Jim Coutts was raised in Nanton, AB a southern town of about 2,000 people – an unlikely small town boy as any to produce one of the country’s most significant collections of Pop Art. Growing up through the post WWII era, he enjoyed the pleasantries of the small town lifestyle before heading north for University in Edmonton. Jim breezed through academia, picking up business and law degrees from U of A, as well as, a MBA from Harvard. After a successful consulting run, Mr. Coutts entered the
political arena, eventually serving as Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. During his time with Trudeau, Coutts was recognized as the second most powerful man in Canada (The Globe & Mail, 2014). An impressive list of accolades for just a regular Southern Albertan, yet, his greatest act remains his philanthrophy. Gifting the University of Lethbridge his personal 300-piece art collection, a philanthropic effort previously unparalleled to the University, enabling them to enrich their community’s arts culture and inspire their students to think bigger.
The purpose of pop art was exactly that – an iconoclastic thrust to break down the invisible barriers of the bourgeois and share the rich culture of artistry with your average guy or gal. Directly contrasting the Abstract Expressionists (the industry leaders at the time) Pop Art was a reactionary movement. Expressionists Gorky, Pollock, and de Kooning, were slugging it out with Paris in the upper echelon of society to establish New York as the epicenter of high culture. The harder they fought, the more unattainable their medium became, imploding from a bold form of expression to an incomprehensible blob of paint, as interpreted by working class America. Arriving in the mid-1950s on the heels of the birth of comic book superheroes and mainstream commercialism pop art entered with a ‘KA-POW!’ to the art world. A reactionary movement aimed at undermining the Abstract using industrial techniques and embellishment of the kitsch providing a medium that Brits and Americans would understand.
A narrative as relevant today in Edmonton as it was to New York City in the ’60s, switch out the names in the script and we have the same story. The Katz Group and others would be akin to the Expressionists, fighting the cultural and financial hubs like Toronto and Calgary (see Paris in the 60s) for a piece of their pie. The “artists” are creating abstract forms depicting what they believe to be the symbols of a successful metropolis, these forms take shape of big shiny buildings with even bigger price tags for their luxury real estate. A concrete, glass and steel shrine of an example, the $2.5 billion “downtown revitalization project is as glamorous in reality as it sounds in The Katz Group’s dreams. Including a $480 million dollar arena, hotel, shopping centre and apartment building erupting from the ground. With plans to create a luxury vacuum in an already desperately under-saturated downtown real estate market, it is clear the target is not the mass appeal but the cash appeal. The vision of these new luxury “unattainabilities” could be embodied by Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rythym (Number 30); as good as it may look to some, and even better to own, what does this capitalist expressionism painting of the downtown really mean?
We are in need of a modern day Warhol to balance potency of our world-class city fantasy. A bold depiction of a Donair re-imagined as a silver-foil-wrapped Horn of Plenty; a black and white portrait of a young, burly oil-rigger adorned in ripped jeans and a bedazzled button up; a blurred, multi-coloured short following a homeless person busting their ass for a few cents per can. Ensuring we are not completely romanticized by the architects of Edmonton’s revitalized downtown, but honor those who currently walk the streets of Edmonton. The brave men and women who pounded a path through the pavement that has trudged our city onwards, decade after decade through the tough times.
Bottom line, pop art embodied the cultural explosion of the 60’s, challenging the status quo and decentralizing control from the hands of the select few to the masses – setting a precedent for generations beyond. Like a smack to our artistic and cultural sensibilities, it is essential we stimulate ourselves from the complacency which we live, learning to appreciate the beauty of a Campbell’s soup can.
Banner photo depicts a portion of Tom Wesselmann’s “Still Life with Liz” (1993), from the University of Lethbridge Art Collection (gift of an anonymous donor, 2001)(© Estate of Tom Wesselmann / SODRAC, Montréal / VAGA, New-York, 2015). Image provided courtesy of Art Gallery of Alberta.
Photo of Mr. Coutts courtesy of the University of Lethbridge.