Since the 1920s, artists in English Canada had been heavily influenced by the landscape painting of the Group of Seven, the Canadian Group of Painters and the Eastern Group of Painters. The Canadian public often regarded modernist movements such as Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism as bizarre and subversive. The acquisition of modernist paintings - even Impressionist works – by public galleries was invariably a source of controversy. In Quebec, Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle spearheaded the modernist collective known as Les Automatistes, which began having exhibitions as early as 1941. However, their artistic influence was not quickly felt in English Canada, or indeed much beyond Montreal.
In 1953, eleven abstract painters from Ontario — Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Hortense Gordon, Tom Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Jock Macdonald, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood — dubbed themselves Painters Eleven and held their first exhibition at the Roberts Gallery in Toronto in 1954. The exhibition, arranged by Jack Bush, was the first major commercial exhibition of abstract expressionist art in Toronto. Unlike the Group of Seven whose members' work evolved along parallel lines, Painters Eleven shared no common artistic vision apart from a commitment to abstraction. This was reflected in the diversity of the group's members. Decades separated the youngest from the eldest, and before they sold their paintings they made their living as freelance commercial artists or worked in advertising and as art teachers. Two had studied at summer schools conducted by the American abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann and William Ronald "sat in" on his classes, while others were graduates of the Ontario College of Art, and still others were self-taught. Within the group itself, the artistic center of gravity seems to have been Oscar Cahén, a gifted European émigré who became well known as an illustrator for a number of national magazines. At least three members of the group - Bush, Ronald, and Town - earned international reputations.
In Canada's conservative art world their first exhibition was met with confusion and disdain, typical of new art movements throughout history. By their third exhibition, in 1957, they had established abstract expressionism in Canada. Painters Eleven attained U.S. exposure with a successful exhibition in 1956 with the American Abstract Artists at the Riverside Gallery in New York City, and were praised by the influential critic Clement Greenberg on a visit he paid to Toronto in 1957. In the Canadian press, the group's most ardent supporters were art critic Robert Fulford and [art writer] Pearl McCarthy of the Globe and Mail. Eventually, the group's numbers were reduced by death and defection (Cahén was killed in a car accident in 1956, Ronald resigned in 1957) and the group formally disbanded in 1960.
Painters Eleven are credited with the acculturation of English Canada's art-buying public to abstract expressionist painting. Their influence on the next generation of Canadian artists was immense, and their art is now a prominent feature in public galleries and corporate and private collections throughout Canada and in many international collections. The largest collection of their works can be found at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario. Some of the group's members - notably Jack Bush, William Ronald and Harold Town - went on to greater success in the 1960s and 1970s. Jack Bush was given a major exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1976, Harold Town in 1986 and Kazuo Nakamura in 2004. Works by the group's members are beginning to fetch high prices at Canadian fine art auctions. The last surviving member of the group, Tom Hodgson, a former Olympic canoeist and a dedicated abstract expressionist, died in 2006.
Selected group exhibitions
- 2010: Museum London, London, Ont.
- 2010: Moore Gallery, Toronto, Ont.
- 2009: (Painters Eleven exhibition with works in amimation) Christopher Cutts Gallery, Toronto
- 2007: Thielsen Gallery, London, Ont.
- 2003: Thielsen Gallery, London, Ont.
- 1999: Drabinsky Gallery, Toronto
- 1994 and 1995: Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ont.
- 1984: Cambridge Art Gallery and Library, Cambridge, Ont.
- 1979: Rodman Hall, St. Catharines, Ont.
- 1978: The Gallery, Stratford, Ont.
- 1976: Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Kitchener, Ont.
- 1975: Tom Thomson Memorial Gallery, Owen Sound, Ont.
- 1971: Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ont.
- 1960: Stable Gallery, Montreal (Cahen and Ronald absent)
- 1959: National Gallery of Ganada, touring, 7 venues (Ronald absent)
- 1958: Ecole des Beaux Arts, Montreal
- 1957: Park Gallery, Toronto
- 1956: Riverside Museum, New York (with the American Abstract Artists)
- 1955: Roberts Gallery, Toronto
- 1954: Roberts Gallery, Toronto
Walter Yarwood's Cedars.
- Les Automatistes
- Regina Five
- Group of Seven
- Canadian Group of Painters
- Eastern Group of Painters
- List of Canadian Artists
- The Robert McLaughlin Gallery
- Robert Belton, The Theatre of the Self: The Life and Art of William Ronald (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1999).
- Graham Broad, "Painters Eleven: the Shock of the New" in The Beaver, February–March 2003, 20-26.
- Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973).
- Denise Leclerc, The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992).
- Iris Nowell, Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art (Douglas & McIntyre) Sept. 2010