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Charles Gagnon

 (1934 - 2003)
Charles Gagnon was active/lived in Quebec, New York / Canada.  Charles Gagnon is known for abstract painting, photography, films.

Charles Gagnon

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Charles Gagnon
''… art is not a means of communication, but rather a form of communion." -  Charles Gagnon

Charles Gagnon was an important Canadian painter, photographer, printmaker, conceptual* artist, graphic artist, experimental filmmaker (1) and educator.  There are hundreds of his paintings, prints and photographs in major Canadian museums.  Any exhibition or book examining 20th Century Canadian modern art would be incomplete without a discussion of his work, and, in 28 years of teaching he has influenced a generation of art students.

He was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada where, other than for education and travel, he lived his whole life and died.

His mediums were oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel, collage*, serigraph*, silk-screen*, lithograph*, Polaroid, gelatin silver print, Ozalid print* (2), stainless steel, aluminum, found objects*, fluorescent tubes and mixed mediums.  As an abstractionist, his painting subjects were color, shape and texture.  His photography subjects included landscape, urban scenes, interiors, portraits, genre*, allegory*, social commentary, symbolism* and humor.  His painting styles were Abstract Expressionism*, Abstract Surrealism*, Geometric Abstraction*, Cubism*, Hard-Edge* and Conceptual Art*.  Frequently, they employed combinations of styles such as hard-edge and painterly; and, devices such as text, collage, photography, frame within frame (borders) or split-screen.  His assemblages appear to exhibit the influence of Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell (3).  His photography styles are Realism* and Surrealism*.  Much of his work is designed to stimulate meditation and contemplation.

Quote: "Many people … regard art as a form of communication. That provides a justification for art and a social function for the artist: to transmit a message that is accessible to the general public. I've always said - and it's perhaps the only thing worth saying - that art is not a means of communication, but rather a form of communion. I think that people commune with an artwork … not because they have prepared themselves to do so, but because they are particularly receptive. This has nothing to do with intelligence or with culture or knowledge. It's something else. Fishermen feel it when they gaze upon the sea." - Charles Gagnon.

His formal art education focused on five years when he lived in New York City studying at the Art Students League* (1956); the Parsons School of Design* (1956 - 1957); New York University (1957) under Paul Brach (4), whose influence appears evident in the early work of both artists (see AskART); and the New York School of Interior Design (1957 - 1959). (5)

Gagnon's teaching career began in 1967 at Loyola (now Concordia) University, Montreal where he taught film making and photography until 1975; when, he moved to the University of Ottawa (about 70 miles from Montreal where he lived) to teach film, video, sound and mixed media until his retirement in 1995.

Many of his travels outside Canada, since 1960, are documented by the dates on his photographs in the National Gallery.  They include Maine and New York (1965), Japan (1966), New York (1966 and 1977), California (1983), Arizona (1989), Mississippi (1991), and Utah (1991 and 1999).

The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts* is the only artist association of which he appears to have been a member.  He was made an associate in 1970 and exhibited with them in 1971.  He was not a member of the Canadian Group of Painters* but he exhibited with them in 1961.

His first group exhibition (6) was "Art: USA: 58", at Madison Square Garden Hall, New York, in 1958.  Since then he has been included in over 200 group exhibitions.  Most examinations of Canadian modern art, abstract art, photography or experimental film making include his work.  Some examples of the public venue exhibitions are: "Trends 1960, Non-Figurative Painting in Montreal", Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1960); "Contemporary Canadian Art", organized by the National Gallery of Canada to tour Africa (1962); "19 Canadian Painters", J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (1962); "Festival of Two Worlds", Spoleto, Italy (1962); New York World's Fair (1964); " Artists of Montreal", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (1965); "Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art", National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1967); "Panorama of Painting in Quebec: 1940 - 1966", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (1967); "Expo 67", Montreal (1967); "Perspective '67", Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (1967); "Eight Artists from Canada", Pavilion Helena Rubinstein, Museum of Tel-Aviv, Israel (1970); "Québec Independent Filmmakers", Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1970); "Art of the XXth Century", Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1972); "Aspects of Canadian Art", Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y (1974); "Three Generations of Quebec Painting", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (1976); "Canadian Contemporary Painters", organized by the Canada Council to tour Australia (1976); "Transparent Things: The artist's use of the photograph", Museum London, Ontario (1976); "14 Canadians: A Critic's Choice", Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (1977); "Painting Now XII", Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario (1977); "Modern Painting in Canada", Edmonton Art Gallery, Alberta (1978); "Pasted Paper: A Look at Canadian Collage 1955 - 1965", Agnes Etherington Art Centre (1979); "Points of View: Photographs of Architecture…", National Gallery of Canada (1979); "The Magical Eye: Definitions of Photography", Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1980); "Twentieth Century Canadian Painting" The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan (1981); "Photography Since 1940", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (1981); "Photography in Quebec", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (1982); "Twenty Years of Canadian Painting", Concordia University, Montreal (1982); "The Mountain: A Survey of Photography", International Center of Photography, New York, N.Y. (1983); "Reflections: Contemporary Art Since 1964", National Gallery of Canada (1984); "Responding to Photography: Selected Works from Private Toronto Collections", Art Gallery of Ontario (1984); "Present Time: Contemporary Abstraction", National Gallery of Canada (1987); "From Geometric Abstraction to Computer Art", Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1991); "The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada: The 1950s", National Gallery of Canada (1992); "Independent Eyes: 25 Years of Canadian Independent Film Distribution", Toronto Film Festival (1992); "The Modernist Document", Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montreal (1999); "Art and Society - Quebec 1960 to 1970", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (1999); "Making it new! (The big sixties show)" Art Gallery of Windsor, Ontario (2000); "The Place of Magic! The Forties, Fifties and Sixties in Québec", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (2002); "Governor General Awards Exhibition", National Gallery of Canada (2002); and "The Place of Magic! The Forties, Fifties and Sixties in Québec - Part II", Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (2006).

His work has also been included in four Biennials of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada (1961, 1963, 1965, 1968); two Paris Biennales (1961,1969); and six Spring Exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1961 to 1965 and 1971).

The pubic venues for his solo exhibitions and retrospectives include the Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (1971); Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and touring [retrospective] (1978); Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton (1993); Museum of Quebec, Quebec City (1998); Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography [since 1992 at National Gallery of Canada complex] (1974, 1979, 2000); and the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art [retrospective] (2001).

Gagnon's works do not appear to be avidly traded on the secondary market; the author has been able to locate only four works that have come up for auction (using multiple sources) since 1999.  Never-the-less, they are avidly collected by museums, according to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* there are 450 Charles Gagnon works in museums across Canada.  They include the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, Ontario), the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Owens Art Gallery (Sackville, N.B.), the Joliette Art Museum (Quebec), the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (Oshawa, Ontario), the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery (Concordia University, Montreal), the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Manitoba), the Vancouver Art Gallery (B.C.), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Quebec.  There are 157 Gagnon works in the National Gallery of Canada collection and 150 in the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.  There is also a painting of his in the collection of The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, D.C.).

His awards include the Order of Quebec (1991), an honorary doctorate from the University of Montreal (1991), the Prix Borduas* (1995) and a Governor General's Award in the Visual and Media Arts* (2002).

As an important Canadian artist his work is illustrated and discussed in most recent books about Canadian art history and Canadian modern art.  There are also the monographs Charles Gagnon (1978) by Philip Fry; and Parmenidean Puzzles: paradox and discovery in the paintings of Charles Gagnon (1989), by James D. Campbell (see both in AskART book references).


(1) He produced three films: Le Huitième Jour / The Eighth Day (1966), presented as part of the program of the Christian Pavilion at Expo 67; Le Son d'un espace (1968); and Pierre Mercure 1927 - 1966 (1970), in memory of a friend who had died tragically some years earlier.  A fourth and final film, R-69; filmed in 1969 and 1970, about the day in the life of an artist; which includes scenes with Yves Gaucher, Claude Tousignant, Jean McEwen, Guido Molinari, Henry Saxe and Jacques Hurtubise; remained unfinished at the time of his death.  It was completed by his daughter, Professor Monika Kin Gagnon, Concordia University, and exhibited at the Festival International of Films on Art (FIFA) in Montreal, in March 2010.

(2) Trademark name for a process for reproducing line drawings, manuscripts, and the like on a sensitized paper and developed in ammonia vapor.  Ozalid prints are positive and are made directly from a drawing.  This method is an alternative to blueprinting.  Sources: Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Copyright © 1997, by Random House, Inc., on Infoplease; and Britannica Compton's Encyclopedia (online).

(3) All artists, teachers, influences and associates mentioned in this biography and its footnotes, except those with bracketed birth and death dates after their names, have their own pages in AskART.

(4) Most sources say Gagnon studied under Brach at the Art Students League of New York, Roald Nasgaard in Abstract Painting in Canada says it was at NYU.  The author uncovered a 1971 interview given to the Smithsonian by Brach (now posted on AskART) in which he said he taught at both Parsons and (in evenings) NYU; he never mentioned the ASLNY.

(5) Most sources agree on the schools; the dates are from Modern Painting in Canada (1978), by Terry Fenton and Karen Wilkin (see AskART book references).

(6) The sources for exhibitions are the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario, both have archived catalogues online.  The MMCA's records for Charles Gagnon are extensive; they were of great help in preparing this biography.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke


** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

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About  Charles Gagnon

Born:  1934 - Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Died:   2003 - Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Known for:  abstract painting, photography, films