LOT 040

1919 - 1988

Highlands #3
oil on canvas diptych
on verso signed, titled and dated 1975 on both canvases
85 x 152 1/4 in, 215.9 x 386.7 cm

Estimate: $90,000 - $120,000 CAD

Sold for: $97,250

Preview at: PacArt, Toronto

Gallery Moos Ltd., Toronto
Cineplex Odeon
Sold sale of Important Canadian Art, Sotheby's in association with Ritchie's, November 22, 2004, lot 78
Private Collection, Toronto

David Burnett, Cineplex Odeon: The First Ten Years, 1989, reproduced page 55
“Gershon Iskowitz,” National Gallery of Canada, https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artist/gershon-iskowitz, accessed March 7, 2018

Gershon Iskowitz’s magical abstracts were often inspired by landscape. In this he joins a distinguished lineage of painters, including pioneers such as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, circa 1910, and, even earlier, the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862 - 1944), all of whom imagined and expressed nature’s forces in an abstract idiom. Lawren Harris memorably abstracted from landscape as he moved into abstraction in the mid-1930s. Much of Jean Paul Riopelle’s abstract painting in the 1970s was directly based on the forms and stark tonal contrasts of arctic icebergs.

Highlands #3 is an exuberant painting, an expression of freedom and dynamic movement conveyed by colour and Iskowitz’s keen sense of space. Rather than fixing on a theme or point of visual emphasis, the design of the coloured marks encourages our eyes to keep moving, even to blur as they take in the whole. This effect is stronger if one imagines looking down into this work rather than at something ahead on the same plane. Iskowitz’s biography suggests this reading. His abstract paintings from this, the most productive phase of his career, were triggered by a helicopter ride from Winnipeg to Churchill, in northern Manitoba, in 1967. If one has flown in this way, it is not difficult to feel in this painting the exhilaration and apparent ease of floating over the land. We can imagine clouds, land and trees, and perhaps most of all, vast space. But Highlands #3 is not a landscape; it has analogues in the land but stretches our perception beyond the topographic.

Iskowitz frequently adopted the diptych form that we see in Highlands #3. What effects might this double image and the presentation of a strong midline have on our sense of the canvas? First and last, this internal border underlines that we are looking at painting, at a surface that is manifestly manipulated, rather than through a window onto nature. The internal division made by the bifurcation of this work also encourages a comparison across the centre, but instead of a fold that makes a mirrored image, we see a playful disparity in markings to the left and right. The line also slows down our ineluctable habit of reading from left to right, even though this is clearly a dynamic painting. If overall the painting asserts a left and right, perhaps this fact makes clear that we have a left and right eye and thus see with binocular vision. We might call this effect the “humanism” of Iskowitz’s work. As he said, “My paintings are not abstract, they are real, they are very very much real, I see those things...I paint what I see.”

Knowing an artist’s biography can be a trap for the ways we see and think about their work, because too often life’s events and art’s purposes do not align as perfectly as we might wish. However, that Iskowitz was born in Poland, was the only member of his family to survive internment in concentration camps during World War II, came to Canada in 1949 and gradually painted his way through personal and human trauma via landscape to arrive ultimately at a free and joyous abstract expression — this story needs to be known and celebrated.

We thank Mark Cheetham, Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto and author of Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s, for contributing this essay.

Estimate: $90,000 - $120,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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