T O N Y    C A L Z E T T A
Essay by John Metcalf

Paintings about Painting:
Notes towards an Essay on Tony Calzetta

Tony Calzetta was born in 1945 in Windsor, Ontario. He attended Catholic schools in Windsor and went to the University of Detroit, from which he graduated in 1968 with the degree of Bachelor of Science. Most of the courses he took at university were, however, in math, business studies, and accounting and his degree might more properly be described as being in Commerce.

On leaving the university, he immediately secured a job in Windsor with Price Waterhouse, where he remained in increasing misery for two years. At the beginning of 1970, he gave notice and went to Toronto to look for work. For the next nine months he worked as a labourer for a construction company. Following this, he returned to Windsor and worked in a desultory manner as a drapery installer.

During this period of drifting, he somehow arrived at the idea that what he really wanted to do was to study art. How could an ex-accountant suddenly have decided to become a painter? What gave him the idea at the comparatively late age of twenty six of embarking on such a precarious career? What evidence had he of any talent?

Drawing and painting had always fascinated him. When a child, he had badgered his parents into buying oil paints for him, but the murky results were not wildly encouraging because he'd been unaware that turpentine was supposed to be mixed with the oil. He had always had a facility, however, for representing things and copying and nothing gave him greater pleasure. On the slender basis of this childhood interest and in the "what the-hell" climate of the time, he phoned the art department of the University of Windsor in September 1971 and was instructed to appear with his portfolio.

"You talk about embarrassment! My "portfolio" was a ratty piece of cardboard in which I'd got sandwiched some little drawings I'd done when I was about ten years old, a few watercolours, and a copy of a brassiere commercial from a magazine. And when I got to the interview room there were all these black portfolios open to show work that was professionally matted and I thought, "Oh, my God! What have you done to yourself, you fool!"

Yet from these unpromising beginnings, Calzetta has developed into one of the most individual of the younger painters in Canada; a Calzetta canvas is unmistakeable. Although he is now forty, it is reasonable to call Calzetta a "young" painter because he has only been painting professionally for seven years.

Perhaps because he was six or seven years older than the majority of students at Windsor, Calzetta threw himself into the four years of work, absorbing technique and influences voraciously. He graduated from Windsor with a BFA degree in 1975 and went to York University, from which he graduated in 1977 with an MFA degree.

The two years at York were not a happy time and he found his teaching duties an unbearable drain on his creative energies; his fellow-students at that time, and some members of the faculty, were absorbed in departmental politics and the more rarified reaches of conceptual art and Calzetta felt considerable hostility towards his old-fashioned desire to paint with paint on canvas. He dealt with these incompatibilities by withdrawing and working on his own in his apartment. Most of the reaction to his graduate show at York in 1977 was less an aesthetic response than amazement at the sheer number of canvases he'd completed.


The paintings that Calzetta did while at York University are important in terms of the paintings he would do later; it is possible to see in them the beginnings of his future vocabulary. But it is with the paintings in his first professional exhibition, which was in 1977 at the Pollock Gallery, that Calzetta broke through into what has now become the essence of his work - the combining of drawing with painting, the use of charcoal to produce a line of marvelous sensitivity.

Before going on to consider that first show, it is essential to discover what happened to Calzetta following his time at York University and to do so we must digress to consider:


"Charcoal's sensual pleasure. There's a film on Alechinsky working and there's one part where he has a huge sheet of paper and he's putting down a line in charcoal and - oh, God! - the excitement just of the sound."

"The energy that's conveyed in a line is so exciting. The line defines the image. The line is the energy. Colour supplies the mood."

"I'd never been interested in a heavy black line in paint - like Matisse. I wasn't interested in that kind of linear patterning. It was the graphite line."

"I remember when I was a kid of about six I always used to outline things. I always loved colouring-books. I used to do water-colours of cartoon characters and I'd make the paint really heavy because the cakiness of the dry paint would take that graphite and make it shine."

Calzetta had been preoccupied with the desire to combine painting and drawing for some time before he first used charcoal directly on the canvas. He cannot understand now why the idea of using charcoal had not occurred to him earlier. He was looking for something but did not know what it was.

During this time, close to a desperation he didn't fully understand, he pinned up round the walls of his studio three hundred sheets of paper and moved from one to another, executing fast gestures in pencil and sometimes with a roller in the hope that the spontaneity of the line would reveal to him what it was he was searching for.

"I'd tightened up, you see. Trying to do this. It was like the baseball player who can't hit the ball and the more he thinks about it the worse it gets - until finally something has to break."

The first of Calzetta's paintings to use the charcoal line was called Brantford Arrival. This was the first painting in the series that was to form his first exhibition; he calls this series the "Smi" paintings after his grandmother Katherine Smijanovich, each of the titles having reference to some event in her life.

"Brantford Arrival"
75" x 85"

© 1977 

"Up to the evening of doing Brantford Arrival I'd been totally unable to use the line in painting and that evening Andrea's mother and sister were coming over and I didn't want to be confronted with the situation so I told Andrea that I was just going to go in the back and paint and they sat in the living room talking while I was in the back being irritated and this energy started to flow and I found myself putting down the line and then the paint. The painting was completed in an hour and a half and during the doing of it I really wasn't aware of exactly what was happening except there was all this frustration being released and then I just stepped back and... there it was. It was a revelation." "God! It's starting to happen!


The following extract from a review by Kay Woods, a former curator of The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, appeared in artscanada in 1978 and captures very well certain aspects of Calzetta's first professional paintings.

"At this still early stage of his career Calzetta has already acquired a unique way of painting, but little derivation can be detected even in his undergraduate work. Calzetta takes an automatic, intuitive approach to painting no work is premeditated or planned in any way. Using charcoal or graphite his first gesture is to redefine the precise, stretchered edge of the canvas by drawing a border of his own just inside the framing edge. This also establishes spatial limits within arm's reach. Then with fast bold strokes he draws large, quasi-geometric squares or rectangles which are usually divided in some way. These soft, freely formed shapes are outlined again with loosely scribbled overdrawing. The most important and most prominent element in all his work, whether on paper or canvas, is the sensitive, expressive, spontaneous line. Even the paint is applied in a linear fashion, with the strokes of the roller leaving clearly defined paths. Calzetta's colours are as natural and as basic as his forms neutral, softened earth tones as well as black and white.

"Albert Road Friends"
75" x 85"

© 1977 

The paintings have an assured, finished quality, as though there are few doubts in the artist's mind as he paints. The initial spontaneity in the free line around the edge and in the outline of the forms is somewhat counteracted by the extensive overdrawing. The large canvases retain some of the quality of a wash drawing. In works such as Albert Road Friends [1977] and Meeting Santarosa [1977], although most of the paint appears to have been put on with the roller, there are quick diagonal slashes of paint applied by brush and left exactly as the movement of the brush described them. Nowhere in any of his paintings does one find a "worked-over" area.









"Meeting Santarosa"
96" x 72"
© 1979

The artists that Tony Calzetta has particularly admired are Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns and Jack Bush. Motherwell's attitude towards painting is also intuitive. The automatism of Surrealism has intrigued both painters, as has the acceptance of the accidental in the creation of a work of art. Frequently seen in Calzetta's work are areas of broad stripes, or rows of slats, at first horizontally placed but now just as often on the diagonal, which could have surfaced through a memory of Motherwell's The Little Spanish Prison or his Wall Paintings with Stripes, both of 1944. But where the bars in Motherwell's work are equated with his reaction to the political oppression in Spain at that time, Calzetta's strips of paint are abstract and without apparent meaning. When diagonally placed they are reminiscent of the wind-driven rain in Calzetta's early drawings. Two features of Johns' work also present in Calzetta's are the extensive use of drawing and frequent division of the surface, as in Johns' Study for Painting with a Ball [1958]. Johns' horizontal or vertical divisions are usually defined by hard-edged slits which divide the entire painterly surface; Calzetta's openings separate his depicted forms in a more soft-edged, sensuous way. It was mainly colour that attracted Calzetta to Bush. In an earlier period of his work colour played a more important role than it does now, with pinks and reds being the most prominent. But what has emerged in his present painting are not the positive hues of Bush's configurations but the subdued, greyed colours of his backgrounds. These more subtle tones, along with gradations from white to black, enhance the gentle, yielding forms.

The shapes in Calzetta's paintings are most often likened to doors or windows. A sense of mystery surrounds them since they appear shuttered or closed in some way to block out view, or to conceal whatever is within. The divided rectangles conjure up visions of doors left slightly ajar; in formal terms they effect an illusion of a slight spatial depth which often appears to open out between the picture surface and the viewer. As far as the artist is concerned, however, any such image is imposed upon the work only through the viewer's imagination. He claims the simple forms hold no hidden meanings that he is aware of: they are completely abstract, having emerged "in spite of himself" through his most natural, subconscious gestures. Calzetta is very much concerned with the act of painting and is determined that his art should reflect his own sensibilities, his inner self alone. His aim is the painting made exclusively by line, using the immediate spontaneous gesture directed only by chance...

I think that at the time Calzetta was talking to Kay Woods he was either over emphasizing one element of his art or deliberately obfuscating because years later he tells a rather different story about the "Smi" paintings. Prior to his painting Brantford Arrival, he had made something of a fetish of spontaneity, refusing any form of organization before addressing the canvas. Brantford Arrival marked a change in method:

"Just prior to doing that painting I'd happened to be doing some small doodlings of images, loose gestural things on pieces of paper and I thought they'd make nice vehicles for this drawing."

He goes on - with great defensiveness: "As my visual vocabulary developed, I started to organize more and finally got to the point of using a projector to project small drawings onto the canvas, the spontaneity coming from the impulse of the initial image and then more energy coming as the charcoal line went down."

This use of a projector soon ended, however, as Calzetta found it adversely affected the life of the line; the element of "copying" defeated the line's flow, denied its pulse, blunted its response to the pull of the canvas weave.

Now, Calzetta plans his images on small sheets of paper and then transfers the general shapes and proportions to the canvas with an ordinary pencil. When the proportions are blocked in, he draws the heavy, rich charcoal lines swiftly and with great sureness.

The large size of these first canvases - and of most of his succeeding work - is essential to accommodate the gestural aspects of his work. The canvases are large enough to accommodate the natural sweep and reach of the arm in drawing. When he has worked on smaller canvases, the line becomes cramped and forced, the difference immediately obvious.

His insistence on spontaneity and his defensiveness about prior organization stem from his struggle to make his painting unique; spontaneity, he believes, ensures that his work will be entirely his. In a press release that accompanied this first show, he said, "The spontaneity of line for me acts like a signature."

Yet Kay Woods' review, with its emphasis on spontaneity, does not capture one of the great contradictions in Calzetta's work; his statements about his paintings reveal him as a romantic, but he is at the same time an extremely formal painter. There is an austerely controlled sensuality about these first paintings, a spareness, which is almost Japanese.

In Meeting Santarosa, the "romantic" aspects of the painting are exemplified in the rich colour, the sensitivity of the charcoal line, the "accidental" quality of the texture of the field, and in the painting's movement. But the proportions of the picture, the composition, the stillness - these are both formal and almost classical in temper. This contradiction is a constant in Calzetta's work.

continued on page 2 of essay

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