T O N Y    C A L Z E T T A
Essays about the artist

Tony Calzetta: Getting to Here
© Liz Wylie 2001

In considering the so-called evolution or development of a given artist's work from the point of view of hindsight, the path taken or forged can seem so matter-of-fact and "natural" that it is hard to imagine the roles played by accident, chance, personal choice, or trauma. Anything could have happened at any number of points along the way to mutate things otherwise; a myriad of entirely different outcomes was possible at all junctures. The notion of a false move that creates something monstrous has been explored by many artists. Michael Ondaatje once expressed it:

And there is there the same stress as with stars,
the one altered move that will make them maniac.

So to take a backward look at the various series of paintings produced to date by Toronto artist Tony Calzetta, the logical, linear progression that emerges was not, of course, there from the beginning like a road map for the artist to follow (or like dots that he had only to link up, or clear outlines to simply fill with colour). The point may be obvious, yet, a backward look gives such an orderly picture, so completely opposite from the artist's forward-thrusting path into what was then blank and unknown, that its feeling of a foregone conclusion seems almost ridiculous. Yet, against whatever odds, Calzetta's several series of work did unfold as they have, and the opportunity presents itself for a backward analysis and a dispassionate discussion.


Time, as we do end up experiencing it at middle age, as a surprisingly dense, packed sediment of years, is not linear, but fluid. It can be compressed, telescoped, and pierced, even rended. So, thinking back to 1980 and Tony Calzetta's exuberant and delightful pink, blue, and cream coloured murals installed in Toronto's ultra-trendy Bloor Street Diner, it seems impossible that these were painted so long ago, and that in fact it has been eight years since the diner and murals were demolished for new development. Can't I still go in and then upstairs and order that trendy meal of spinach quiche with a glass of white wine? - sipping and munching amidst the fanciful city-vista themes of those images that said on canvas what we were reading in places like Toronto Life magazine: Toronto was on the verge of becoming a world-class city, and here was proof.

It was only three years earlier, in 1977, that the energetic and promising artist had completed his MFA at York University, and been given a solo exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in Yorkville immediately upon graduation. Calzetta's distinguishing characteristic was his drawing, and how he ferociously integrated drawing into his work with paint on canvas, yet with a light-hearted and lyrical vocabulary of form. He wasn't exactly precocious at thirty-two years of age (he had studied business as an undergraduate and begun a career as an accountant before going back to school in his late twenties to become an artist) but his work had a youthful verve and energy that viewers responded to.


The period of the late seventies in Toronto was the critical and commercial heyday of the painters so-nicknamed the "shrubs" of Jack Bush. The year 1977, that of Calzetta's first commercial solo exhibition, was also the year of Bush's death. But the influence of the senior abstract painter held on for several years, especially on a loosely acquainted group of mostly abstract painters working within a pretty recognizable genre of lyrical abstraction. Calzetta was a fairly marginal participant in this scene and it was his quirkiness of form and "image" and emphasis on drawing in his paintings that set him apart. His main sources or artistic heroes were artists who had also managed to give drawing a strong role in their painted works, or artists who mostly drew: Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Pierre Alechinsky, Cy Twombly, and then the figurative work of Philip Guston. But Calzetta was extremely anxious to have his work be his own, and didn't want to be an imitator. Ultimately he feels that the greatest challenge he has had as an artist has been to let his true self out in his works, to be true to his real self in his art, and to give his inner creativity completely free rein. In Calzetta's case, this has meant allowing his drawing to always be at the fore, and allowing his wacky humour to play an increasing role. He would doodle and draw on paper in an automatic fashion, then pare down from the many resulting images a set but evolving repertoire to use (cloud-like forms from 1978-79, waves and bands in 1981, curtains and a stage-set organization in 1983-85).


Thinking of his images as "abstract funnies" or "surreal cartoons", he knew he was running the risk of people not taking his art seriously. Other artists have faced the same dilemma: high art has usually been serious and popular culture (comics, animation) has clutched the risky area of humour to itself. One thinks of Jim Nutt and the Chicago Imagists who worked and showed together in the late 1960s as the Hairy Who, for example, or of the various California Funk artists. High art can mine popular culture to good effect at times, and Calzetta has won himself a following of writers and collectors who have responded positively to his commitment to the "bizarro".

His current series, War Stories for Children and Art Stories for Adults (which has an offshoot into three dimensions in the form of seven large-scale sculptures) has its immediate roots in works begun in the late 1980s, in which the cartoonish characters in the work began to take on lives of their own, more or less narrated by Calzetta. The paintings are large in size and the "characters" in each are big in scale. The drawing component is not independent anymore, but has been restricted to defining the contours of the various weird forms and images. From time to time, Calzetta takes a break from painting and returns to working on paper; he created a large cycle of four-by-six-foot-sized drawings from 1991-95, without doing any work on canvas. He has also worked in series of prints. The explorations in each of these media tend to enrich and cross-fertilize and lead him to new ideas in the others.

In getting to where he is now, Calzetta's path does seem logical and smooth, but of course, this is only in hindsight. Some might consider his 1980 Bloor Street Diner murals to have been his golden, Warholian fifteen minutes, the point at which his particular style and approach were completely in tune with the mood and moment of their time. Since then, Calzetta has had a tough row to hoe, exploring themes and a kind of painting that some people would find too wacky to take seriously. But he has been true to his inner self, his own nature, and has resisted any temptation he might have had to jump on fashion's bandwagon. His voice is distinctive, unique, and very much his own.


* Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems. Toronto: Anansi, 1970, p. 41.


Liz Wylie is the curator of the Kelowna Art Gallery. Previously she was the Art Curator at the University of Toronto for eleven years. She has written extensively on historical and contemporary Canadian Art since the late 1970s.

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