Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Guido Molinari Tribute - National Post Feb. 28/04

On February 21, 2004 renowned Montreal abstract painter Guido Molinari died of pneumonia after cancer crept from his lungs and into his bones. He was 70.
Unfortunately, you are not alone if his name doesn't immediately bring buckets of tears to your eyes and a sharp awareness that the art world has been temporarily leveled by the lose of such a giant legend. Molinari was to the Canadian art world what Maurice "Rocket" Richard was to the NHL -- precise, unfaltering, unpretentious, devoted, and a brilliant showman. He was a class act.

Some will know him as the guy who painted vertical stripes, which is like saying The Rocket could move a puck across ice. It was the way he painted stripes (and later rectangles and triangles) that mattered. He loved a good analytical discussion about his art, but he cared more about the viewer's emotional experience standing in front of one of his bold, hard-edge abstracts. "I'm interested in the movement of eyes across the painting," he said recently in Canadian Art magazine, and "those who find [my paintings] to be exhaustingly demanding are those trying to use their intellect to understand them."

I'll let the obituaries take care of the highlights of his 50-year career, including his stellar exhibition at the MoMA in New York (1965), at the Venice Biennale (1968), and how, most famously, he experimented with creative intuition by painting in the dark and blindfolded. He was just 17 at the time but already precociously in tune with the budding abstractionist scene happening in Montreal as well as in New York, with the rise of artists like Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Ellsworth Kelly.

Molinari wasn't large physically but he had enormous presence in a room. He gesticulated while he talked, and had a childish laugh that didn't quite match his impressive schnozzle, a Roman's nose that former director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, William Withrow, once said was practically designer-made for a creative polemicist.

I never met him but he had many close Toronto friends, including art dealer Clint Roenisch. Roenisch met Molinari in 1997 when he was acting-curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery in B.C. By phone, he invited the artist to do a survey exhibition and Molinari agreed instantly. To this day Roenisch is convinced the artist accepted only because he thought he had said "Cologne" (as in Germany) not "Kelowna."

In a tribute to Molinari the man, here are nine things to we should all know about him, as told to me by some longstanding friends of the artist.

1. The former Bank of Montreal building that Molinari used as a live-in studio for 27 years had everything an artist could want: a 14-room apartment upstairs, a 4,000-sq. ft. studio on the main floor, and a walk-in vault full of art. Three of the rooms upstairs were filled with books.

2. The bank was a lab of perpetual motion: assistants running around, phones ringing, Guido talking and gesticulating, art everywhere, crates leaving. In the mornings he often painted in his pajamas.

3. According to art historian Roald Nasgaard, Molinari had such an acute sense for geometry right from the start of his career he could determine instantly if an angle was off by just two-thirds of a degree.

4. Always meticulous, Molinari regularly took on assistants but he pretty much stretched all of his own canvasses, did the taping, and painted them himself.

5. He was an avid collector. According to Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the AGO, he collected as a way of placing his own work in relation to others. His vault stored works by Barnett Newman, Richard Serra, Francis Bacon, Piet Mondrian, and Ellsworth Kelly. He also held on to nearly all of his early works, including the best black and white paintings from the late-50s which are considered his most accomplished. He kept them because he knew he was good.

6. Music was important to him and came naturally, likely because his father was a flutist for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. In 1997 the Molinari Quartet was formed, an avant-garde ensemble that was inspired to use his name. They once gave a Sunday afternoon concert to a hundred people in the bank.

7. Molinari read Scientific American and psychology journals, not art magazines. He could freely discuss music, French literature and poetry, philosophy, gender relations (a big topic), ethics, Canadian history (especially Montreal) and of course the entirety of art history. And usually all in the same conversation.

8. In his very chaotic kitchen he would whip up for visiting guests a plate of pasta in less than 8 minutes, and then open, without ceremony, a $300 bottle of wine to go with it. On one such occasion, Roenisch recalls going to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art after the meal, but asking Molinari if he wanted to change his shirt first since he had spilled wine down the front of it. He didn't change it, saying that would be "bourgeois." Sure enough when they met Guy Cogeval, the extremely elegant director of the museum, Cogeval didn't notice the stain because Molinari instantly began to analyze the current exhibition so perceptively and with his usual bravado.

9. One chilly fall day, Roenisch recalls Molinari talking about his favourite artist Piet Mondrian while walking and gesticulating in his usual way, when a guy suddenly appeared from the bushes wearing a down jacket, hiking boats and no pants. He had been nude sunbathing at a nearby beach. Molinari only stopped his flow about Mondrian long enough to say: "Everything wants to live." - Catherine Osborne (with special thanks to Clint Roenisch)

Paintings by Guido Molinari from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection will be on display in the near future. Survey exhibitions in Toronto are in the works at Moore Gallery and the new MOCCA, this coming fall.