We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980

By Grant Arnold and Karen Henry, Editors

September 30, 2015

Review By Vytas Narusevicius

Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980 is the catalogue of arguably one of the most important exhibitions of Canadian art in recent history, which in turn dealt with one of the most transformative art movements of the twentieth century. Conceived by Catherine Crowston and Barbara Fischer, the exhibition and catalogue resulted from a collaboration with the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Justin M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. First shown at the University of Toronto and then in Halifax, Montreal, Edmonton, and Vancouver, the cross-country tour was fitting since the exhibition explored some of the lesser known artists and regional aspects that are often excluded from the better documented histories of Vancouver and Halifax’s contributions to conceptual art.

The non-commercial aspects of conceptual art that made it so radical in the 1960s and early 1970s, with its focus on text and photography rather than painting and sculpture, resulted in a circulation that was often found only in alternative artist publications or exhibitions at university and art school galleries. This catalogue effectively recounts how these publications and spaces formed an important network that stretched across the country and facilitated debates that were vital to the development of conceptual art in Canada and to the many artist-run spaces that it spawned. Traffic explores numerous instances of artist exchanges across geographies, such as Bill Vazan’s Canada Line (1969-70) project, a collaboration between Vazan (in Montreal) and Ian Wallace (in Vancouver).

Freed from the burden of making and transporting large canvases, conceptual artists made art wherever they happened to be, or, since ideas travelled faster than objects, by merely sending instructions to complete a work. The catalogue essays by Jayne Wark, Vincent Bonin, William Wood, Catherine Crowston, and Grant Arnold all provide thorough overviews of the kind of work produced across the country and the importance of these contributions not only to the regional and Canadian art scene but to the global conceptual art movement as a whole.

While the catalogue essays give excellent accounts of the artworks, there is little analysis of why conceptual art happened to appear at this time in the first place. Luckily in the back of the volume is a transcript of a panel discussion that included Lucy Lippard, an important curator of some of the first conceptual art exhibitions and historian of the subject, who identifies the socio-political zeitgeist as the crucial factor. This meant opposition to the Vietnam War, capitalism, authority, and patriarchy, all of which motivated artists to get out of the confines of their studios and step into the world. The repudiation of frames and pedestals was in sync with the rejection of the repressive social and political climate of the time. Despite the fact that conceptual art practices rarely displayed explicit or radical political content, the catalogue makes it clear that the ideas and experimentation of conceptual artists were often informed by the same need to throw off dominant traditions and norms. Conceptual art’s ability to offer an alternative to the world in its then current form remains a lesson well worth revisiting.

Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980
Grant Arnold and Karen Henry, editors
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre and Vancouver Art Gallery, 2012. 196 pp. $55.95 cloth