Shortly after the National Gallery of Canada announced its acquisition of Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire in the late winter of 1990, Marc Mayer visited his parents in Ottawa. In those days, he was living in New York, working at the 49th Parallel, a Manhattan gallery for Canadian artists run by the federal government. His parents had been waiting for him to arrive. “My father said, ‘Now, you’re the guy who’s going to take us to the museum to see that thing.’” That thing was Newman’s huge red and blue abstract painting, and Mayer, an expert in contemporary art, hadn’t seen it either. “My parents just looked at me,” he recalls, when the three of them stood in front of it for the first time. “My mother said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘It’s enormous,’ she said. ‘Didn’t you know?’ I asked. ‘It’s as big as two thumbs in the newspaper,’ she replied. ‘How was I supposed to know that it’s bigger than the house?’”
Unlike other art controversies of the period — Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in the United States the year before, or Jana Sterbak’s Flesh Dress in Ottawa the year after — this one wasn’t about the scabrous, the scatological, or the profane. Voice of Fire was simply three towering bands of colour: pure, extreme abstraction. And in Canada, anyway, Newman’s critical role in mid-twentieth-century art history was moot; for many Canadians, Voice of Fire was akin to curatorial snake oil. Something that simple, at that price, and by an American? Did it belong in our National Gallery?
Not as far as Progressive Conservative MP Felix Holtmann was concerned. “Well, I’m not exactly impressed,” he famously said after seeing a reproduction in the newspaper. “It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about ten minutes would do the trick.” A one-time pig farmer from Rosser, Manitoba, Holtmann probably used up his full fifteen minutes of fame that spring: yanking the gallery’s director, Shirley Thomson, and its curator of contemporary art, Brydon Smith, before his government committee on communications and culture; calling for the painting’s deaccession; questioning the gallery’s independence. For more than two months, the Voice of Fire debate filled letters to the editor pages, MPs’ mailboxes, and radio call-in shows. Bottom-feeder commentary ruled, followed by parodies that included full-scale paintings (e.g., Voice of the Taxpayer in Nepean, Ontario).
Internationally, the affair caused barely a ripple. Art in America published a short news story. Blake Gopnik, chief art critic at the Washington Post, was then a doctoral student at Oxford and only heard about it from his family back home in Montreal. Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, says the controversy “would certainly have reached people who are interested in the subject.” It was a made-in-Canada event, which Temkin acknowledged in her introduction to the catalogue for the landmark Newman retrospective she curated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2002.
The hubbub eventually faded, and when it did, Newman’s painting was still in place. “For a long time,” says Thomson, “people would come into the gallery and say, ‘Where is it?’ ‘Where is it?’ and we knew exactly what they were looking for.” Two decades later, the painting is still among the most recognizable pieces of art in Canada, and a cornerstone of the National Gallery’s collection. Painted by a lifelong New Yorker for the American pavilion at Expo 67 and left to lie unattended in a Manhattan warehouse for nearly twenty years, it has now become, as John O’Brian wrote in Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State, “as much a part of the crazy quilt of Canadian culture as the work of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven or Paul-émile Borduas and the Automatistes.”
On its twentieth anniversary, the Voice of Fire crisis now stands out as one of the hazy relics of Mulroney-era Canada, like the rise of the Reform Party or the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. It’s a story firmly rooted in time and place; yet, looking back, it can also feel like a primer on the profound forces that have overtaken and transformed the art world since 1990. Whether a controversy like this could ever happen again is just one of the questions it raises. Yes, there’s a surge in museum building across Canada, but will the people who run these institutions have the vision, courage, and financial wherewithal to fill them with important works of art?
The Voice of Fire story begins with the opening of Moshe Safdie’s new National Gallery in May 1988. When Brydon Smith saw Safdie’s plan, with two huge second-floor rooms at the heart of the structure, he envisioned the ideal spot for a signature acquisition. “I think I said to Safdie at one point, ‘There’s one painting I know that would hold that wall,’” he says, laughing quietly at the thought of the nearly twelve-metre-high wall at the end of room C214. Smith had never forgotten the world’s fair in Montreal, especially his first glimpse of Voice of Fire, surrounded as it was by other huge canvases hanging in Buckminster Fuller’s giant geodesic dome.
Today C214 feels like a curatorial time machine; in Canada, publicly funded collection building never had it so good. During his thirty-two-year tenure in Ottawa, Smith filled the museum with modern masterpieces, from Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes (his first purchase, in 1967) to Donald Judd’s “specific objects.” In room C214, we see this clarity and ambition writ large, with four Newmans, a Jackson Pollock (his only work on glass), and a Mark Rothko (bought, controversially, in 1993 for more than $1.8 million), among others.
Newman’s connections to Canada ran deep, starting with an early residency at the artists’ retreat at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan; then Expo 67; an address at Dan Flavin’s 1969 National Gallery show; and Smith’s long acquaintance with Annalee, the artist’s wife and professional partner, after Newman’s death in 1970. Without this history, Voice of Fire might well have been sold to the highest bidder. Annalee Newman admitted that she kept the price artificially low; her husband, she believed, would have wanted it in the National Gallery. At auction, the painting would have likely fetched at least double what the gallery paid — maybe more.
And today? Some observers suggest the bidding could begin at over $10 million. “In 1990, even the headline-making purchases were not the kind of numbers we’re talking about now,” says Blake Gopnik, adding that we “constantly hear about van Goghs going for $80 million,” or even “a lousy Picasso” selling for more than $100 million. Despite the severity of the economic downturn, the art market is still booming. And Marc Mayer, now the National Gallery’s director and CEO, says that while the museum has an $8-million annual acquisitions budget, “I’m almost positive we would not be able to buy Voice of Fire today were it made available to us. That really was our one chance.”
Compared with those of other Canadian museums, the National Gallery’s acquisitions budget — more than double what it was during the Voice of Fire crisis — is enormous. (At the best of times, and with private support, a big-city museum might nudge toward $1 million.) But consider this within an international context. The National Gallery’s budget competes with that of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi (nearly $60 million) and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (approximately $30 million). Canadian curators just don’t cut big taxpayer-funded cheques for historical masterworks anymore. Now public-private partnerships rule, American-style philanthropy is key, and organizations (such as Vancouver’s Audain Foundation) participate in acquisitions large and small. There are new galleries in Toronto and Edmonton, and plans afoot in Saskatoon and Vancouver, but can we afford to fill them with new collections?
The Art Gallery of Ontario is often mentioned as a model. Long before its Frank Gehry–designed extension opened in 2008, director Matthew Teitelbaum courted Kenneth Thomson. When the billionaire art collector donated his huge, multi-faceted collection and more than $100 million in cash, the new AGO was, literally, a gallery transformed. Thomson also bequeathed Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents, a baroque masterwork he bought at auction for approximately $117 million, still the highest price ever paid for an Old Master.