Art McKay died of heart failure in Vancouver on August third of this year after a bout with pneumonia. He's all but forgotten today, remembered mostly in Canada and then primarily as a member of the Regina Five, a group of painters that came to prominence some forty years ago. Although he hadn't painted in a serious way for several years, this estimation of McKay's stature is misleading. In a very real sense Art was foremost of the Five. Although he could never be described as its leader (he was too wayward and disinterested to lead anyone anywhere) he could be fairly described as the group's great solo performer. His range was narrow, but within that range he was unsurpassed, one of the great originals of Canadian art.
Art was the first art-teacher I met when, in 1958, fresh from high school, I enrolled in Fine Art and English at Regina College (then an affiliate of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.) I was struck at the time by his observation that the U of S had "a schizophrenic art department", and that Saskatoon would not credit studio art classes taken in Regina. Although he didn't teach me that first year, because enrollment was small the students came to know the teachers well -- Roy Kiyooka and Ronald Bloore as well as McKay himself, who was then acting head of the department while Kenneth Lochhead was in Italy on sabbatical leave. At the time, Art struck me as a kind man, well read and intuitively discerning about art and life. He had a disquieting inner confidence and like the dormouse was inclined to pithy pronouncements that somehow settled the question. I recall him predicting in 1958 that he would eventually make paintings that would be remembered: the remark came across as a statement of fact, not a boast. Art was never vain and usually right.
During Lochhead's absence, planning for the 1959 Emma Lake Artists Workshop was undertaken by Bloore, McKay, and Kiyooka, a happy triumvirate. I don't know how they arrived at the choice of Barnett Newman for workshop leader, although I believe it was based on an article in Art News. I do recall that they viewed the choice as something of a shot in the dark and were excited by the prospect. Newman's work, even in reproduction, seemed so unusual at the time -- so unlike the familiar action painting of the day.
When I returned to art school in the fall of '59 two of the three workshop planners had come back from Emma Lake in a state of high excitement that was shared by Ted Godwin and Douglas Morton, also of Regina. Ken Lochhead, just returned from his sabbatical, seemed a bit bewildered but was soon caught up in the enthusiasm. Kiyooka had moved on to Vancouver.
Art became my teacher in the fall of '59. Because his studio was across the hall from the main drawing studio in the art school, I became a spectator to his rapid post-Emma development. Turning aside from his previous oils and watercolors, he began to work on paper in monochrome, applying stove enamel and blackboard paint with a palette knife. These initial forays lasted roughly until Christmas and progressed rapidly through painterly expressionism to austere, linear clarity. By the following spring he was attempting to apply the scraping application to masonite panels -- absorbing the influence of Jackson Pollock in grayish, all-over paintings which were, on balance, more radical than successful. Pollock was and remained a primary inspiration.
I was away from Regina from 1960 to '65, first at university in Saskatoon where I studied English literature and after 1962 in Edmonton, where I found work. However, I did spend the summers of 1960 and '61 in Regina and there saw a Regina artists exhibition mounted by Ron Bloore at the MacKenzie, the exhibition which inspired Richard Simmons to organize Five Painters From Regina for the National Gallery of Canada. The revelation in that exhibition was McKay's early "mandala" paintings. These reached a level that I hadn't seen before; although I couldn't put it into words at the time, I'd encountered my first example of major art on the Canadian prairies.
I returned to Regina in 1965 to work under Ron Bloore at the MacKenzie. In the interim much had changed in Regina, some of it attributable to Clement Greenberg, who, at Lockheed's invitation, had led an Emma Lake workshop in 1962 which initiated his ongoing cordial relations with artists from Saskatchewan and Alberta which lasted for three decades. I myself met Greenberg in the fall of 1965 when he was invited by the Saskatchewan Arts Board to select an exhibition of contemporary Saskatchewan art. Greenberg had admired McKay's mandala paintings since 1962 and had included his work in the Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition he organized for the Los Angeles County Museum in 1964.
By the mid '60s, Art's mental health had begun to deteriorate (something I witnessed at Emma Lake in 1965) but these problems were and remained episodic. He continued to paint well and remained characteristically lucid and penetrating about painting and aesthetic experience (he once referred to the latter as "objective criteria evaluated subjectively.") His paintings continued at a high level until the early '70s. In 1969, while at the MacKenzie, I organized a survey of his mature paintings. I remember him as being easy to work with, obliging, appreciative, generous, and trusting. Trust, all too often misplaced, in combination with mental instability came to be a mixed blessing, leading him into a sequence of mishaps. Clem Greenberg once described Art as in this respect akin to Jackson Pollock -- always on the lookout for a lion's mouth to stick his head in. Every now and then the mouth snapped shut.
Art's work attracted national attention for a while in the '60s, but after that attention waned. As time went on, he was preyed upon again and again, often to his immediate disadvantage -- most recently in a so-called "critical retrospective" where his art became a pretext for speculation about politics and Greenberg. Art hated to say no. He didn't pursue exhibitions or representation and seemed to accept exploitation and misrepresentation with equanimity. I doubt that he was interested in the art world as such, let alone in fame. He preferred to socialize, to "hang out," to be led astray.
How does Art's painting stand up? It stands up very well indeed, but like Rothko's before him, it seems boxed in by its very accomplishment, as if it were an island that, once discovered, somehow left him stranded. For all that, the island brought forth the "mandalas," some of the most original and beautiful paintings in Canadian art. Without using color, McKay found a way to pry the picture surface away from itself, to force the surface to contain a unique and paradoxical kind of illusion. This kind of surface chiaroscuro has reappeared from time to time since then in the work of other abstract painters, but Art brought it off first and best.
A final note: Art, bless his heart, was always funny and appropriate, his humour always unforced. At the opening of the MacKenzie retrospective he summed up his career simply: "If I realized that I was this good I would have painted more." If only he had...
-- Terry Fenton, Aug. 2000