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The Way it Is: The Life of Greg Curnoe

by James King

In the 1960s and ’70s, Greg Curnoe was the undeniable “bad boy” of Canadian art, actively courting controversy while also embracing his hometown of London, Ontario, as a key part of his artistic practice. His talent, ambition, and self-regard would propel his conceptually charged paintings to the upper echelon of Canadian art for over three decades, culminating in his untimely death in 1992. James King’s perceptive book leads the reader through Curnoe’s tumultuous career, from his early interest in Dadaism to his family life, many successes, clashes with critics, and political activism.

King, the award-winning author of several biographies – his subjects include Lawren Harris and David Milne – devotes as much space to Curnoe the personality as Curnoe the artist. The consummate self-promoter, Curnoe once split with his dealer to represent himself; he exhibited for Canada at the prestigious 1976 Venice Biennale; and, at the age of 44, his career retrospective toured across Canada. He also worked hard on behalf of his community, co-founding Canadian Artists Representation – an organization that continues to advocate for artists’ rights today – and Forest City Gallery, one of Canada’s first artist-run centres. Curnoe’s considerable impact can be seen in the sophistication of regional galleries, thriving local art scenes, and Canada’s network of artist-run galleries that have become a valuable resource for the promotion and furtherance of visual art in the country.

Throughout the book, King includes wide-ranging perspectives from the critics of the day, often charmingly followed by Curnoe’s own angry rebuttals. While clearly sympathetic with Curnoe, King leaves open the question of whether he was as great an artist as the man himself believed.

One thing is certain: Greg Curnoe was an original. He affiliated himself with artistic movements in Europe and America, but back in his southern Ontario studio, transformed them into something unique. And it’s impossible not to admire Curnoe’s determination to constantly further his art. The Canadian art world is better for it