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The 1970s

           During the 1970s, Georges Dyens was director of the gallery and presented an eclectic program aligned to the mandate of the Saidye Bronfman Centre to bring art and culture to the general public. The gallery would therefore simultaneously feature contemporary art exhibitions along with those on the work of students from the centre’s school. A number of additional shows took a more didactic approach, displaying other types of objects (ethnographic or scientific artefacts).


            The gallery shared certain characteristics with the Neue Nationalgalerie (Berlin), designed by architect Mies van der Rohe and inaugurated in 1968 shortly after construction of the Saidye Bronfman Centre.[1] Like the German building, which became a symbol of modern museum architecture, windows in the Saidye Bronfman Centre allowed natural light to pour in and reflected back the hustle of urban life. Designed by Phyllis Lambert, the gallery stood like an open volume, with no built-in partitions on which to hang works. The centre did however feature wooden rails that could either be affixed to the floor or suspended. The rails easily integrated into Lambert’s design, which featured wood panelling on the side walls (please see the selection of photographs from exhibitions The Holocaust (1972)[2] and Jeunes contemporains 76 = Young Contemporaries 76).


            Organized in 1971 at both the centre and the Sir George Williams Gallery by artists Gary Coward and Bill Vazan and art critic George Bardo, the exhibition 45’30’North-73’36’West represented one of the first manifestations of conceptualism in Montreal. Many representatives of this radical art movement of the 1960s and 1970s participated (Sol LeWitt, Les Levine, N.E. Thing Co., Michael Snow, Françoise Sullivan, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, etc.). Installation photos of the portion of the exhibition presented at the centre reveal the singular use of the space made available to the artists. In one work, entitled Three Mile Gap, Bill Vazan used thick black tape to mark angled lines on the ground pointing towards the Sir George Williams Gallery three miles away. For his part, Sol LeWitt sent the curators the score of a Wall Drawing, which they executed on the centre’s expansive windows. Yet, despite the considerable influence it had on the contemporary art community,[3] 45’30’North-73’36’West had no real impact on subsequent exhibitions. In fact, it was not until the new millennium that the curators would once again divert the parameters of the architecture in a similar manner.


           On the other hand, Dyens embraced the trend of the 1960s to create multidimensional environments that became precursors to the hybrid vocabulary of installations. The exhibition Canada Banners and Hannah Franklin Sculptures (1973) filled the gallery with the fibreglass sculptures of Hannah Franklin and the textile explorations of Robert Venor and Shirley Raphael. In a similar vein, in 1976, the exhibition Luminescence brought together many young sculptors who had graduated from the Université du Québec and shared an interest in kinetic art, plastics (acrylic, polyester, acetate) and light. The first part of the exhibition was devoted to a selection of previous works by the artists, with the second featuring a collective effort that transformed the gallery into a “total environment.” The floors and side walls were covered with a metallic surface that refracted the light filtered by various components and structures making up the installation (neons, transparent partitions, spheres, etc.).


      In 1977, the gallery launched its biennial of Quebec art dedicated to emerging artists. By 1979, the event had grown considerably in stature, with the jury reviewing 1,700 submissions and retaining 93 of these. Photographs from the exhibition file show that upon delivery, the works (particularly paintings and sculptures) were assembled within the exhibition space itself before being viewed by the jury. The gallery thus allowed the public to witness each step in the selection of a sample of works emblematic of contemporary art. However, the biennial drew a lukewarm reception from the artist and critic community, who found the selection less than representative. The event continued on an intermittent basis until the mid 1980s.


         Many exhibitions of the 1970s displayed the gallery’s emerging trends and inclinations. In 1974, Redécouverte du dessin, produced in collaboration with the Gadatsy Gallery in Toronto, served as the predecessor to a series of exhibitions during the following decade that featured the medium of drawing. Photography also figured heavily in the gallery’s programming.







[1] For more on the design of exhibitions presented in this museum, please see Detlef Mertins, “Mies’ New National Gallery: Empty and Full” in What Makes a Great Exhibition? edited by Paula Marincola, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Exhibition Initiative, Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006.


[2] Over the years, the gallery’s programming focused on the culture and history of the Jewish community. In 1972, Georges Dyens organized The Holocaust, a major exhibition that brought together sketches, paintings and sculptures on the subject by European artists.


[3] It led, among others, to the creation of the Véhicule Art Inc. gallery in Montreal.

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