London, Ontario, artist Greg Curnoe (1936–1992) created few works that do not include text of some kind. This artistic development had its genesis in Curnoe’s childhood: he was given a rubber stamp set as well as small rubber letters that were set in a wooden three-line holder, and he produced occasional newsletters with his cousin Gary Bryant, who had a drum printing press. Curnoe also experimented with date stamps discarded from his father’s office. He explained, “It was so natural for me to associate type and text with a picture. And I quickly learned there are things you can do with a text that you can’t do with a picture.” 


Greg Curnoe, List of Names from Wortley Road School, 1962

Greg Curnoe, List of Names from Wortley Road School, 1962
Stamp pad ink and ball-point pen on paper, 33 x 18 cm, McIntosh Gallery, Western University, London. The two “P”s and the lower case “c” are hand drawn, rather than stamped, perhaps because these letters were missing from the stamp set.

In 1961 Curnoe bought a new rubber stamp set, the first of many sets with uppercase letters that he used over the years. His early stamped works were lists: for example, lists of names of boys he grew up with. These were often very simple—black words stamped from individual letters combined with “found” texts. He also began the practice of making unique artists’ books: his seventy-one-page Rain and seventy-eight-page The Walk, both from 1962, have been acknowledged as the first artist books in Canada. Curnoe made over a dozen such works, perhaps as a more intimate and portable form of working with words and images. Like his paintings, most of these were diaristic, recording his daily thoughts and observations. 


Installation view of Greg Curnoe, View of Victoria Hospital, First Series: #1–6, 1968–69

Installation view of Greg Curnoe, View of Victoria Hospital, First Series: #1–6, 1968–69
Rubber stamp and ink over latex on canvas; six canvases, each 289.6 x 228.6 cm; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, installation view unknown. Greg Curnoe stamped this non-figurative word description of his view of Victoria Hospital from one pane of his studio window. It was the first in a series of four works.

In 1968 Curnoe stamped the monumental six canvases of View of Victoria Hospital, First Series: #1–6. As art critic John Noel Chandler noted, the significance of this text series cannot be overstated: “Perhaps what is most novel and striking about what Curnoe has done is that by portraying the physical landscape with words, which are more abstract than pictures of things (at least in a phonetic language like our own), while at the same time making his language as simple and concrete as possible, Curnoe has accomplished the very interesting paradox of making pictures which simultaneously are abstract and concrete, making one reconsider the value of the dualism.”


Greg Curnoe creating View of Victoria Hospital, First Series: #1–6, 1968, photograph by Pierre Théberge.

Greg Curnoe creating View of Victoria Hospital, First Series: #1–6, 1968–69, photograph by Pierre Théberge. Pictured is #1 in progress, September 1, 1968. Curnoe had to climb up and down ladders carrying individual stamps loaded with black ink, which he pressed forcefully onto white primed canvas that had been stapled to rubber carpet padding tacked to a sheet of plywood.

Text in Curnoe’s work was stamped, stencilled, embossed, or handwritten, with the break in the lettering determined by the size of the support. Curnoe explained, “I discovered that a sans serif typeface isn’t as legible as the more traditional serif faces. In other words, the letters stick out, they don’t disappear. It makes you look and read at the same time.”


Curnoe’s studio in 1988, photograph by Ian MacEachern

Curnoe’s studio in 1988, photograph by Ian MacEachern.

Curnoe was himself an omnivorous reader, and he amassed a large library over the years. Poetry anthologies and exhibition catalogues vied for space with atlases, novels, art books, and catalogues of bike parts. A novel that had a lasting influence on his work was The Voyeur (1955) by French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose emphasis on precise language with an absence of metaphor was the literary equivalent of the visual style Curnoe was developing in the early sixties. Curnoe noted: “It is still one of my favourite novels and served to confirm my interest in using simple language and simple direct description.”


This Essay is excerpted from Greg Curnoe: Life & Work by Judith Rodger.

More Essays

Download Download