Artists who attended art school in the 1950's and the 1960's were, for the most part, heavily influenced by the emergence in America of Abstract Expressionism. While abstraction was establishing itself in Canada during the 1950's with a new generation of artists who were turning their backs on the landscape tradition that had prevailed in Canada for so long, the influences in Western Canada were varied, and often specific to the particular art schools and where their faculty members came from. While Borduas and his colleagues had considerable influence in Quebec, and the Painters Eleven emerged in Toronto during the 1950's, the work of these artists was largely ignored by the professors in art schools in Western Canada. Many of them originated in the United States and showed little interest in Canadian developments which they would have no doubt looked upon as hopelessly provincial.
Certainly for a young painter at the University of Manitoba's School of Art in the early 1950's, there was some exposure to modern movements through some of the teachers newly arrived at the School. William McCloy, an artist and art historian, came to Winnpeg from the University of Iowa in 1950, as did painters John Kacere and Richard Bowman. Robert Nelson (from the School at the Chicago Art Institute) followed in 1952. When these artists exhibited their work, there was considerable controversy. The importance of the figurative tradition was still emphasized however, and such sympathies would continue to inform Richard Reid's work over the years.
Reid graduated from the School in 1955, but it was really only in Mexico, after working in a Winnipeg brewery for two years, that Richard Reid began to experiment with modernist styles.The first six months of 1957 saw Richard Reid in San Miguel de Allende, a place that attracted so many Canadian artists at that time, whether they attended the Instituto or not. Toni Onley, for instance, attended the Instituto in the fall of 1957, a few months after Richard Reid had returned to Canada. That same year, Don Reichert, a classmate of Richard Reid's in Winnipeg, was also in San Miguel. Like his colleagues, Reid was an avid reader of Art News, the art periodical of the time. It was quite typical of young Canadian artists to keep themselves informed on artistic developments through the medium of art books and periodicals. In San Miguel, Reid resolved to work within the parameters of Modernism. Early works done in San Miguel in 1957 therefore employed a Cubist approach.
Following this time in San Miguel, Richard Reid and Beverley Williams (who had received her diploma at the Winnipeg School of Art in 1956) returned to Canada in June of 1957, first to Vancouver. Richard returned to the brewery in Winnipeg for another year's work before settling in Vancouver where he was employed as a salesman in a sports car dealership. These other jobs took Reid away from his painting for a time. Such ‘fallow' periods would remain a characteristic of his artistic production from then on, a trait shared by many other artists.
On February 27, 1960. Richard and Beverley Reid were married and left the next day for Europe, with the intent of staying there for a year. They toured extensively in a new Volkswagon camper before settling in London. There, Reid again met other Canadian artists and was soon active in the affairs of the Young Commonwealth Artists. The company of other artists and the stimulating discussions that ensued led Reid to return to his painting. He recalls the solitary experience in the studio: a somewhat terrifying realization that he either had to make a commitment to his work, and prove his mettle in his chosen field, or find some other 'identity' or profession. The result of this cathartic experience was a remarkable series of paintings between 1960 and 1964 which are featured in this exhibition. These works bear witness to Reid's 'coming of age' as an artist.
The earliest of the London Paintings, Woman Eating an Apple, relates directly to the work that Reid had done in Mexico in 1957, where he began to explore Modernism through what he perceived as its real beginnings: Cubism. One is also tempted to relate the early work of 1960-61 to the many paintings by Old Masters on Biblical themes. The references are not precise or obvious. Reid's inspiration here was the tradition of European art and his memory of such works from his travels. The first paintings executed in London are characterized by a darker palette and a figurative element stands out against a dark background. Reid mentions how he was profoundly moved by the work of El Greco at the Prado in Madrid, which he had visited earlier in 1960. The figurative element, which continued to inform so much of British and European modernism, was re-enforced by the environment, and the works pay hommage to the great European traditions. The titles given to some of these works, such as Pietà and Crucifixion, indicate how Reid had absorbed some of the great subjects of the figurative tradition in European art.
It was no coincidence that such near-abstract works were also informed by American Abstract Expressionism. There, Reid was far more taken by the work of Arshile Gorky than by the work of Jackson Pollock. The work of Philip Guston is also mentioned as was the work of Joan Mitchell.
Reid's exploration of the figure really began in 1961 with the series of paintings presenting an abstracted figure against a darker background. These works did make use of a live model, and the configuration is merely representative of the various typical poses used in the figurative tradition, especially that of the reclining figure. The relation of the figurative element to the ground implies a figure against a background.
From 1962, Reid's work took on a more sensuous quality. The predominance of red in these works is accompanied by calligraphic gestures which merely echo the figure, its presence suggested rather than represented in a literal way. Here the integration of the figurative element with the ground is complete, and the composition is more dependent on the painting than on a figurative subject as had been the case in the 1961 paintings.
Reid's exploration of the figure and its sensuous qualities would continue to occupy him for the coming years. This chosen direction was reenforced during the summer of 1963 when Reid spent 8 weeks in Salzburg, Austria, attending classes given by Oskar Kokoschka. With access to a model for 7 or 8 hours a day, the result was over 500 watercolour drawings. Before leaving Austria, however, many of these drawings were destroyed. The experience of working with the figure again seemed to solidify some of Reid's own directions. In the fall, the Reids went to a château at Ravenel in the north of France, where he continued to work on his paintings until the spring of 1964, a period that was interrupted by a three month stay in London ‘sitting' Kenneth Armitage's studio. The Reids returned to Canada in June of 1964.
The work that had occupied him in Europe, especially in London, was brought back to Vancouver where the couple now took up residence, and some of the paintings would continue to be re-worked. This body of work would continue to inform Reid's painting for the coming years, and in one sense, continues to inform his painting to this day.
Roger H. Boulet