Signature works from York U’s art collection on view at Varley Gallery

Varley gallery's installation of paintings by Andy Warhol




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More than half a century after its beginnings, York University’s art collection is enjoying its off-campus debut with a showcase exhibition at the Varley Art Gallery in Markham. Moving Side and Forward: A journey through the collection of York University is on view at the Varley until Jan. 12, 2014.


The show takes its name from the featured Jack Chambers painting of the same title. It presents three dozen abstract and representational paintings and works on paper dating from the late 1930s through the 1980s, predominantly by Canadian artists and from all regions of the country. The exhibition includes canvases by celebrated Canadian painters Gershon Iskowitz, Bertram Brooker, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Norval Morrisseau and Jock Macdonald as well as the silkscreen series, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, by American pop art icon Andy Warhol.

Varley Gallery Warhol Suite
The room at the Varley Gallery devoted to Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century by American pop art icon Andy Warhol.

Over the years, York University has built a vibrant collection of modernist art that reflects the history of the art scene and art collecting in Canada in the 20th century.When construction began on the Keele campus in the early 1960s, one of the first three buildings to go up was the fine arts building, now known as the Joan and Martin Goldfarb Centre for Fine Arts. The York University art collection began at the same time, with one half of one percent of building budgets at that time allocated for the purchase of artworks.

Today, York University’s collection comprises more than 1,500 paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture and installation works. Alongside purchases, the majority of acquisitions have been gifts from discerning collectors and philanthropists, such as Joan and Martin Goldfarb’s landmark donation of 77 works of art. (Click here to read a news release about the donation.)

Drawn from these rich holdings, Moving Side and Forward: A journey through the collection of York University brings together for the first time, and in a public setting, signature works that normally hang in offices, hallways and study spaces across campus.

The show was co-curated by York graduate students John Geoghegan and Anna Richard, MA candidates in Art History pursuing the Curatorial Studies Diploma, in collaboration with Anna Hudson, professor of art history and visual culture and associate dean in the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Jack Chambers painting
Jack Chambers: Moving Side and Forward, graphite and acrylic on board, 1967. York University Art Collection.

“We went through many possible iterations, beginning with our recognition that York’s collection is richest in abstraction,” said Hudson. “This coincides with the fact that the university was founded in 1959, when abstraction was the dominant style, representing the avant-garde and in many ways reflecting York’s innovative ideas about education, and imagining the future.”

Including works by faculty artists was a priority for the curators.

“Artists of national significance, Ronald Bloore and Claude Breeze were also professors in the Department of Visual Arts, and so their works are both an important legacy and a testament to the ongoing strength of the fine arts program at York,” said Geoghegan.

The curators note that many pieces in Moving Side and Forward – and in York’s larger collection – have become markers of significant moments, both personal and official, that are part of the lively narrative of the university’s history. In gathering the works for the exhibition, the curators were also struck by the visceral engagement they evoke in many faculty and staff members.

“These artworks carry memories, stories and experiences of the York community,” Richard said.

“For example, Professor Naomi Adelson, associate dean, research in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, told us that Christopher Pratt’s Night Window (featured in Moving Side and Forward) has generated countless conversations as visitors to her office encounter the negative space in the painting, dark and foreboding yet somehow full of potential.

“And Lassonde School of Engineering Dean Janusz Kozinski has shared the deep relationship he feels to the painting by Jean-Paul Riopelle that he took down from his office wall to lend to the show.”

“Looking back over the University’s history, I am struck by York’s predisposition to an interdisciplinary aesthetic curiosity about historical values and their contemporary relevance, and about constellations of knowledge and systems of learning enacted through the academic curriculum,” said Hudson. “When artists crystallize these into a pattern, which art exhibitions intentionally amplify, a window opens into York’s history as a “multiversity” and its founding tradition of faculty and students from both the arts and sciences finding common creative ground.”

The Moving Side and Forward exhibition came about thanks to a decade of relationship-building between the Faculty of Fine Arts and York Region – in particular, an educational partnership with the Varley Art Gallery of Markham that offers mentorship and professional skills development opportunities to York’s rising young curators. The Varley is located at 216 Main Street in Unionville. For hours and visiting information visit the Varley website.

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