In the space of a few months, we find ourselves once again reflecting upon the death of yet another admired artistic talent; the exemplary Canadian painter; David Craven passed away, age 69, (August 22, 2016; Cambridge, New York). This most unhappy news came as a complete surprise to me and most of his colleagues and contemporaries. We had no idea. David was always such a dynamo, an irrepressible force constantly evolving and aesthetically moving forward, challenging his own past, growing and re-inventing himself.
What is to say? Many of us doubted that it could be true, was it another Andy Kauffman Man on the Moon moment? Would we find that we were pranked? Could we anticipate an impish call from him debunking this report? I smiled thinking just maybe this might be the case. We cast around looking for corroboration. However, the stark reality was confirmed by a standard Globe and Mail obit:
This was a second shock; now it was apparently true, but perhaps even more unnerving: how could it be that the nation learns of the death of one of its most celebrated artists of recent times from a family-posted obit? Thus far, we have not found mention of his death in our national news or arts media. Instead, regret, surprise and sadness was exchanged in private email and facebook posts by his countless admirers.
Glen Cumming, while he was director at Art Gallery of Hamilton, acquired more works by Craven than any other single artist (numbering over 30). He served at the 49th Parallel Gallery in NYC and remained in touch. Cumming expressed that he “was always impressed with his commitment to his work, and his willingness to let go of a good thing to push new boundaries” and meanwhile disappointment that his work was now so infrequently on view in our nation’s galleries. Ihor Hulubizky served as curator at Art Gallery of Hamilton; he adds his personal reflections about the artist appended herein. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery has placed on display in commemoration, respect and tribute an exemplary work from its collection by David Craven. Let’s hope others do as well.
David Craven was a wunderkind; a marvel. Born in London Ontario, he attended high school in Toronto; he first graduated from University of Western Ontario, with honors in a B.A. in Business Administration. Despite knowing David from early on I must admit I never ventured the question to David how or why he then made the dramatic switch from the business world to go on to study art at the Ontario College of Art. His ascension was meteoric. He graduated from OCA in 1973. Quickly thereafter he became an immediate fixture upon the Canadian cultural map, represented by the prestigious, incomparable leader of 1970s commercial galleries, the Sable-Castelli Gallery, Toronto. (In an appended recollection posted by respected art curator Ihor Hulibizky, he recounts the astonishing success and dominance of Craven in annual exhibitions during this time period.)
Throughout the 1970s, at a young age, Craven was ubiquitous, ever-present coast to coast, in solo and thematic exhibitions at every principal venue. He was awarded one of the first solo exhibitions at the newly established Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge by Allan Harding Mackay. Bill McCarroll at University of Lethbridge made an important early purchase for their then formative collection. I included David in our Glenbow Museum exhibition Aspects of Canadian Painting in the Seventies. He was everywhere, and on almost constant view; he personified Canadian contemporary art. Over 80 works by the artist (primarily of the 1970s) are held by Canadian public museum collections notably: the National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, Montreal Museum of Fine Art, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, , Winnipeg Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Hamilton, McMichael Canadian Collection, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Mendel Art Gallery, University of Lethbridge, and Vancouver Art Gallery among many others, as well as private and corporate collections in Canada and the United States.
Craven was one of the most dominant, prevalent figures in Canadian art. His work was a central feature in many thematic and collections exhibitions, his mid-1970s white paintings enthusiastically compared with those of Al Held and the striped monochromes of Frank Stella, while his luscious chromatically infused black paintings were often paired with Ron Martin, Dorothea Rockburne and David Rabinowitch.
Around 1979-1980, when he was at the very top of his game, he left Canada and moved to New York. In Canada he had achieved laudable success. Perhaps sensing that there were few other attainments left to achieve within Canada, he chose to move on. His shows at Sable-Castelli kept us current with his new moves. Personally I kept in contact; at least, that is how I prefer to remember it. Early on, during his NYC adventure I paid numerous visits at his splendid New York loft/studio and received the gracious, gregarious and sometimes uproarious company of he and spouse Myra.
Reality though; it slipped away. Is it simply: out of country/ out of mind? I wasn’t attentive. Fortunately others were. The Maclaren Art Centre organized a survey of the NEW David Craven: David Craven: Selected Works, 1981 to 2013. We are indebted to them; some of us have a lot of catching up to do.
Canada eats its young. David Craven was a dominant exemplar of Canadian art. His wonderful art is amongst the best of what Canadian art achieved in the 1970s. Craven’s majestic, inventive works have fallen from fashion in Canadian art museums, if only for the time being. What is it? Why is it? Must every museum be obliged to solely demonstrate its commitment to art as an agency for social change? Is art’s only condoned function to act as a lament and critique? Sounds to me just like the 19th Century French Academy; they only acknowledged as art works that ‘inspired noble action’.
In Quebec, aesthetic experience still has currency. Quebec pays ongoing respect and attention to the pleasures of encounters with Les Automatistes and the legacy of formal abstraction: “Make way for magic! Make way for objective enigmas! Make way for love! Make way for what is needed!” (Refus Global 1948). We sorely need a revolution, a brand new manifesto, a chance for the best in art to surface. The exuberant, joyous art of David Craven is a beacon. We wish there could be more, but we are indeed grateful and rewarded by a career of marvelous accomplishments.
Jeffrey Spalding C.M., RCA
A Recollection from Curator, Ihor Holubizky
Senior Curator, McMaster Museum of Art.
David Craven’s launch into the Canadian art world coinciding with my tentative and modest entry, working at The Electric Gallery across from David’s dealer Jared Sable (Sable-Castelli Gallery) on Hazelton Avenue. I saw those formative exhibitions and the occasional word was passed.
First, the expansive monochrome, white and black, “gestural swoops” followed by the black monochrome “incised” works. David was not alone, but he garnered the ‘incendiary’ attention. During my first public gallery job at the old Art Gallery at Harbourfront (the precursor to the Power Plant), one of David’s small, projecting dimensional works was included in the Viewpoint 29 x 9 exhibition – 9 curators selecting single works by 29 artists—looking at the possible future of Canadian art. What I didn’t fully appreciate then was David’s re-imagining of the Moscow avant-garde past, taking El Lissitsky’s prouns to some other place.
Viewpoint was orchestrated by the Art Gallery of Hamilton director Glen Cumming. When I joined the AGH in 1989, I discovered that Glen had purchased several works by David from each of the early solo exhibitions. It was the only such artist-monographic purchasing—not as I learned in conversation with Glen, by intent, but responding to David’s inventiveness. My first AGH curatorial task was to complete a David Craven exhibition and publication predicated on the donation of 20 or so works from a single collector. Something was missing and David and I agreed on the re-construction of a large temporary drawing over a 20 metre wide wall. His focus and enthusiasm was not a ‘blast from the past’, as one might imagine, but a performance. To say that the work is ‘in the work’ is self-evident, but there it was and I had the privilege of witnessing it.
I visited David in New York at the time, although fewer contacts as time went on, and I left Canada in early 1998. David’s work, however, stuck with me; I got small ‘internet missives’ from time to time. David was not manufacturing stuff—this was thoughtful play with a language he continued to develop, literally and figuratively, without cynicism or posturing.
I know it is not good curatorial form to write about art in an anecdotal way, but to “merely analyze” it is to reduce a life’s work to typologies. David’s work merits attention—not because it was, but (to lean on the title of a 1980 Ryuichi Sakamoto track) for the “thatness and thereness.”