hope”) - Sullivan established herself as a vital tenant of Canadian Art History. The artist was admitted into the Order of Canada in 2001, and received a Governor General’s Award in 2005, among numerous other accolades. Though these awards provide her with a rare level of honour and prestige, an encounter with Sullivan’s work in person demonstrates the real power of this artist’s abilities.

Refus Global, Manifesto written by Paul-Émile Borduas and signed by François Sullivan, (1948)

François Sullivan, Danse dans la neige, photographed by Maurice Perron, (1948)

Each piece in the exhibition at the modern.toronto is an example of a single encounter between artist and medium. As she explained in 2003,

"I took up the challenge of making a painting about nothing, a painting dependent on nothing, and that could hold together through nothing more than its inner force, a painting without an image that would capture attention." - via The National Gallery of Canada

The artist approaches her canvas from a unique standpoint - she believes in the value of a planned out canvas, but privileges the surprise moments of improvisational impulse and human error. The result is often a complex canvas that seeks a pensive viewer, committed to studying her work for more than a few seconds.

Though many of the pieces included in the modern.toronto’s current exhibition may appear to follow a strict outline, it is clear, upon closer inspection, that the artist permitted her hand to emerge through her work. Up close, each canvas is a lyrical composition of multi-directional brushstrokes, every one definitive and sharp. With a step back, however, it is still possible to experience Sullivan’s expressive technique. For example, in a piece such as Only Red no. 2 (shown below), Sullivan has given herself restrictions, following a 4 x 4 grid pattern, and limiting herself to various shades of red. However, this pattern has become subject to the irregular movements and habits of Sullivan's active hand. The lines are imperfect, creating a dynamic work that maintains a sense of Sullivan’s instinctual approach to all forms of art making. 

As one can determine through research and study of Sullivan’s work, her experience and early work as a dancer had a significant influence on her artistic style throughout her life. However, through the exhibition at the modern, one does not need to spend hours with his or her nose in a book. Instead, we are immediately reminded of Sullivan’s past as a dancer. Recognized profusely as a pioneer in the Modern dance realm in Canada, Sullivan’s work as a dancer never disappeared. The influence of movement and improvisation are prominent throughout her career, a fact that the modern does not let us forget.

Sullivan at the modern continues until November 17, 2018.

Jean McEwen

Jean McEwen, Jaune assiégé par des bruns, (1962). On view at the Zwig Foundation Collection.

This article was originally written for and published by the Zwig Foundation Collection.

Though we often associate Abstract Expressionism with artistic greats such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, many artists from around the world were exploring expressive techniques during the same period. One such artist, the French-Canadian Jean McEwen, was a talented colourist who used experimental techniques to create glorious works of art. Using a palette knife, a sponge and eventually his bare hands, McEwen expressed both his emotions and his artistic decision making through his paintings. Spending time looking at a piece by McEwen allows one to notice dramatic variations in colour and texture. These changes in visual composition create action and life within the static realm of his canvas. McEwen, like Pollock, creates dynamic works that can be explored time and time again.

Both the Abstract Expressionists of New York, and Les Automatistes of Montreal, sought to discover new methods of painting. Using the simple vocabulary of paint, brush, canvas, and body, artists were able to access a subconscious level of visual communication. By stripping their techniques of all rules, traditions, and inhibitions, artists began to paint what they felt, expressing inner joy, turmoil, and experience directly onto their canvas.

Jean McEwen began his career in pharmaceuticals, but as time progressed, the vivid world of painting drew him in. In the early 1950s, he moved to Paris where he encountered many art historical classics and began to develop his own painterly hand. Through encounters with artists such as Jean-Paul Riopelle, McEwen began to discover alternatives to the traditional styles of painting. Upon returning to Montreal, McEwen began painting directly with his hands, presumably, to create a more direct connection between artist and canvas, and thus artist and viewer.

Jean McEwen, Compagnon de Silence No. 1 (1973), and Jaune assiégé par des bruns (1962), on view at the Zwig Foundation Collection with two untitled sculptures by Maryon Kantaroff.

The two pieces by McEwen in our collection demonstrate his eloquent approach to painting expressively. In Jaune assiege par des bruns, McEwen paints his canvas brown, only to cover most of it with a thick layer of yellow. Unevenly applied, the yellow serves to reveal the brown. We are only permitted to see what McEwen wants us to see, allowing for three distinct strips and a splattering of small specks to peek through. Throughout the piece, we are aware that the brown is there, even when it is invisible. Using a simple combination of two colours, he has created a structure that guides our eyes around the canvas.

In his later work, Compagnon de Silence No. 1, McEwen again uses brown as a colour that is fighting to emerge. In this piece, however, McEwen seems much less self-conscious. The cavernous brown emanation is the centerpiece of the painting, pushing against its translucent white boundary. This rich and complexly layered brown is where McEwen allows for inconsistency, chance, and error to shine through. The brown center is dark and complex; it suggests depth and layers, even beyond what we can see on its surface. In this case, the finished product is merely a suggestion of the process of its creation. Throughout the piece, we can see instances of decision making. Whether it is the dark drips or thick globs of mixed paint, McEwen has permitted us to bear witness to his techniques. These finished canvases present us with endless suggestions of what went on throughout the process.

McEwen sought to explore his materials, and in so doing, he was able to create more approachable works of art. Unlike what came before, we are permitted access to the artist’s process, mistakes and decisions. Artists such as McEwen were not interested in perfection; instead, they were seeking to reveal something from deep within.

Acquired from two different Toronto galleries, these pieces are brought together by the tastes of Helen and Walter Zwig. 

Using Format