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March 7, 2022

Russell T. Gordon: Artworks of a Music Lover

Russell T. Gordon (1936-2013), Straight, No Chaser, 1980, acrylic, pastel and graphite on canvas, 142.5 x 213.5 cm. MMFA, gift of Russell T. Gordon Estate. Photo MMFA, Jean-François Brière

The Museum recently acquired three paintings by Afro-American artist Russell T. Gordon – the first works by this Montrealer by adoption to enter the permanent collection. Among them are Straight, No Chaser, currently on display in the newly renovated Contemporary Art galleries in the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion.

eunice bélidor

Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Curator of Quebec and Canadian Contemporary Art (1945 to Today)

Russell Talbert Gordon was born in 1936 in Philadelphia. After earning a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts on a basketball scholarship at Temple University, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a Master’s in Art History and Fine Arts, specializing in printmaking. Following teaching stints at the University of Utah and the University of California (Berkeley), he moved to Montreal in 1974, where he taught at Concordia University until his retirement in 1998. Gordon was a close friend of Yves Gaucher and a mentor to many artists, including Dominique Blain, David Elliott and Marc Garneau, all of whose works are also part of the MMFA’s collection.

Straight, No Chaser is inspired by music and art history – two cultural spheres that are richly referenced in Gordon’s work. More specifically, this painting echoes the blues tune of the same name, which became a jazz standard after being recorded by Thelonious Monk in 1951. It’s interesting to ote that this is Monk’s only blues composition in F – all of his others were recorded in B flat.

Straight, No Chaser

Thelonious Monk, Straight, No Chaser, Thelonious Monk (piano), Charlie Rouse (tenor), Larry Gales (bass), Ben Riley (drums), 11 m 28 s. Columbia Legacy. ℗ Originally released 1966. All rights reserved by Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment

Jazz had a major influence on Gordon’s art, as it fed into his desire to use juxtaposition to create movement, and to break with convention and linearity. The marks, patterns and splatters that characterize this painting combine to form a hybrid composition. The X at the centre of it almost seems to have been carved with a knife.

Straight, No Chaser was acquired at the same time as Brown Sugar (1979) and Still Life with an X and Two Guitars (1980), both of which also highlight the importance of the X in Gordon’s work. Brown Sugar depicts three large brown tears, with three X’s in the background represented by light-coloured bands on which the artist has superimposed a series of blue X’s. For its part, Still Life with an X and Two Guitars echoes Modernist art, particularly iconic still lifes by Cubist painters.

Credit
Credit

When I make a painting, I have a title already. Titles come from everywhere: music, conversations, books, something I heard on the radio or saw on TV. I often start with a musical phrase; I’ll play a record over and over again, and the strength of a phrase will trigger an association, and then I transpose that into formal components. ln Straight No Chaser, a Thelonious Monk tune, I tried to make the painting as non sequitur as Monk’s sounds first appear to be and with the same completeness that they definitely have: you understand the relationship of each note to the total composition… a lot like life, isn’t it?1

As Gordon suggests, life is not linear – just like a great jazz tune, it is always turning us upside down and taking us by surprise.

On your next visit to the Museum, take a moment to admire this painting. If the eponymous musical piece is playing in your mind as you do so, a different set of moods and sensations will reveal themselves in the canvas. Likewise, the Russell T. Gordon work will undoubtedly bring colour and texture to your appreciation of the jazz number.


1 Russell T. Gordon, quoted in Sylvia Brown, “Russell T. Gordon: I Look at What I Think; I Hear What I See,” Russell T. Gordon: Selected Works, 1978-1982, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 1982), p. 4.

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