Harold Town

About the Artist

Harold Barling Town was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1924. He worked as a comic book illustrator on the side while he attended Central Technical School in Toronto, and then studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He worked as a magazine illustrator in Toronto before bursting onto the local art scene at a time when the work on display in the city was mostly “visually comatose.” (Fulford, 1997)

Town was a founding member of a group of  abstractImagery which departs from representational accuracy, to a variable range of possible degrees. Abstract artists select and then exaggerate or simplify the forms suggested by the world around them.  (Artlex.com)  artists that formed in late 1953 under the name of Painters Eleven. The members of the group came together to create a united front against artistic traditionalism, and also to create more opportunities collectively to show their abstract work. Critic Robert Fulford called it “a propaganda-and-exhibition-group.” (Fulford, 1971)

Painters Eleven group members never claimed to share  aestheticPertaining to a sense of the beautiful or to the science of aesthetics.  ideals. Town once described the group’s approach as “harmonious disagreement.” (Broad, 2004) By the time Painters Eleven disbanded in 1960 they had made their point and were no longer artistic outcasts.

Town was the most outspoken and controversial member of Painters Eleven. Besides being a prolific artist working in a wide range of styles and media, he also wrote book reviews for a local newspaper and monthly columns for Toronto Life magazine. Town is sometimes referred to as Canada’s first artist-celebrity, in part due to his skills in self-promotion.

Town established his independence early in his career by concentrating on  printmakingA print is a shape or mark made from a block or plate or other object that is covered with wet colour (usually ink) and then pressed onto a flat surface, such as paper or textile. Most prints can be produced over and over again by re-inking the printing block or plate. Printmaking can be done in many ways, including using an engraved block or stone, transfer paper, or a film negative. The making of fine prints is generally included in the graphic arts, while the work of artists whose designs are made to satisfy the needs of more commercial clients are included in graphic design. (Artlex.com)  and  collagePainting and/or gluing a variety of materials on a prepared surface to create a work of art.  while his Painters Eleven colleagues and other contemporaries were following the New York trend of  abstract expressionistAn artist who paints in the Abstract expressionist style.  painting. In the 1960s he turned more and more to painting, but his restless and even compulsive art-making is difficult to place into neat periods or categories. 

Critic John Bentley Mays described Town’s output as “a bewildering variety of styles.” (Mays, 1997) Robert Fulford, who admired Town’s work, observed that, “You can’t break him up efficiently into periods. Even when you set aside the prints and drawings, two enormous bodies of achievement, Town still tends to jump forward and backward across his own styles…” (Fulford, 1971)

Town gained national and international recognition for his technically inventive Single Autographic Prints, which he produced between 1952 and 1959. These monoprints, “…one-off works involving fervent experimentation with colours, inks, shapes and other formal elements of picture-making,” as John Bentley Mays describes them, remain among Town’s most highly-regarded works. (Mays, 1989) Town’s superb  lineA mark with length and direction(-s). An element of art which refers to the continuous mark made on some surface by a moving point. Types of line include: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, straight or ruled, curved, bent, angular, thin, thick or wide, interrupted (dotted, dashed, broken, etc.), blurred or fuzzy, controlled, freehand, parallel, hatching, meandering, and spiraling. Often it defines a space, and may create an outline or contour, define a silhouette; create patterns, or movement, and the illusion of mass or volume. It may be two-dimensional (as with pencil on paper) three-dimensional (as with wire) or implied (the edge of a shape or form). (Artlex.com)   drawingDepiction of shapes and forms on a surface chiefly by means of lines. Colour and shading may be included. A major fine art technique in itself, drawing is the basis of all pictorial representation, and an early step in most art activities. Though an integral part of most painting, drawing is generally differentiated from painting by the dominance of line over mass. There are many sorts of drawing techniques, varying according to the effect the artist wants, and depending on whether the drawing is an end in itself — an independent and finished work of art -- or a preliminary to some other medium or form — although distinct from the final product, such drawings also have intrinsic artistic value. Preliminary drawings include various exercises (e.g., contour drawing, gesture drawing, figure drawing, drawing from the flat), as well as sketches and studies, cartoons and underdrawings. (Artlex.com)  skills are also evident in his drawings of film stars in the 1971 book, Silent Stars, Sound Stars, Film Stars.
Harold Town died in 1990. Reevaluations of his work following his death have been mixed. Some commentators have judged that Town left little behind of lasting value. “He tried out many styles but mastered none,” is Gillian MacKay’s assessment. (MacKay, 1996) In an obituary written shortly after Town’s death Pamela Young was kinder: “A relentless experimenter throughout his career, Town followed his own enthusiasms, frequently shunning the fashionable styles of the moment – and accepting the consequent obscurity.” (Young, undated.)

Art has no middle ground. Either it works or it doesn’t. Bad art is not the enemy, mediocre art is the enemy. – Harold Town (Town in Murray, 1987)

Harold Town
Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning