Artwork by Harold Barling Town,  Death of a Platitude

Harold Town
Death of a Platitude

oil and lucite 44 on canvas
signed and dated 1965 lower right; signed, dated and two handprints on the reverse; titled on the stretcher
52 x 52 ins ( 132.1 x 132.1 cms )

Auction Estimate: $22,000.00$18,000.00 - $22,000.00

Price Realized $21,600.00
Sale date: June 15th 2022

Jerrold Morris International Gallery Ltd., Toronto
Private Collection, Ontario
David Burnett, “Town”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1986, page 122 and 132; a similar work, “Centrebiz” (1965) reproduced on page 129
Painted in 1965, “Death of a Platitude” is an exceptional example of Harold Town’s work of the mid-sixties. The painting was purchased directly from Town’s important exhibition at Jerrold Morris International Art Gallery in 1966, marking the return of the artist after an exhibition hiatus in Canada. After a successful 1962 show with Jerrold Morris, press and the Canadian artworld alike lauded an exhibition by Town as akin to the Stanley Cup playoffs. This sentiment carried through to this seminal 1966 exhibition. Coincidentally, the Mazelow Gallery also scheduled an opening of Town’s work on the same night in January 1966. Town was whisked between the openings, which created even more buzz in the art community and heightened the appetite for his unique works.

“Death of a Platitude” is bold, complex, brilliant in colour and bursting with frenzied energy. The work from this period exemplifies what David Burnett describes as “some of the most striking paintings Town has ever done.” Town layered a variety of visual patterns in the work from hand-painted ‘doughnuts’ which creates a tapestry-like backdrop. Grid patterning in wide yellow bands and curved ribbons of colour executed using masking tape reflects a strong positive and negative contrast. The work is incredibly dense and rich in its compositional elements within the pictorial space and plays with optical depth simultaneously. Burnett discusses these works from the 1966 exhibitions: “Their premise of subject matter, painterly structure, and forcefulness were extensions of the basis of his painting...The sheer dazzle of pictures...was a gesture of challenge, the challenge to push painting against the grain of what should work, the challenge to timidity.”

A similar work from 1965, entitled “Centrebiz”, is part of the Museum London’s permanent collection and was featured in Town’s retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1986.

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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.