Artwork by Harold Barling Town,  Through Utrillo’s Garden

Harold Town
Through Utrillo’s Garden

oil on board
signed and dated 1954 lower left; titled on the reverse and signed on the reverse of the frame
13 x 13 ins ( 33 x 33 cms )

Auction Estimate: $9,000.00$7,000.00 - $9,000.00

Price Realized $10,800.00
Sale date: June 9th 2021

Gerald Gorce, Toronto
Private Collection, Calgary
Private Collection, Toronto
Roald Nasgaard, Abstract Painting in Canada, Vancouver/Toronto, 2007, page 103
Painted when Canada was on the cusp of its own Abstract Expressionist movement, “Through Utrillo’s Garden” reflects the obvious influences of the modernist art movement happening in New York, and globally. Harold Town, and the artists that would be known as the Painters Eleven, were surrounded by abstraction - Post-War British Modernism was at its height in England, the Automatistes in Quebec had released their Manifesto, “Refus Global” in 1948, while the New York Abstract Expressionist movement, championed by the influential critic Clement Greenberg, was being embraced by dealers and collectors.

Painted shortly after the founding of Painters Eleven, when the artist was experimenting with his single autograph prints, Town has employed an aggressive all-over brushwork in this early work, reflective of the paintings of Arshile Gorky and the use of soft, organic forms by Willem DeKooning. Roald Nasgaard in “Abstract Painting in Canada” draws an even closer comparison between Town’s work and that of British modernist Peter Lanyon, “... sharing with Town a penchant for fleshy paints and black outlines...juxtaposed with dense clusters of busy calligraphy, internally scored and textured, so as not leave any surface unarticulated and inexpressive”. The intermingling of black lines with broad brushstrokes and soft rounded shapes creates a play between the representational and the abstract, which would become characteristic of Town’s paintings in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Harold Barling Town
(1924 - 1990) Painters Eleven, OSA, RCA

A lifelong Torontonian, Harold Town was one of Canada’s foremost abstract expressionists. After graduating from the Ontario College of Arts (now, OCAD University), he worked as a commercial illustrator for many years. In 1954, he became a founding member of the experimental painter’s group, Painters Eleven, a name he coined, himself, along with Jack Bush and Jock MacDonald.

Town’s work went beyond paint, though: he experimented with all kinds of different methods and materials. He often employed a lithography machine to ink his paper in different ways (his single autographic prints). A propane blow torch was occasionally used to burn his paper or canvas. And he particularly loved collage, stating, “it’s marvelous to think of the garbage of our age becoming the art of our time.” According to Gerta Moray, these collages are closely connected to his abstract expressionist painting: “the compositional modes of his collages share the aesthetic of his paintings: they spread out to fill the surface yet are given focus as configurations by areas of drawing in ink or paint.”

Two of Town’s single autographic prints were the first works by the artist to be acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. The NGC then selected him to represent Canada at the 1956 Venice Biennale, along with Jack Shadbolt and Louis Archambault.

By the end of the 1960s, Town had exhibited his work internationally and represented Canada at the Venice Biennale twice. He garnered covers of Maclean’s and Time magazines and became a hero of Canadian art. At one point his name was “synonymous with art in Toronto.” He received an honourary doctorate from York University and the Order of Canada.

In the 1970s, Town faced criticism for remaining in Toronto instead of going to New York to pursue Pop Art and minimalism. Town asserted that these claims by art critics suggested a subservience to the New York trends. He remained true to his roots in Toronto.

In the 1980s, Town returned to figurative painting. His bright colours and simple lines were playful, ironic, and influenced by folk art. In his series, Musclemen, he painted body builders in cartoonish proportions and colours, with giant muscles and tiny heads. Apparently, Town “came upon an international bodybuilding competition and was captivated by the human body performing its muscle-bulging poses as living sculpture.” Moray asserts that this series ironically comments on “the masculine ideal in popular culture.” This assertion is made more interesting when considering that he also painted a small number “Muscles Ladies.”

Four years before his death, Town was given a long overdue retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Town’s death in 1990 of cancer was felt profoundly by the artistic community. Pierre Burton wrote “Town was a great artist with an insatiable intellect.” David Burnett, the curator of his retrospective wrote: “Our response to his death must be to begin the process of understanding his achievement as a totality, of facing all of his work in the present” The enticing legacy of his work continues to captivate and intrigue audiences today.

Literature Sources
Iris Nowell, “Harold Town”, Vancouver, 2014, pages 175-78
Gerta Moray, “Harold Town: Life and Works”, Art Canada Institute, 2014 (

We extend our thanks to Scarlett Larry, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.