Hillel Kagan
An Artists Artist
talks to JP Delaney

With his arresting paintings, acerbic humor, and profound insight, Hillel Kagan became almost immediately recognized as an authority for many of his fellow artists at ArtProcess. His numerous contributions, both visual and verbal, are highlights ever to return to, and indeed exemplify some of the best content to be found here over the years.

Your paintings are some of the most popular on this site and your written contributions are the most read. Questions ranging from the technical to the philosophical have been put to you by many other artists here, resulting in intelligent, highly-readable and humorous answers. If there were any justice, you would be an internationally celebrated and commercially successful artist, but not even the Canadians appear to have understood [LINK] yet the true significance of your work. What is it then that you get from the act of painting that makes you continue with the ploughing of this lonely furrow?


When you sought me out and asked me to join AP I had no idea what the whole thing was about. The internet was all new to me and I had struggled to put together a few jpegs to upload to Saatchi's newly formed site. Beats the hell out of me how you found me there but you did. Actually I was quite surprised by the amount of response I received there. AP was different though and I began to see what I figure was your intent, a digital space for visual artists to interact. To comment on each other's work and hopefully form some kind of dialogue. Maybe just maybe a virtual Montmartre might arise. The only problem was nobody was talking except for you. I suppose you enlisted me because I recall waxing on eloquently in my artist's statement on Saatchi where you found me [LINK] and you probably figured this guy's full of shit maybe he can rile things up a bit. Obviously as you can see from my career I love a losing project so I endeavoured to get the mutes talking with about as much success as you had. But I suppose you kept on searching out big mouths and eventually there were a handful of us blabbing away. I'm not sure about being the most read but maybe you have stats or data I'm unaware of.

As far as your premise about justice and being celebrated and commercially successful. It was not something I ever thought much about. Really I just wanted to be part of the dialogue, a place at the table so to speak. I'm not all that ambitious but I was sure that eventually the work would be recognized as having some kind of merit if I could just keep doing it. All I needed was some kind of gallery representation. At first I had some easy success with a couple of fledgling galleries and then I hit a brick wall for about forty years. There are really very few galleries here in Toronto (there are probably more now but I haven't the heart or the strength to go chasing after them) and once I was rejected by all of them I wasn't very good at going back and begging and haranguing or just schmoozing and socializing. So the fault lies with me, some kind of inherent defect.

To get back to what I think the main thrust of your question is, "Why do I keep on keeping on?" the answer is I don't, each rejection, each humiliation took time away from my work. Not so much in the beginning but as they added up over time and the realization that my very modest ambitions were not about to happen probably ever I became more and more disheartened. The photographing and putting the packages together with slides, labeled with titles, mediums and dimensions, some bullshit artist statement and cvs. All of it taking time and then getting it up to make appointments and getting out there to get clobbered again resulted in longer periods of depression and doubt though eventually I always did make my way back to the studio. At some point about ten years ago, arthritic and racked with pain, I more or less said fuck it and succumbed to opioids, alcohol and less painful and hurtful pursuits. Truthfully a retinal problem and deteriorating vision had also presented itself and it's only recently having found the right drug regime that I find myself painting again don't ask me why. At this point I have no interest in showing or ambitions of any kind but it’s nice to be painting once again more regularly, though pain is still an issue and I tire easily. Getting in a couple of hours, maybe three or four is a superduper day. All between doctors appointments and other nuisance activities just to keep going is the best I can do. So I'm not sure if I've answered your question but it's all I've got.


Speaking for myself, I'd be quite happy with being able to realize two hours of concentrated focus each day, as opposed to my usual faffing about. Can I ask you to speak about what goes on during that brief time of painting? Do you prepare a scene (as in the recent still-life with hammers and telephone) and work on it over the days until complete, or is your approach different? Does the fact of knowing that you have two hours grace condense the intellectual or emotional involvement in any way, and can you discuss this in relation to what you are currently working on?


Usually I have no idea of what I'm going to do. As far as the little painting with the hammer and telephone goes, I was just getting back to work again, starting cold, always unpleasant to do. After dealing with dried up paint tubes, hardened brushes, the discarding of and replenishing of old solvents and turps and all that mucky stuff I figured I'd just do some small paintings of what I see around me. I've always said that standing still and just moving oneself around a bit should provide enough material for a lifetime's work (that's theoretical of course because boredom always sets in). That's the case in that painting, I set the tiny canvas on an easel and looked around and there it was, I don't set up still lifes. However I've learned, though sometimes I forget, that once I get stuck in on doing a painting like that I'd better mark the main objects in place. Donna was sweeping up and answered the phone at some point and I had never warned her not to touch anything on that desk. It was a bugger getting it positioned back to some kind of approximate sameness. Naturally I made Donna pay dearly for all my trouble.

There's another couple of recent small paintings looking around the studio and just shifting the easel about. I've uploaded a couple of quick snaps here, when I get the time I will officially upload them to my page. I hate getting out a camera and doing it, the little one was so small, 8" x 10" that I could just scan it, I only uploaded it to prove I still have a rotary telephone.

I don't think I'm finished with those little studio paintings but as I said boredom always sets in and right now I am working on a figurative piece (see pic below) still a small format, 24" x 24". I'll have to get my courage up before I approach anything larger. As per usual I have a slight notion in my mind and absolutely no idea of how to get there or what I am doing, I always start from zero. I'll see where it goes, only when it absolutely shows no promise will I give up on it, until then I just keep at it. I work until it gets too painful or I'm too tired. Sometimes after a rest I can get another session in, I really don't think about it.


I can't imagine you have many cases of arriving at a point where a work "absolutely shows no promise", but when it happens - do you scrape off the paint, apply a fresh white ground layer and just start again, or do you in some way make use of the lack of promise? I seem to recall you mentioning in the past that you don't throw paint away and even use the remaining sludge at the bottom of your pot of brush cleaning thinners. From that I would gather that you in some way recycle the original exploration work that didn't go anywhere.


No, I've lost my way and abandoned many works often times after months of labour. And usually it’s because I’d gone wrong somewhere along the line and become so enamoured with certain components or passages that I couldn't bring myself to wipe out or destroy those parts though in truth I knew it had to be done to save the whole enterprise. So you keep carrying on all the while in your heart of hearts you know all is lost. Finally with all your courage because the horrible labour of it and knowledge of all the time you've wasted becomes too much to bear you destroy it. The surfaces are too clogged by that point to paint over so out of frustration and anger I've usually just ripped them off the stretchers and discarded them.  Large canvases I've restretched, reprimed and painted on the reverse side, I wouldn't do that now though I don't have the strength. 

It doesn't happen often nowadays, I guess after all these years I finally realized if I did something once I can do it again. But the lesson is don't be precious about the work. If you find yourself going that way, and these things often depend on mood, perform the abortions and amputations early and often.


You've said elsewhere ( e.g. [LINK] ) that, as the artist, your concern is the formal realizing and reconciling of elements in a painting, and that the artist's inner self often comes to the fore as a consequence ("..There's more angst in Cezanne's apple than Bacon's total oeuvre"). I can't help looking at the images of the Studio Paintings you've uploaded in your previous answer and, other than admire the delicate jewel-like coloring, see some significance in those empty chairs, as if the artist and model have finally both abandoned the studio. There's something deeply saddening about those empty places, like the end has come. Luckily, you say the third painting is figurative (does that mean it contains the figure of a person?) and larger in size, as if life is returning to the spot. In a way, they seem to mirror your account of prolonged illness (and subsequent inability to work), followed by the gradual improvement in circumstances such that your much-awaited presence in the studio is once more?


As far as your hypothesising about these works goes who  knows? It’s certainly not on a conscious level but you may be on to something. My work divides between mostly the figurative paintings and as a reprieve, and from time to time, the works where I simply paint what I see. In the case of this in progress figurative work it started with a photo I came across of a strange chair of some sort that had some ominous effect on me and I visualized a figure spilling or toppling from it. Hopefully as I proceed the whole situation will become more defined.

Either you have memorized every word ever published on this website or you are the greatest chronicler of my work and utterances in the universe, in which case you would also no doubt be my only chronicler. How you could find and link to those historic AP quotes of mine is beyond me but I'll take it as a great personal compliment, I’m honoured. It's hard to believe I said all that stuff but I guess it does show some kind of consistency, thanks.


Some years ago during the depths of your illness, you mentioned that were you capable of the physical effort required, you might even be able to do your best paintings yet. That did sound quite positive to me at the time. I thought that more than anything, the lure of arriving at doing one's best work is the greatest stimulus an artist can have to fight back for better health. Do you recall saying that, and has the long dormant period of being so unwell in some way opened your eyes to new possibilities in your work?


First of all I don't want to give the impression that I'm  a complete invalid. As I said earlier I had increasingly since about 2007 been suffering from arthritic and neurolological pain. There came a point where I just didn't feel like painting anymore, I lost interest and frankly was kind of angry with myself and art and all the time I’d wasted on it, the futility of it. I suppose had I had some success and a reason to continue the pain wouldn't have stopped me as as much as it did.

Like most artists I have experienced dormant periods of activity due to depression or other demands of life but never as long in duration as this last one. During those other fallow periods I felt guilty for not getting to work. This time I really didn't care, as a matter of fact I enjoyed it and busied myself with other things with nary a pang of guilt. Still I suppose by force of visual habit I constantly deconstruct, analyze and measure what I see even with weakening eyesight. And during that period I do recall feeling that those faculties felt stronger than ever and were I to paint I would be stronger than ever. At least that was the illusion, getting back to to work and the actual substance and mud that fights you back quickly debunks that notion. So no new possibilities and lets get off the invalid topic. Your move.




Deconstruction and measurement you have stated previously ( e.g. [LINK] ) are two essentials for your way of seeing and painting. Unlike many of the artists here, you describe your process in quite scientific terms, and don't appear to have much interest in emotive ramblings. Given the fact that last year the first AI (Artificial Intelligence) - generated painting fetched over $430K at auction, can you see a future when the art of our time will be made by algorithm?


"..There's more angst in Cezanne's apple than Bacon's total oeuvre." Did I say that? Pretty darn good. In his early work it's obvious that he wanted to paint highly charged expressionistic and emotive works however never, in my opinion and obviously his own, not very successfully. Obviously there was conflict between his desire to compete with the historic great paintings of the masters which would mean successful entry to the salon and his own unique and innate makeup. One geared toward a more quiet art. Not less difficult, just quieter and not one likely to bring much establishment success He eventually settled into what was more becoming to his own nature, i.e. sustained landscape studies, still lifes and portraits. Kind of a structured and analytic impressionism. Giving over and doing what is more natural for oneself doesn't necessarily relieve one's own conflicted and tormented nature. The desires, ambitions, conflicts and doubts don't magically disappear. Combined with his obsessive, compulsive adherence to his own way of seeing and way of constructing a painting he didn't have to illustrate his own anxiety it was all right there in his "apple".
Ultimately we will always only respond to what the human mind and heart produces. With all of the human fallibilities, conflicts and struggles and precisely because of those things AI, which will never ever doubt itself no matter how much data is fed into it (yes by humans) can never really touch the human soul or replace the human hand and mind. Beyond the curiosity factor it's of no interest. Maybe the technology can be of use much like the camera in the making of art or perhaps a new art form will arise from it but that's about it. I think the successful bidder overpaid.


So that debunks an AI approach, and bestows accolades on Monsieur Cézanne. However you also mention Giacometti [LINK] as another influence. In what way is he so significant to you?


"I love my hero Giacometti but I also love Bacon precisely because he was a fraud..." The link went to my essay on Bacon and I had to dig into it to find this but I'm pretty sure this what you're talking about.

Giacometti continues Cezanne's project, he is the heir apparent not the cubists as is normally presumed, they only took a hint from Cezanne and created a movement. Actually I like more of Giacometti's work, i.e. the drawings and paintings (not so much of the sculpture but some) than I do Cezanne's although you always have to stand in reverence before any Cezanne. Once again it's the painted anxiety that holds us, the obsessive search for visual truth. The impossible task of comprehending and rendering what we see. The best we can do is leave unfinished attempts, relics in plaster and on paper and canvas of a futile battle that can never be won.


It´s only right then to follow up with another portrait, your self-portrait this time. Actually, when I first saw this it made me think of Chardin´s self-portrait wearing glasses [LINK], maybe because of the prominence given to the spectacle frames and the confident gaze. Unlike Chardin where he appears to be looking somewhere beyond the viewer, you´re looking straight at us, and all concentration is on that focus of the eyes. You left the outer and lower edges of the painting unusually spare so there´s nothing to distract from the judgement of the artist. I find this to be a particularly successful image, and wonder if you´d consider doing a follow-up now that some years have passed since it´s completion?


If what you mean by a follow up is a study of me in my old age, sure, why not? I don't consider myself a portraitist but I have done some. As for self-portraits, from time to time as the mood takes me or if I'm in need of a free model because I want to do something from life I have done them. Sometimes I've made my way into my paintings because I need a reference for a movement or expression so I look in the mirror. And now you can ask me a real question.


Would you mind if we go way back so I can ask you about the earliest occurrence of when and how the idea of becoming an artist formed in your youthful mind? Did you know from the beginning that this is it (and nothing else), or did you sort of drift into it? What effect did the realization have upon you?


As a kid I drew and copied comic book characters, made mud sculptures and was fascinated by drawn optical illusions. I had no idea whatsoever about art or artists. My school textbooks and copybooks were covered with my doodles, cartoon drawings and very little actual schoolwork. When I was about fourteen I started working summer holidays as an electricians helper. The work was grimy, heavy-duty industrial stuff. One job I was on was in a plastic toy factory. It was a large concern with monstrous plastic extrusion and vacuum forming machines spitting out parts while lines of women at long tables assorted and assembled amid a nonstop grinding cacophany. Everywhere I looked workers performed their tedius and repetitive tasks. In the midst of all this grim industrious labour was a giant glass bubble enclosure inside of which, and my only being able to view it from its outside, appeared to be an oasis of brightly lit temperature controlled calm. There toiling happily and merrily at their drafting tables were the first artists, albeit commercial artists, I'd  ever seen. Very hiply dressed in tweed jackets and turtlenecks they sported longish hair and mustaches. While smoking their pipes and laughing and joking they appeared to work happily designing the packaging and promotional material for the factory's wares. Now that looked to me like one cushy and easypeasy gig. My interest was piqued and doing very poorly and flunking miserably in school I desperately was looking for a way out. At sixteen I ultimately found my way to a technical high school where I was accepted and enrolled in a three year, special no academics, art course. Hallelujah I’d found my vocation.


How come you didn't just stick to commercial graphic design, but instead turned to the rarefied minefield that is contemporary fine art?


Subjects at art school included life drawing, still life drawing and painting, sculpture, commercial art design, illustration and art history. In other words everything and nothing. It turned out students who were neither equipped for commercial art or fine art. That said it was a jumping off point. For me the main subjects of importance were the drawing courses, I also discovered the school's library and poured through its collection of art books. And although I had entered the school with vague ideas about advertising art and Norman Rockwell type illustration, sometime during the first year I had already discovered Cezanne and felt an immediate connection, not to mention the impressionists and all the rest of 20th Century art. Ideas of being an actual real artist were already beginning to form and it was not my intention to seek a job in commercial art.

Upon graduating I continued to work as an electricians helper and later took a job as a sign painter's assistant. During that time I had some temporary access to a small industrial space where I started experimenting with oils in different styles and produced my first paintings. [LINK] [LINK] But my access to the space terminated with the rental of the whole building to a manufacturer. The opportunity to travel abroad for half a year presented itself and on returning to Toronto I took a job at a graphic design studio and learned about preparing artwork for printing and about the whole lithographic process in general. I never gave up my dream of being an artist but it would be a couple of years before I could afford to rent some small studio space. I also started seeing and dating a fellow student from art school and in short order we were married. We rented an apartment and I took one of its rooms to work in still trying to find my way. There was a tension between what I was doing on the job and my own work at home that would take some time to resolve. I continued looking for cheap studio space and eventually found some. It was there that I started finding my own way of painting [LINK] and having produced a small body of work had my first showings in a couple of different galleries. During daytime hours I worked in graphic arts and during nights and my days off I worked on my own stuff. Commercially I worked for a couple of different studios. Then I partnered with an old school mate in our own operation. That ultimately morphed into a small business to business and industrial ad agency where I was the creative director. It would take another fifteen years before I could jump into painting on a full-time basis and even then I continued to do some consulting work.

So as you can see from my long winded answer, the premise of your question is wrong, I didn't  give up anything for anything I tried to balance the two. And therein lies a whole bunch of other questions, questions I'm still asking myself.


You said:
"Very few of us and that includes myself have had the wherewithal to make art their one and only mistress for whom they sacrifice everything and maybe that's what it takes.." [LINK].

Do you mean by "maybe that´s what it takes..." to be: that's what it takes to become a commercially-successful artist, or that's what it takes to make art of real depth and significance, or both?


I vaguely remembered that conversation and had to scroll way down to find the quote so I reread most of the thread. The topic certainly did stir things up a bit even bringing out the loonies. The question of why do you do it was aimed at the "real artists" I know the term is fraught in your democratic way of looking at things but you know who I mean, the folks who want to play in the major leagues and knock one out of the park. I don't think it's about commercial success, I think it's assumed that will follow.

So yes, I do think if that's your mindset, and it's a crazy one most likely to end in failure, it is irresponsible to bring innocent victims like spouses and family along for the ride. It's not a matter of full time artist or not, everybody has to make a living even a modest one, it's a matter of being committed one hundred percent. Playing both sides and straddling the middle is a disservice to your family and your work, hurting both. The problem is who really knows themselves (aside for the odd genius) at such an early age. I was caught up in events and swept along and everything and everyone suffered for it. Never mind my work, no doubt I hurt my family and for that I feel very badly. Let it be a cautionary tale for the youngsters out there.





Before coming on to discuss your paintings, the statement above:

"At first I had some easy success with a couple of fledgling galleries and then I hit a brick wall for about forty years"

begs some scrutiny. It sounds like you were gaining exposure as an up-and-coming artist of promise on the Toronto scene. That brick wall appears to have been amazingly effective in putting a stop to wide recognition and any attendant commercial reward. Looking back, and given the chance to start over, in which ways would you handle those early opportunities differently, and was the wall one manifestly evident impediment or a series of chance occurrences?


I was being a bit facetious but it’s more or less true. At first I just happen-chanced upon a new gallery in an area where galleries weren't supposed to be, very near my studio, in the wrong part of town and curiosity had me wander in. It was a nice, large, bright space and I was surprised to see a painting by one of the few Canadian artists whose work I admired. The gallery turned out to be run by a couple of painters who had rented a large space and having carved out their own studio spaces designated the remainder as a gallery with the supposed intention of making a few bucks. I got to talking with the one who seemed in charge. It resulted in a studio visit and inclusion in one show and then another. A couple of small pieces were sold but the gallery didn't last very long and closed down soon thereafter.

It was the same with my next gallery, also a new concern. I noticed their existence also in an unlikely location and popped in for a look about. They had a beautifully appointed space. They requested slides. Were interested. Paid me a studio visit et voilà a three man show ensued. A professional art mover provided transport and a professional photographer made slides of the individual paintings and in situ. All costs were covered fully by the gallery as were the costs of invitations, posters and advertising. They even paid to frame my pieces and although other galleries of the time were moving toward a fifty percent commission they kept theirs at forty. I got a very positive mention in the show's one resulting review and a lot of lovely feedback but only one small painting had sold.

After that show rumour had it the gallery was headed in a new direction putting emphasis on showing prominent contemporary American artists instead of new upcoming young Canadians. They hadn't reached out to me with new plans and feeling slighted I relieved them of the awkward task of informing me of their desire to part company by picking up stakes and leaving them first. I was very confident I could easily get my work into another gallery, all I had to do was get them in for a studio visit. The gallery did change its roster, cottoned on to a more practical and less artist friendly business practices and having moved to one of the tonier areas of the city is still extant and probably one of the longest lasting most enduring in the city. I would never again experience that kind of perfect gallery experience. Years would go by before I could get another gallery to pay me a studio visit. Had I not pulled up stakes and left them first would they have got rid of me? Most likely but who knows? These are the the small niggling questions that persist. In any case It would not be my last petulant and prideful act. That's how I do! From there my luck went from bad luck to worse luck and the rest is history. Now shall we move on to the work?


I'm referring to the excellent Center for Canadian Contemporary Art database as reference [LINK] to view a useful timeline of your works.

Beginning with the unusual composition of the first "Still Life" (1969) where the subjects are scrunched up into the top of the canvas and rendered in various greys with evidence of any real color being found in the planes of the background and floor, you quickly moved onto what really appears to interest you, the human figure situated in close-up depth of field.
Already the individual person of the Congregant (I and II) give indication of the Head paintings of 30 years later, but I'd like to discuss the group figures especially "Strolling Figures" (1975) and "Three Women Seated on Bench" (1976), two paintings which to me appear to be contemplations on the act of looking, or collective looking. The choice of 3 figures sets up an interesting dynamic, with your rhythmic use of shape and line in paint becoming more evident, so that it's the thrust of the physical space occupied by the figures rather than any distinguishing feature (such as the face) that becomes the dominant feature of the paintings.
You tend to speak of your paintings solely in terms of the resolution of formal painterly problems, and very little on the reasons for your choice of subject, or any psychological context they might offer. Can you talk about the direction of your thinking during the '70's, what preoccupations or formal constraints you were trying to overcome, and how these two works are successful examples of your explorations of that time?


At first I had experimented using the sign painting technique I’d learned of pouncing and transferring with powdered chalk a laboriously detailed perforated line drawing, then filling areas in with colour. I disliked the static results and moved on to painting directly with oils and the two still lifes were my first attempts.

You're right what really interested me was the human figure. I had seen a touring show here of The San Francisco Bay area painters. Richard Diebenkorn's painting of two figures was of particular inspiration for me (see below) and I became a great admirer of all his work. He had honed in on Matisse's seminal works circa 1910, arguably in my opinion, among the most important and defining works of modernity [LINK]. However I'm not a "painter" like Diebenkorn though often I wish I was. His work to a large part is about the sheer sensuality of paint and colour. I love it and admire it but my nature is more drawn to gesture, movement and discovery of new drawn form, I want to be surprised. Colour has never been of great concern and is arbitrary. Paint is but a means to an end. The idea of a figure or a group figures on a simple flattened ground suited my limited abilities at the time and I did a few paintings. In the first one [LINK] I definitely had Diebenkorn's painting in mind. Both paintings you've picked were relatively successful paintings of that time. There's no particular reason, they just seemed to work for me and still do.

It was really my desire to have figures moving and acting in deeper less shallow space. I overstepped my abilities with a few failed attempts before I finally got one that worked. The only time psychological context comes to play is in the choice of reference photos and why a particular image resonates. But that is only of importance to sustain my interest while pouring over it for sustained lengths of time.


The painting Study of Grouped Figures from the beginning of the 1980's exemplifies your ease with succinct graphic shorthand and graceful line. The figures are a rhythm of flattened geometric shapes and have become totally impersonalised in their chief activity of looking. The space has deepened with a more active, yet indistinct background of figures. It depicts a sizeable amount of people that have come together in the large interior space of a gallery or similar type of waiting room.

It is easy to imagine this image as a stepping stone into a study of more complete abstraction where the figures wholly disappear and you concentrate on your love of pure line and shape. What is it about figuration, to your mind, that kept you within the bounds of representation of the recognizable?


You honed right in on the right painting, the one I was referring to above where I said, "I overstepped my abilities with a few failed attempts before I finally got one that worked..." Seeing it now I realize the date was somehow recorded inaccurately (my own fault I’m sure). In actuality it had to be 1977-78. I know because I lost my studio thereafter and other things were happening of a personal nature that once again threw a crimp into my progress for an unfortunately long while. Though I’m sure it doesn't look like it a full year's work went into the grouped figures pictured above and it remains one of the few pictures I’m satisfied with. Before succeeding with this one I worked on and destroyed a couple of other large paintings that were in a similar vein. Those efforts were probably not quite as bad as I thought and to some extent regret destroying them.

After that time there ensued a personally tumultuous period that stymied my progress. Working and freelancing commercially from home, and without space for a studio where I could paint in oils, I managed just this one small guauche painting [LINK] that I believe shows my continuing thought process at the time.

As far as your question goes you seem to imagine that particular painting as a stepping stone from figuration to pure abstraction. It's not the first time you've said something similar, implying pure abstraction is somehow on a higher realm than figurative painting. There were such prevailing notions swirling around in the 1950s and 60s. When De Kooning was painting his Women he thought it would be the end of his career and Guston famously enraged the art world with his return to figuration. It all seems rather silly now. Ultimately all painting is an abstraction and I like the conflict that exists between the abstract and the illusion of depth and reality. My painting has always gone back and forth causing a certain tension I enjoy. Underneath my most "abstract" works exist several "realistic" attempts and vice versa. For me it’s through the process of seeing, measuring and reconstructing two dimensionally in paint that meaningful, thoughtful abstraction occurs. Finally I paint the figure because it moves me and holds my interest. Maybe you should ask instead if it could be a stepping stone from pure abstraction to figuration?


Around the mid 1980's your palette and choice of lighting seems to have changed from a cool daylight white-based and flat color scheme to a warmer richer indoor and more modeled theatre-like lighting. You said that your choice of color is arbitrary, yet this more sophisticated chromatic effect of enclosed focus appears to be a direction that you continued to explore up into the new millennium. Despite your indication of it's lesser relevance in your work, you do have a facility with palettes and color combinations. Does this simply come natural to you, or do struggles for attaining the "right" colors feature in your work process?


I don't think about colour much and buy the cheapest paints I can find, colours that are on sale, anything that catches my eye. Basically all I really need is titanium white, ivory black, cobalt blue, cadmium yellow and red. But basically I can come up with any colour with anything I might have on hand. So I suppose it's a natural ability and I hadn't realized for the longest time that it wasn't the same for everyone. I see tonally, measuring and weighing one tone in relation to the other. Colour is arbitrary and I don't let it confuse me but I do like colours that please me and surprise me. 

About the painting above. It was one of a number of works I produced after finally jumping in on more of a full time basis from about 1984-87 and culminating in a show I called The Anxious Moment. The title was an homage to Harold Rosenberg's excellent book of essays "The Anxious Object" but also about my state of mind at the time. It was a major transition to be working in isolation and away from a workaday commercial studio and office routine. The seriousness of the endeavour, combined with doubts about my fateful decision to leave my job and my ability to achieve something worthwhile had brought about a melancholic mindset. I had been floundering around for some new subject when I realized my subject should be my own feelings of melancholy and isolation.

By the way, Struggling Figures, the painting you've chosen to display above either fell off a truck in transit or just magically disappeared from a gallery that represented me for a few years in the 90s (not the gallery in the invitation shown below, that's a whole other story). After a disagreement when I had sent a truck to pick up my goods the painting was no longer in his possession. Maybe I had imagined consigning it in the first place or one or other of the scenarios I mentioned earlier. Either that or maybe, just maybe, the gallerist decided he could sell the painting much easier if he could lower the price by cutting my end out of the equation. It's a large 6 foot squarish painting that was important to me as a precursor to my Struggling Figures Series of the latter half of the 80s to mid 90s. If anyone owns it or has seen it please let me know. It's just for my own information, I like to know who owns my work. No one will be prosecuted, nothing is owed anyone, it’s old business and the gallerist is deceased.


Building series of artworks ( taking as example: Struggling Figures [LINK], Subway Paintings [LINK], and Transit Series [LINK] ) is a strong component of your output.
Are you aware when you execute the initial painting that it will be the first of a series i.e. is the series planned beforehand?
Are you aware of what it is you are trying to achieve / researching as you work through the series?
What is it that brings a series to an end, your loss of interest or realization that the objective of the series was successfully attained?
Does the technical know-how gained in completing a series give rise to the factors that constitute subsequent series, i.e. are they directly related in experience, and therefore evolutions towards a greater artistic awareness?


The series only begin to form themselves in retrospect. I never set out in advance with the idea of producing a series. In the case of the subway and transit paintings it all started with the experience of riding the subway and suddenly noticing the deep enclosed space of the car and the figurative action occurring within. The painterly and pictorial possibilities impressed me and I did some scribbling. Later I spent a day taking some clandestine photos to get additional information and painted the first painting [LINK]. Others on the theme followed but not one after the other. There were other paintings in between. It was just something I kept coming back to because I suppose I didn't think I was getting what I wanted and probably never did. Perhaps Subway ll (pictured above) or Transit ll [LINK] come closest. When I showed my work to a gallerist he wanted the subway paintings for a one man show and he wanted more of them. I had a certain period of time to produce as many as possible. So in retrospect the paintings became some kind of series though it wasn't my intention.

I really didn't want to do any more of them when another more prestigious gallery also only wanted subway paintings. I guess they figured they could hang their hat on a more easily recognizable theme and therefore flog some paintings in a handy fashion. Naturally I had no choice but to accommodate their demand and that's when, in the paintings, I followed the throngs of commuters out of the subway cars, onto the platforms, through the transit areas and up the escalators, etc. But transit or subway they were all the same theme.

It was the same thing with the struggling figures. It was just a theme I kept coming back to one painting at a time. The idea of them being a series came in after the fact. Really I've had one theme I keep coming back to whether it's the struggling figures, the subway paintings, or most of my other stuff. The idea of an enclosed space and figures interacting within. All the paintings are interiors with figures and that's all.



You and the subway painting both look just great in that photo. It is a very interesting way of photographing work - right away one "gets" the painting size, the scope of color content, and how it would "fit" on a wall. I furthermore continue to find how you speckle your studio walls with colorful daubing so intriguing - just what is going on there?


Sometimes it's just a matter of offloading an overloaded brush to shape it a bit in order to do some more detailed work. At other times it's just to test the colour on the true white of the wall. I use old telephone books as disposable palettes and they're kind of a yellowish off-white. Allow me to assure you there's nothing mystical about it.


Upon re-reading this conversation, I realize that I had missed the following question: Earlier you had mentioned as a young graduate traveling abroad for half a year. Did the experience of such a long absence from Toronto have any influence on your soon-to-begin artistic career?


Right, it was June, 1967 my last year at art school and the forces were gathering before the onset of what would later come to be known as the Six Day War. But at the time the situation for Israel looked dire. I signed up as a volunteer. They called me a few months after the war ended, and seeing as I had nothing much going on, I took advantage of an exceedingly low cost fare to get there. Volunteers, myself among them, were needed to do work on the kibbutzim to fill in for members of the citizen army still doing army duty. I also spent time in the Sinai filling petrol cans and loading trucks, etc. As well as traveling around a fair bit. It was a great adventure but really had no influence on my art. I did do a bit of drawing there but generally felt overwhemed by all the history and not inspired by it, at least, as far as art goes. The light was also overwhelming, although enjoyable for a time, it wasn't the more greyed and muted light I'm used to.


Finally, if you could time-travel 50 years into the future and look back to now, how would you categorize yourself in relation to art in Toronto/Canada in terms of historical grouping (or artistic movement), and as an individual artist during those times?


I wouldn't.


Your paintings by themselves will be more than enough to influence some future historical narrative and judging from the 'Ominous Chair' work-in-progress mentioned above, you're obviously still in the business of producing interesting images. I look forward to seeing how that develops and hopefully the many to follow.
In conclusion, I've personally enjoyed this interview Hillel so I'd like to say a big thanks for your participation and, as ever, for your straight talking and thought-provoking answers.


My pleasure JP.



29 Oct 19 07:32
Really enjoyable interview Paul.
Hillel, I love your work and the way you articulate yourself verbally. An impressive pair of interlocutors you both are. Hillel, I loved your quote about the angst apples of Cezanne and Paul I love the way you frame your questions , especially the ones that pertain to the paintings themselves. You can describe what is happening on the canvas so eloquently, its a pleasure to read.
Hillel I love all your paintings but am especially impressed by the "struggling" series. I like these because of their content and also because of their spacial sparsity compared to the subway ones that sometimes seem very busy. Your life story resonated for me too. I found myself nodding my head a lot in agreement. Regarding been rejected by galleries, I think most artists have experienced that, remember poor old van Gogh. It goes with the terrain I'm afraid, but life is too precious for disappointment, better to console on ones fortunes instead. You are a great painter with your own voice.
Keep up the good work both of you.

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