Canadian artist Tony Urquhart is being remembered as “a true artist” who lived a life filled with joy, art and community. He died on Jan. 26 at age 87.
“People who bought his work in the 1960s were still buying his work in the 2000s,” remembers James Rottman, of James Rottman Fine Art, who represented Urquhart for the past 20 years. He emphasized the loyalty of the artist’s followers and the rich artistic community he’d built up around him.
“He’s one of the last of a generation of painters,” Rottman said. That generation was particularly defined in the late 1950s and early ’60s when Urquhart was recognized as one of Canada’s pioneering abstract artists, having been one of the painters associated with the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto and later with the Heart of London group (which included Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe and Murray Favro.)
Urquhart was a multimedia artist and his paintings, drawings and unique “boxes” received major recognition at home and abroad.
Rottman remembers Urquhart’s freedom of expression. “He was never influenced, or into, a style or a school. He was a true artist.” His mixed media work was groundbreaking, with his box sculptures incorporating Plexiglas, organic materials, woods, seeds and shells, and everyday objects, far ahead of what other Canadian artists were doing at the time.
“He created installation art before there was even a definition of (it) in Canada,” Rottman said. Paintings might feature a garden close-up, a blast of colour, beautiful tones.
Urquhart’s work is held in collections around the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris among many others. The Art Gallery of Ontario has 27 of Urquhart’s works, including some working drawings.
“Ever attentive to the profound impact that art can have on our lives, Tony Urquhart was a prolific artist, teacher and arts activist. CARFAC, an organization he co-founded, was catalytic to protecting and rewarding artists in Canada (still the industry standard by which artists are paid today),” Georgiana Uhlyarik, the Fredrik S. Eaton curator of Canadian art at the AGO, said in a statement to the Star. “I have been enriched by our conversations over the years and recollect fondly our meeting in 2008, when we exhibited one of his signature sculptures.”
Among his many honours, Urquhart was a member of the Order of Canada and won the 2009 Governor General’s Award for visual art. He was a member of the University of Waterloo fine arts department for 32 years, where he mentored generations of young art students before his retirement in 1999. The university also houses his archives.
He was also known as an illustrator and illustrated books, including a special edition of Nino Ricci’s “Lives of the Saints” and his wife, Jane Urquhart’s novels.
Poet Penn Kemp, a family friend for decades, remembers Tony as “a kind, ever creative, generous man and a terrific artist.” When he was chosen as Western University’s first artist in residence in 1960, she says his “friendliness then and later bridged many culture divides and feuds.”
Tony Urquhart was born on April 9, 1934, in Niagara Falls, Ont. His art, particularly his landscapes, was influenced by his upbringing in Niagara Falls. Until 1960, his parents, brother and he lived with his grandparents, who ran a funeral business.
The house was on a large piece of land, including part of the battlefield where the 1814 Battle of Lundy’s Lane took place. The family maintained a huge Victorian garden and, as a youngster, Urquhart inhabited this magical landscape. He told the Star in 2000 that he probably drew before he fully mastered speech.
And he created a life of art from there. “That’s what he did was create art day to day for 60 years,” said Rottman. “That’s what he was born to do.”
Coming of age in an era of what he called “the hairy-chested Abstract Expressionists,” Urquhart enrolled in Buffalo’s Albright School of Art, across the street from what is now the Albright-Knox Gallery. This was at a time when the gallery was purchasing works by Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, and when critic Clement Greenberg’s dictates about the painting itself being the only proper subject of painting were widely observed.
In his later years, Urquhart was diagnosed with dementia. His daughter, Emily Urquhart, in 2020 wrote a book about her father, “The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father, and Me,” exploring aging and the creative mind.
She recalled travelling with her family from a young age, often staying in one place for a period of time so Tony could immerse in a single visual, drawing it over and over in a series.
Emily told The Star in an interview that “My dad draws from life, but he always changes it … If there are three windows or they are in a certain spot, it will never be an exact replica.”
Urquhart leaves his wife, Jane, daughters Allyson, Robin and Emily, and son Aidan; he was predeceased by his son Marsh.
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