by Judith Hayes, M.A.
The Early Years
John Fox was born in Montreal in 1927, the son of a banker and the youngest of six children. He attended St. Leo's Academy in Westmount and then entered McGill University in the fall of 1945. This was a confusing time for Fox; the Second World War had just ended and he was still coming to terms with the death of his only brother in combat the previous year. In his youth, Fox was quite reserved and as he put it "rather naïve." During an interview with the author he said "university was a total culture shock."
His classes held little interest and he preferred to spend his time in the Student Union and coffee shops discussing politics and current events. By the end of the first semester Fox realized that a Bachelor of Arts' degree was not the way of his future and he left McGill in the spring of 1946.
Up to this point, Fox had never thought of the fine arts as a profession since drawing was something he did just for his own amusement. But a friend suggested that he should go to art school. After a summer of private drawing lessons from a local teacher and art critic, René Chicoine, Fox applied to the École des beaux-arts. Classes consisted of drawing from the model in the morning and making small compositions of "autumn leaves in gouache" in the afternoon, which he found intensely boring. Disillusioned, he spoke with Arthur Lismer, the director of the School of Art and Design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who allowed him to attend evening classes while he completed the semester at the École. He then began full-time study at the Museum school. It was also at this point that he learned that his mother had once taken classes there with William Brymner.
The Museum school was a revelation: "It was the first time in my life that I felt really at home. The place, people everything about it. So I spent all my time there - morning, afternoon, evening… You would be drawing in the morning and if you wanted to walk through the centre doors, you were in the museum; you could look at the Italian drawings on the wall and then go back and do your work. It was fantastic!" The teachers at the time were Eldon Grier, William Armstrong and Goodridge Roberts. Roberts had the greatest influence on Fox. He had seen Roberts' work at the Dominion Gallery on Sherbrooke Street around 1946: "I think they were the Lake Orford watercolours; I was quite thunderstruck." It was from Roberts that he learned the importance of colour relationships as a means to structure a painting. Roberts, of course, had studied at the Art Students League in New York, where he had been introduced to both American modernism and the School of Paris. Roberts was both mentor and teacher to Fox and most importantly, he "was a role model - he proved that one could live a life totally committed to the making of art." Their relationship soon developed into a friendship that would last until Roberts' death in 1974. After completing the three-year program at the School of Art and Design in 1949, Fox began working as a teaching assistant to John Lyman, then head of the Department of Fine Arts at McGill University. Fox felt that Lyman was too negative towards abstraction, although he respected him for his critical writing despite doubts about his painting. Fox's other responsibility in the department and the one he most enjoyed, was running the slide projector in Robert Davis's art history classes at McGill. (Davis was Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.) This marked the beginning of Fox's life-long passion for the art of the past. In the spring of 1951 he married Louise Cass, whom he had met at the School of Art and Design. They lived in St-Hilaire and then returned to Montreal in the fall to an apartment on Selkirk Avenue, until they left for England the following June.
Fox received a British Council Scholarship in 1952 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, University of London. The spring of that year, he was invited by Davis to share a two-person exhibition in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' Gallery XII, a space dedicated to showcasing Montreal contemporary art. Fox was twenty-five years old and he considered this quite an honour: "It was a big deal for me. I was floored." He showed eleven works - landscapes, figures, still-lifes, and a self-portrait. Robert Ayre, in his 26 April 1952 review of Fox's show in the Montreal Star, said his St-Hilaire images were "personal landscapes with a quality that takes them beyond the decorative.... I find John Fox one of the most promising new painters to turn up in a long time and I look forward to watching his progress."
In September Fox began classes at the Slade, while his wife studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. His year at the Slade, under William Coldstream, proved to be disappointing because it was "too inward looking." The only classes he regularly attended were the etching and engraving courses given by John Buckland Wright. He admired Wright because he was one of the few Slade instructors with a modernist perspective. Fox spent much of his time visiting museums and reading art publications (along with Penguin Books' prose and poetry). In London he discovered the writings of Heinrich Wolfflin and "my eyes were opened." To his dismay, there was little international modern art in the galleries and he did not find the London art milieu particularly inspiring. Fox produced only a few paintings that year; however he worked every day for six weeks at the National Gallery copying Titian's Venus and Adonis, c. 1560.
The lessons learned from Titian were never ending and he kept the painting throughout his lifetime. Jean-Bernard Roumanes, in his article in Vie des Arts (winter 1999-2000) refers to Fox's copy of Venus and Adonis as a "matrix" - a key work, a turning point, a breakthrough. He writes: "A matrix is produced each time the painter - as either an interpreter or an inventor - seriously broaches for the first time any of the countless problems that can be posed by paint on canvas. Not in theory, but in the materiality of the pictorial: the medium, the composition, the symbolism, the subject, the mass and volume, the structure, the surface, the luminosity, the impasto, the line, the mark or representation, and so on… "
Roumanes believes that the Titian copy explains Fox's ability to move easily from representation to abstraction and then back to representation: "It is simply a matter of moving between different aspects of the same canvas. Of completely exhausting all of painting's potential one aspect after another. This empirical process is in keeping with his education and allows him to instill the vision of the painter within the materiality of the image."
Shortly after the school year ended, Fox and his wife left for the Continent. He was eager to abandon London as the size of the city was overwhelming; there was still great austerity and reconstruction was just beginning. More importantly, he believed that Britain seemed too cut off from the rest of the world - it was insular and anti-American, with little interest in modern art beyond its own borders. The summer and fall of 1953 were spent in Florence, Venice and Paris. Fox said, "Venice made quite an impact on me, even then in 1953. I was totally amazed by Venice; the place as well as the things to see." When he returned to Montreal that November, he began work on several canvases based on his drawings done in Europe. However, Fox believed that he was still learning to paint; the drawings in his sketchbooks were worked over a grid and his colour choices scribbled on the sketches. He rarely painted outdoors and several of his paintings, such as Umbrellas, Côte-des-Neiges, 1954 (National Gallery of Canada) and other views of the area were done from his window on Selkirk. But for the most part, his paintings were based on the experience of looking, as well as ideas stimulated by his drawings. Many of his paintings of people at this time were composites; individual subjects pulled together in a unified interior setting. He painted thinly, using loose painterly brush-marks that underscored his preoccupation with the relationship of colour and light.
In 1955 Fox was the first recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant, given to artists in the early stages of their career who were working in representational or figurative art. This financial support enabled him to return to Europe; in November, he left for Florence where he and his wife stayed until the following September. During that period, he returned to Venice for a month-long visit. Once more, Fox was completely overwhelmed by the work of Venetian painters, particularly Titian and Tintoretto; and he was again mesmerized by the city's spectacular light and colour. The fall was spent in Paris, looking first-hand at modernist French painting as well as the treasures of the past. Seeing the paintings of Degas, Bonnard and Matisse and reading their writings had a profound effect on the direction of his own work. Certainly, his time in Italy and France provided the intellectual and visual inspiration that Fox had long sought. Returning to Montreal in November 1956, he was invigorated and determined.
Fox began showing at the Watson Galleries in Montreal with a solo exhibition in February, 1957. The work included exteriors and interiors he had done before leaving for England, landscapes of Paris, Venice and Florence painted the previous summer, as well as several still-life and figurative images from the mid 1950s. The exhibition clearly showed his evolution as a painter over the past five years. A caption accompanying photographs of two interior images in La Presse states: "Chiaroscuro has been discarded in favour of colour tones and the preponderance of lines." Rodolphe de Repentigny, the art critic for La Presse, wrote of his process: "In his painting, Fox always proceeds through numerous drawings and sketches. The picture is always produced in the studio. As anyone who has seen his exhibition can verify, he tends to eliminate volume in his painting. 'I am much less interested in space now' he says. Atmosphere, light and line are his main concerns," as in Canal and Gondolas of 1956. Robert Ayre, art critic for the Montreal Star, wrote that:
"It is a quiet life, for Mr. Fox is a reserved, contemplative painter, who finds his strength in understatement. He paints thinly; something like a watercolour painter, taking pleasure not in juicy pigment or in the third dimension, but in the pattern that fills the square, in space and proportion and the judicious use of colour. In colour he is individual and ingratiating, rich and glowing without being sumptuous, and reticent, wearing it like a mellow bloom, when it is time to be subdued."
The support and recognition that Fox received was encouraging - in 1955 the National Gallery of Canada had purchased a painting. With a sense of accomplishment, he went to France in the spring of 1957 and painted in the coastal towns of Sanary and Honfleur, until he came back to Canada in late 1958. When Fox returned to Montreal, representational art had lost its dominance in Quebec. As an Anglophone Montrealer and a painter of representational images, he believed that he had little in common with the Montreal avant-garde, although he greatly respected their ambition and achievement. He especially admired Borduas for his support of New York painting and for the power of his late painting. Despite the dominance of automatiste and plasticien æsthetic in Montreal, there was still a solid audience for Fox's work. At this point, he showed for the first time in Toronto at the Laing Galleries. In 1959, he began an association with Continental Galleries in Montreal that resulted in four solo exhibitions over the next five years.
Fox continued on his own path, becoming increasingly concerned with the arrangement of colour and shape within a more limited pictorial space, although he was still intrigued by the possibilities within representational subject matter, as seen in his Montreal Street, 1959. The different size and position of the objects within their interior setting in Still Life with Standing Sculpture and Vases, 1961 create perfect balance because the space between the shapes is as important as the forms themselves. Colour unifies the image: for example, the grey tones of the background rectangle are echoed in the swaths of colour on the table and in the planes of the sculptures. The colour and light of the blue shapes cause the eye to shift back and forth over the painting's surface. Forms do not seem to be rooted within the canvas; their different contour lines and broken silhouettes give the static objects a sense of movement that reflects Fox's open brushstroke. The overall image is one of harmony and completeness at the same time that it is about the casual and the momentary. Donald Andrus, in the catalogue John Fox: Ten New Paintings (1980), suggests that in the works from this period, Fox's shapes are "complementing or counter pointing the geometry of the canvas [...] as much as they may be concerned with supporting, reflecting or revealing the objects [...]"
Fox spent most of the 1960s in Montreal, t except for a visit to France and Venice in 1963 and summer holidays in Maine and Cape Cod with his wife and two young daughters. Along with solo exhibitions at the Continental Galleries, he had his second show at Gallery XII at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as well as participating in several group presentations. In the early 60's, Fox was asked to paint a mural for the new Fathers of Confederation Memorial building in Charlottetown, PEI in celebration of the Centennial. Despite the context of this important commission, he did not want to paint a political narrative that would take away from the visual meaning of the work. The Quebec Conference, 1964, is a triptych, with the central panel showing the arrival of the delegates by steamboat. Fox looked to photographs by William Notman for visual references from the period, but he also looked to the paintings of Degas and Titian as well as Japanese prints and other artworks for sources of inspiration. Interestingly, the historic figures are not given prominence and the narrative suggests the many disparate moments of the event. The tonal variations flow from panel to panel, unifying the space and its collage-like composition. Fox used washes of subtle colour, which work together and against each other to create an open-ended story.
The primary source for his representational work of the sixties continued to be Fox's immediate surroundings, especially his living room on Selkirk Avenue. So it is not surprising that many of the images were of interiors filled with the objects he saw every day. At the same time, he continued to draw his favourite places in his neighbourhood: the streets, the row houses, the convent and seminary with their adjoining gardens - subjects that were developed into paintings such as Percy Walters Park, 1961. When he and his family vacationed in Cape Cod, Fox painted several small oil panels of children playing at the beach and boats tied up at a jetty. But for the most part, his images were constructed from drawings and from the memory of what he had seen and what he knew. By the mid sixties, however, his work was becoming much more lyrical. Eros Captif, 1965, is an interior setting awash with colour. The palette of yellow, ochre and pink is a mélange of tonal variations, his brushstrokes loose but finely connected. Fox reinvents the living room space by distorting angles and altering the perspective, all within a tightly constructed network of solids and voids. The rectangular shape of the canvas is accentuated by the linear stripes of drapery, the book shelves and the fireplace and then reiterated by strategically placed objects in tones of blue. The centre of the painting is an amalgam of low-key pink hues, which has a commanding presence because of its architectonic shape. The geometry of the image is softened by the Eros figure that seems to float toward the leaning plant. The image is not contained, as the tabletop to the left as well as the chair on the right seem to extend beyond the picture frame. His use of a variety of marks, overlapping brushstrokes, continuous and broken lines, all serve to animate the intimate, domestic space. Rea Montbizon, in The Gazette of 13 Nov. 1965, writing on Fox's first solo exhibition at the Galerie Agnes Lefort, said:
"The artist has refined his work considerably. He has reduced his statement to its essentials... He has successfully practiced the difficult art of the monochrome painting and the art of selective omissions. As his paintings become more and more delicate you notice it less and less that all his work hinges on the backbone of superb understructure, his iron discipline of organization and design. In the fact that no iron remains visible is the refinement of his art. "
Alongside the paintings exhibited in Montreal at the Galerie Agnes Lefort and in Toronto at the Roberts Gallery from 1965 to 1968, were drawings done from the model as well as brush drawings of the landscape. Drawing had always been a constant with Fox and it would continue to be the touchstone of his painting. The many sketchbooks from this period show his constant fascination with the movements and gestures of the human figure. Line is the equivalent of shape and through his drawings Fox deciphered the variety of form that reappears in his figurative paintings, regardless of their subject.
By the later 1960s, Fox had rented studio space at Phillips Place in the heart of Montreal. Now, he was able to explore other mediums and it is here that he began making bronze sculpture. Robert Ayre in his article in the Montreal Star of 14 May 1970 refers to these works "as sensitively modeled as a work by Manzu and are infinitely touching." Fox was interested in the excavations that were ongoing in Pompeii and one of his images evokes two female nudes frozen in time by flowing lava. Another sculpture is in such low relief that it resembles a painting without colour: Susanna is based on the Biblical story of a young girl spied on by an elderly man. Because of the demands of making the bronzes and his growing dissatisfaction with representational imagery, he would produce no more sculpture after 1971. At the end of the decade, Fox's images had become more and more abstract - in the sense of their separation from objective appearance. By 1972, his canvases showed only traces of references to recognizable objects. Allusions to the natural world have been replaced by allusions to the sensation of colour and light, and a new approach to painting has begun.
1972-1986 - Non-figuration
Montreal non-representational painting in the early seventies was still dominated by a plasticien or hard edge approach, leaving little room for other definitions of abstraction. For John Fox, however, non-representation was less motivated by the ideological concerns of Quebec geometric painting and more determined by the ideas of abstraction as defined in New York by painters such as Mark Rothko and Jules Olitski. As well, he had long been interested in the American critical writings of Clement Greenberg in the Partisan Review and Harold Rosenberg's articles in Encounter magazine. Karen Wilkin, writing in Modern Painting in Canada (1978), states that Fox has "pursued a personal brand of all-over lyrical painting." His movement away from representation to non-figurative images in the first years of the 1970s began with a greater concentration on the harmonies of colour and light for their own sake. Although this necessitated dissolving the natural appearance of the objects in his images, Fox continued to believe in the importance of structure and composition as the basis of the visual meaning of his painting.
As the subjects of his work become less about actual appearance and more about his imagination, Fox's belief in the emotional power and intensity of paint as paint becomes his primary preoccupation. Non-representational images allowed him to focus on the question of how to paint, rather than the question of what to paint that was posed by representational art. Fox commented in a 12 March 1974 interview with Kay Kritzwiser of The Globe and Mail: "I felt an enormous liberation when I left the figure. It opened a whole new thing of scale. My work was always concerned with what was going on in the spaces between the objects. I realize now that I was always much more interested in the ambiguities of painting than what I painted." As he shifted his focus from figurative to nonfigurative, the surface of the canvas appeared to be more simplified even if the juxtapositions of rich colour were more complex. Process and product were one and the same for Fox and there is the invigorating sensation that the canvas is in a perpetual state of becoming.
Other changes in his work accompanied his move to a new studio on Mackay Street. Most importantly, there was a dramatic increase in the size of his canvases. Also, he was now working with acrylic paint, which spread easily and smoothly over large areas and had the advantage of drying quickly, giving Fox greater freedom to concentrate on the colour harmonies. He would soon begin to apply the paint with a spray gun, allowing for layered veils of colour and for different effects than could be obtained with the brush. The works from 1973-1974 have a deceptively simplified composition that combines the assertive structure of soft geometric painting with gentle shifts of modulated colour in rectangular and organic shapes. Mazy Tale, 1974, reveals how the artist used layers of colour to create tensions between the sensuous hues across the whole area of the canvas. The picture space has greater ambiguity than in his figurative images. Each area of colour slides in front or behind the adjacent tone to create a sense of gently palpitating movement over the entire surface of the painting. While a carefully balanced play of tonal push and pull was an important part of Fox's figurative work, it is used here entirely in terms of non-representational colour. This rhythmic motion also relates to the essential dynamic of abstract images and what has been defined as "figure-ground" relationships.
In these early abstractions, the large centre shapes could be a reference back to the window or the mirror that Fox often included in his previous figurative work, such as in Portrait of Beverly (1964). As a result, there is a continuation of the impression of looking through the image and having it come forward at the same time. In Fencing Piece (1974), Fox reiterated the edges of the canvas through bands of colour that have been shaped by masking tape and a roller (rather than a brush). He left the central area almost undisturbed, except for small areas of organic forms of lighter colour that project and recede at the same time. As the rectangular shapes of colour engage and disengage with each other, they give the surface of the canvas an all-over lyricism and rhythm. The flickering tension of the composition, the scale of the elements and the range of tonalities, are kept in check by the surprising burst of pink at the lower edge that anchors the picture and controls the intentional ambiguities of the painting.
In 1974, Fox began a series of collages on paper that co-exist with the canvases. Stimulated perhaps by his low-relief bronze sculptures of 1970 and his numerous figure drawings, the collages were important strategies for working out the processes of non-figuration, and for thinking about the possibilities of abstract pictures. Of modest size, these works are intuitive and organic, but with an assured composition. Karen Wilkin, writing in Vernissage, Corporate Collection of Secal-Alcan Ltd. (1980) commented that Fox is "a painter of nuances, more fascinated it seems, with delicate variations of tone and texture than with definitions and contrasts." The collages allowed Fox to confront his ambitions for his large acrylic works through layering the paper as a type of bas-relief surface, enhanced by the tactility of the materials, the limited colour, and the open drawing, which scrawls over the painting almost like graffiti.
By 1975 Fox's marriage to Louise Cass had ended and he was living and working out of his studio space in a shoe factory on the south side of Wellington Street. As well, he was made an Associate Professor in the Painting and Drawing Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia. He had come to the university in 1970 after five years of teaching at the Saidye Bronfman Centre. In 1975, Fox also had his first solo exhibition outside eastern Canada - at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver. Ann Perry in her review of the exhibition in the Vancouver Province of Oct. 11th writes: "The pictorial world of Fox is constructed and painted with unbridled determination and firm decision… Fox's art is a visual moment full of texture, colour, manner, control and freedom, all tied up in a push-and-pull, fluid-and-tension package." At the same time, he continued to exhibit regularly with the Mira Godard Gallery in Montreal and Toronto.
Fox's creative energy never waned and he constantly tested himself. In 1976, he began a new group of paintings and collages with a more reductive composition and a darker, richer palette. While continuing to create large expanses of modulated colour with a spray gun, he also used a trowel to push the paint onto the canvas to give a kind of crust to the surface. This approach gave the work a new opacity that holds the light, reinforcing the materiality and tactility of the paint. The works from 1976-77 have a strongly architectonic structure and a grittiness that defines them as urban paintings. In many ways they evoked his experience of the stuccoed architecture of Venice, and his crumbled paint seems like markings in mortar and stone. It is at this time that Fox begins his yearly sojourns to Venice with the art historian Sandra Paikowsky, whom he married there in 1982. The eroded, scarred walls of Venetian architecture were also the inspiration for the work from the late 1970s. Here, he added elliptical drawing to the paint that more directly shows the movement of Fox's hand than had occurred in his earlier abstractions. Donald Andrus suggests that the drawing "complements the energy and push of the physically directed trowelling of paint around it…. In Fox's case the movement of the paint surface and of the drawing, accompany his growing concern with establishing a condition whereby the painting is persuaded to form itself."
In 1978, around the time that Fox moved his studio to a larger space on the north side of Wellington Street, he was painting on the floor - a strategy that further freed him from the traditions of painting. Removing the support from the stretcher gave Fox the liberty to work from all directions, allowing the process of painting to be filled with endless possibilities for experimentation. He also began using sponges, strips of cardboard, and knives to apply the paint on the canvas. In Untitled #7801 (1978) Fox created veils and veils of low-keyed hues to give the effect of fleeting light in an unbounded expanse of space. At the same time, he placed more defined shapes of colour at the upper and lower edges of the canvas as a way of defying traditional notions of gravity. To give more weight and definition to his images, Fox added a new type of drawing done with masking tape to the central areas of the canvas. The placement and removal of the tape make calligraphic lines that dance across the surface. These organic playful shapes also resemble graffiti and they completely negate the geometry found in his first abstractions. By the end of the decade, the drawn forms on the surface had developed into larger eccentric organic shapes with a new luminosity. The sensuous colour allowed the surface to breathe, to inhale and exhale in quiet rhythms. By 1980, Fox had been teaching at Concordia University for ten years and served as his department's chair. He also continued to show in both Montreal and Toronto but his life in the studio remained his primary obsession. Fox has said: "I am a painter, that's all I've done for thirty years. I've never believed in talent, only in interest, and in work. Art is a terrifically long-term thing. You find out about yourself first. The rest comes later, sometimes much later." In the work of the 1980s, drawing and painting continue to be interdependent, but now the images incorporated large irregular shapes of more pitched, solid colour.
At this point, Fox began to incorporate collage elements in these imposing opaque paintings. The colour that he positions against each other should not work, but he makes them work through the constant layering of paint, sprayed, brushed and flicked over the canvas from different directions. Shapes that could be interpreted as references to nature or the body are denied any such reading because of their imaginative colour and the contrast of light and dark, small and large, over and under. These juxtaposed and layered forms are not locked into each other, but seem to open and close in random sequence - as can be seen in #20 from 1982. The unusual horizontal format of the canvas also gives the painting an insistent presence that emphasizes the strength of the visual elements. Drawing and marks provide the forms with a contour that emphasizes both the acuity and the intangibility of each shape. Most importantly, the painting creates its own visual reality that has little to do with an exterior objective world.
In Fox's non-figurative paintings of the mid 1980s, the images suggest an expansion of the eccentric shapes, assertive tonalities and sensuous light in the preceding work. His open painterly gesture becomes the primary means of articulating colour. This movement finds its counterpart in the increased scale and generosity of the individual forms. More significantly the images seem to now contain covert references to the shapes of the body and nature, but entirely within the vocabulary of non-representational painting. The interior space in Fox's painting was also gaining greater depth and expansiveness. Their potent allusions to natural space gave the work a new kind of restlessness and dislocation that indicate his on-going ambition to redefine abstraction on his own terms. At the same time, these last non-objective paintings continue the essential meaning of all of Fox's work: the interplay between his lived experiences and his inner sensations.
In 1984 he returned to working with oil paint, because it allowed him a greater involvement with the traditional manipulation of paint than acrylic could provide. Nonfigurative painting had given Fox the means to delve deeply into the purely visual concerns of painting, unencumbered by the demands of the natural appearance of things in the world. But eventually this approach to making images offered fewer challenges and the potential of representational images became more intriguing. But he also knew that a return to figuration would rest upon the lessons learned from abstraction and a continued reliance on the freedom of his imagination. In Fox's last interview with this author in April 2008 he said: "I think looking back, I was never really convinced of the importance or the differences of abstraction and figuration and I still don't. I think the concerns are almost exactly the same."
1987-2008 - The Later Years and a Return to the Figure
John Fox's return to figuration after fifteen years of painting non-representational images was a seamless transition - and one that can be foreseen in his last abstracts of the mid 1980s. Fox's concern always lay with the physicality of paint and how it could be manipulated as an intellectual and emotional substance. With each new canvas he created situations for working out the visual problems that gave the painting its meaning. He would often refer to these conditions as "being in the stew." Resolving the issues of painting, whether figurative or abstract, engaged and motivated him throughout his lifetime. Commenting on Fox's work, Jean-Bernard Roumanes suggests that: "Whether one paints the world and everything in it or one paints imagined worlds as abstractions stemming from pure inner necessity, changes absolutely nothing. In terms of the essence of painting, it is the very act of painting that is first and foremost; to paint paintings is everything." Fox's shift from non-representation to figuration was, to some degree, brought about by a self-portrait he began in 1985.
Fox had assigned the subject to his students in a painting class at Concordia and, as always, teaching stimulated his own thinking and ways of working. At this point in his career, representational painting posed new and different challenges from those he had faced in his figurative work of the 50s and 60s. At that time he was engrossed with the challenge of colour, light, structure and space in making images determined by his familiar surroundings and his daily reality, as can be seen in Studio Window (c. 1968). In the late figurative paintings, Fox's subjects were stimulated by his imagination and by the desire to orchestrate a new reality of colour and light. In the fall of 1987, Fox had a solo exhibition at Art 45 in Montreal that featured five of the new figurative works. Ninon Gauthier in her review of the show in Finance of November 3rd, comments that "John Fox is returning in full force to figuration after a detour of more than ten years of minimalist abstraction. From his formalist research, the painter has retained a remarkable mastery of texture and matter and a muted palette of rare subtlety…. " His new change in direction was well received by those who had not understood Fox's move to abstraction. However, he gave little attention to how his work was interpreted by the larger audience, as he was more interested in the reaction of those who were able to see beyond subject matter. Never one to be tied to any particular style or movement, Fox remained true to his belief that the history of painting could provide the answers to his questions, enabling him to stay his own path and make whatever changes were appropriate to his own mind and his own heart.
Fox moved to his new studio on St-Ambroise St. in St-Henri in 1989 - his worksite for the next nineteen years and the place that defined him. Here he continued his life-long habit of going to the studio almost daily, a practice he faithfully followed right up to his final departure for Venice in April 2008, at the age of 80. Fox believed that painting was a slow and contemplative process and his canvases might be developed over an extended period of time. It was also not unusual for him to go back to a painting that he had completed a few years earlier and rework some of its passages. Because he felt that making art was the accumulation of knowledge and experience, he had his own perspective on when a painting was actually "finished." From his studio window, he looked out over the Lachine Canal to the industrial buildings along St. Patrick Street. Several canvases, as well as drawings and watercolours, describe his empathy and affection for this scrubby environment, as evidenced by St-Henri (1999). As is the case of all of these works, images are not literal representations but the visual resolution of what he had seen and what he knew. In Canal II (1990), the trees, the movement of the water, the pole, the shrubbery and the pathway are an assemblage of loose rectangular and organic shapes that he pulled together to construct a composition that has its own visual unity but still remains truthful to the world outside his window. The pole reaching up from the lower foreground, acts not as a barrier to the place, but as an entranceway into Fox's re-imagined world. While it gives stability to the shifting colour and spaces, it also gives a certain intimacy to the work. The tonal changes are subtle, as can be seen in the variations of the colour of the water. The ghost of the fence that had been present in an earlier stage of the image reminds us that his painting is a matter of layering the surface as it develops its own identity over time. Fox does not erase these traces but clearly shows the choices he has made. The scribbled black lines at water's edge mark the faint outline of the fence, giving emphasis and specificity to that area of the surface. Pierre Bonnard, a painter he greatly admired, wrote: "Work on the accent, it will enliven the whole." The different shapes and sizes of the natural elements, along with the muted light and shifting tonalities, create an active and engaging space for both Fox and the viewer.
Fox's studio was also the inspiration for most of the still-life images from the 1990s. His subject matter included the objects he had used throughout his career: an etching press, his easel, paint brushes, tools, studio chairs, an unfinished canvas leaning against the wall, bookcases and shelves. These paintings speak of the intimacy of the studio; they are objective images but they are also highly personal and introspective. Although his own image is not included, Fox's symbolic presence is an essential part of the meaning of the work. For example, Shelves (1997), with its clutter of studio equipment, has an engaging and active surface where some objects are defined by the cast of a light or dense shadow while others seem almost shapeless. Some of the tools have a solid presence, while others seem to disappear or float off the canvas. Colour again is the ways and means that Fox arranged these odd shapes and forms. By working layer over layer in thin paint, the transparency of the colour allows the image to disclose all of its underlying tonalities with warmth and candour.
The 1990s were a productive and rewarding period for Fox, with solo exhibitions in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. He also participated in many group shows throughout the decade, and artworks continued to be added to public institutions and private collections in and outside Canada. Annual trips to Venice with his wife Sandra were, as always, a source of inspiration. Visits to the Church of San Salvador to see Titian's Annunciation or to savour the Tintoretto paintings that cover the walls and the ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, were emotionally charged experiences, time and time again. The city of Venice was a painter's dream, and Fox was enchanted by the ever-changing Venetian light reflecting off the water onto the buildings and bridges that lined the canals; he reworked their subtle variations of colour in his own watercolours and oil paintings. In search of stimulating sites to draw, he walked the streets and squares of the Cannaregio, the sestieri where he and Sandra stayed during their last fifteen visits together. His sketchbooks were filled with drawings of its quiet secluded areas, perhaps showing a garden wall with overhanging foliage or a canal with its weathered bridge of marble and mortar. Many of these drawings were the source of the watercolours he painted in their apartment on the edge of the Ghetto and several were later developed into canvases back in his studio on St-Ambroise Street. Habsburg Garden, Venice (1997) records an unusual raised Renaissance garden from another trip to Venice and from a place near the Scuola San Rocco. However, the majority of the watercolours remain as independent images, stimulated by his imagination and his memory but always grounded in his experience of looking and seeing.
Fox was captivated by the human figure; he produced hundreds and hundreds of drawings and watercolours of the body throughout his career. He drew just about every day of his adult life, either from the model or from memory. A technically superb draftsman, he believed that drawing was the basis of all great painting, a lesson he learned from studying the work of the past. Degas, whom he revered, had said: "Drawing is not the same as form; it is a way of seeing form," and this goes to the heart of Fox's works on paper. He was fascinated by the psychology of movement and expression, and many of his drawings were studies devoted to a specific gesture or movement that helped him to articulate the bodies in his paintings of people. The harmony of line and continuity of contour were just as important. Victoria Stusiak, who modelled for Fox and was his studio assistant from 2003 to 2008, said in an interview with the author that: "If he was trying to figure out a gesture in The Death of Orpheus, for example, I would get into a gesture so he could work out something about the hands; but sometimes he would completely change the gesture. Or he would use his own hands. Drawing was always his way to figure out something in a painting."
One of Fox's favourite themes in the late paintings was the grouping of two or more people, usually at work or leisure. He was interested in composing an image that created a sense of everyday life, suddenly glimpsed. Within their intimate settings, he wanted to explore and define the relationship, both physical and emotional, between the figures. His painting process was constantly changing; often reinventing itself until the work was finally resolved. While a number of figurative painters begin a canvas by laying down a grid and keeping to the original plotting of the composition, Fox began each canvas by painting abstract shapes that fed his imagination. Slowly, the figures evolved within a setting that gradually became more specific as he instinctively worked out the structure of the image. Cleaners I (2005) comes from Fox's imagination; he was thinking about the way his friends moved while they were washing his studio floor. The resulting image is a man and woman at work, caught in a moment of time. The setting could be anywhere; the figures are turned away, absorbed in their own thoughts. Art historian Sandra Paikowsky, in the publication that accompanied the exhibition John Fox: Refiguration (2010) suggests "the figures' averted gaze is a constant in John's late images of people so that viewer and painter occupy the same position of unacknowledged observation." The physical and emotional tension between the figures is created by the gestures and poses of the standing man swishing his mop in the bucket of water while the weary woman rests on a chair, leaning on her mop. The curve of her body is accentuated by the rectangular shape of the canvas, the verticality of her companion and the diagonal movement of the mops. A dark cloth flung over the lighter toned chair is counterbalanced by the black pants of the male, giving weight and solidity to the figures. The contrast of the open and closed position of their arms and legs, the close alignment of their heads and feet all contribute to the cleaners' silent but charged conversation. Because of its minimal palette that depends upon an innumerable range of red tonalities, the image is reminiscent of a 16th century Venetian painting with its open and expressive brushwork, its lush, flickering colour and its balance of solid form and shimmering surface.
Fox continued to teach painting and drawing at Concordia University until he retired in 1998 at the age of 70. But he remained a generous and encouraging mentor to many generations of art students, as much for his gentle suggestions about their work as their respect for his sensibility and his knowledge. Former students and their friends would often drop by the studio to have coffee, exchange ideas and talk about their work. Many became models for his images as a result of these casual visits. Victoria Stusiak commented that Fox influenced her just by the example he set: "I admired that dedication. He was the most authentic, sincere artist that I have ever known." Susan Scott, a Montreal figurative painter, colleague and friend, in an interview with the author, said it was during these visits to the studio when she felt closest to Fox: "Quietly, over coffee, we would talk about a painting he was working on. I would say 'oh, that figure looks like it comes from a Veronese,' and John would say 'maybe,' and he would pull out a book and we would look at the Veroneses together." Scott also stated that the most important thing about Fox was his ties to those painters who defined the history of art: "I don't know anyone else in Montreal who is so interested in that lineage; who really says that Degas was the last of that line - the line to Degas from Corot, and going back to Ingres and then to the Italians. It really is John's lineage and I consider it my lineage; so it was a real emotional link for me."
There was a new freedom and contentment in the last decades of Fox's life. While he participated in several group shows in Montreal and elsewhere, he decided that he did not want to be distracted by the demands of solo exhibitions. Retired from his teaching responsibilities and administrative work at Concordia, he could now completely devote himself to painting. His daily ritual was quite simple, he would arrive at the studio in the late morning, sit and read for a couple of hours, perhaps an ex-student would drop by for coffee, and then he would begin painting, working till early evening when his wife Sandra would bring him home for dinner.
Fox worked slowly and his canvases developed over time, sometimes several months. Because the physical process of making a painting was so enjoyable and because the intellectual process of thinking about painting was so stimulating, he felt that there was no need to quicken the pace just to produce more work.
John Fox and Sandra left for their annual visit to Venice in April, 2008. He died there suddenly on June 16 at the age of 80, never to return to his studio on St-Ambroise St. In the last interview I had with Fox, we looked at images of his body of work dating from the early 50s, when he believed he was "learning to paint," and up to early 2008. It was the first time he had ever looked back at all of his work in such a concentrated way, and he was quite moved by the experience. He said: "Oh my, it is like reading a journal." Yes, Fox's body of work speaks of a man whose life was totally committed to making art. It was also his lasting gift to those who shared his compassion for the pleasures of painting.
Copyright © Judith Hayes, MA & Galerie Walter Klinkhoff. 2010. Montreal.