Image © Copyright Helen Ronald 2020.
William RONALD ( 1926-1998 )
Oil on canvas, 1955
Signed RONALD, lower right
121.9 x 152.4 cm, 48 x 60 in.
John F. McAndrew, Princeton, NJ, acquired from the artist, Kingston, New Jersey.
Megan McAndrew Cooper, Devils Lake, ND.
Canadian Group of Painters;
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Dec.17, 1955-Jan.14, 1956;
Queens University, Kingston, Levana Society, Jan. 23-27, 1956;
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Feb. 3-20, 1956.
Canadian Group of Painters exhibition 1955-56: catalogue #54.
Exposition nationale sans nos peintres, R. de Repentigny, La Presse Dec. 17, 1955 p. 73.
Four Decades: The Canadian Group of Painters and their Contemporaries 1930-1970, Paul Duval, 1972, p. 146.
The Theatre Of The Self: The Life and Art of William Ronald, Robert J. Belton, 1999, p. 143.
William Ronald Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, Fonds R2113, container #56 file #10:
Inventory: Index of Paintings (1/2) 1949-1962. “#104, 58 x 48, Invasion, ’55, oil, framed, McAndrew, Studio”.
The early 50s were a momentous time for William Ronald. He graduated from the Ontario College of Art, moved to New York to study with abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman, then came back to Toronto. In 1953, he approached Simpson’s department store with a novel sales concept for its famous display windows, Abstracts at Home: which was accepted.
The display featured abstract art hanging in living room settings, offering Torontonians their first real exposure to non-objective painting. Ronald, and a group of six other like-minded painters, exhibited and then, with four additional artists, subsequently formed the Painters Eleven abstract group. It was a watershed moment in Canadian art despite the lack of sales from the display. Not long afterward, Ronald returned to New York hoping to have the vibrancy of that city invigorate his work.
Done in 1955, Invasion seems very much of product of the city environment seen by the artist on a daily basis. In it, Ronald has restricted his use of colour to black, brown, muted white and a blush of blue. Two other Ronald canvasses, these from 1954, In Dawn the Heart and Harlem Talk (both done prior to his return to New York) also have a limited palette and strength of hues, but use a different painting style: more a quick attack on the canvas than a pre-planned assault.
In these, there are no discernible focal points, just an overall balance and uniformity of similarly applied painterly strokes. Later paintings from 1954, such as Pacific 231, artistically anticipate the vigorous gestures done in Invasion.
For Ronald, his art was a pathway, with each subsequent work building on, and expanding from, the previous one.
In Invasion, it is apparent that the artist has left the staccato, seemingly random, daubing and swiping of paint onto the canvas that are major characteristics of both the 1954 works mentioned. The painting appears more fluid, pre-planned and methodical than his previous works which employed slashes of hue. The paint is applied in a horizontal, organised, and structural fashion. There is an underlying orderliness in the picture, not as present in the earlier paintings.
Invasion displays an almost architectural bent, with the Parthenon-looking array of white structural verticals forcefully employed at its base.
Given the city in which this canvas was done, it would be entirely understandable to anticipate that New York construction may have influenced the Toronto artist; “No artist is an island, entire of himself, every artist is a piece of the city” to paraphrase John Donne.
Ronald could not possibly have avoided the Greek architecture in NYC at the time. We will never know, though, if some columnar-rich building was somehow brought into his artwork.
As for its tonal qualities, in 1956, Ronald was quoted as having been influenced by this urban environment when he stated that “Many of the paintings I did in New York City were black and white with colour added, which is more or less the way I see [the city].”
While it is true that surroundings can’t help but influence one’s work, it is often unnecessary to try to fully interpret the meaning of an abstract picture: to bring a realistic reading that may only be in the mind of the interpreter.
The Automatistes, for example, had, as their credo, the desire to execute free-flowing paintings executed with a child-like simplicity of mind. They wanted no pre-conceived notions involved in their art. Any meaning applied to these paintings may be folly. The same could be said with pictures by artists such as Ronald and his Painters Eleven colleagues. For the most part, abstract artists were mostly concerned with colour, shape, balance and overall feel. All of these aspects are present in Invasion.
In 1955, Ronald was edging quickly towards a series of artworks for which he became well known: his central-image theme. Invasion, with its strong middle swath of black, is a precursor to others that followed quickly and enhanced the central image, such as Incendio #1, 1955, Central Black, 1956 and Maya, 1957. These works were snatched up by American galleries, museums and collectors as word of Ronald’s art spread like wildfire. These were heady days for a recent art school graduate.
The artist was known, not long after Invasion was painted, to assemble his finished works and then host a party, at which time visitors (almost exclusively other artists) would suggest titles for the art. These ‘naming parties’ were a real social event. It is possible, then, that the title for this strong work was not even created by Ronald. He was never too worried about how the pictures were entitled, just that they were. (One painting,Tuxedo Junction, was simply named after the Glenn Miller music that played on the radio while he painted. For this artist, any port in a storm would do.)
Because of his renown, Ronald quickly came to the attention of Samuel Kootz, a New York gallery owner, who subsequently contracted him to paint in late 1956. This support meant that Ronald’s livelihood was secure and that he was free to paint without worrying where his next meal would come from. The arrangement was rare in the art world and enabled the painter to do what he did best.
Canvasses such as Invasion were the opening act for the ultimate launch of his artistic career, which truly began with Samuel Kootz’s patronage. From this fortunate beginning, the collectibility of his art expanded throughout the US and eventually, Canada.
Essay by Christopher George © Copyright 2019
William Ronald was born in Stratford Ontario. William Ronald graduates from the Ontario College of Art in 1952 then studies with Hans Hoffmann for six weeks in 1952 in New York. He arranges the first Painters Eleven exhibition in America in 1956 at the Riverside Museum in association with the American Abstract Artists (AAA). Ronald has his first American one-man show at the Kootz Gallery in 1957 and for the next seven years was represented along side of some of the most important artists in the world. Disregarding Jock Macdonald’s advice to “Never come back to Canada” Ronald returns to Canada in 1963 and exhibits in Toronto first with the Mirvish Gallery. Bill Ronald was one of Canada’s most colorful and talented artists, one of the few you can call truly international. Bill’s paintings are in almost every important art museum in North America.