On July 15, 2020, in an online auction held by Heffel Fine Art, Alex Colville’s 1976 painting Dog and Bridge sold for a hammer price of $2,000,000 ($2,401,25o with buyer’s premium), easily surpassing the world record for a Colville work at auction. The previous sales record for a Colville painting, $1,600,000 for the 1975 painting Harbour ($1,888,000 with fees), and was set at another Heffel auction in 2015. Notably, the painting went for the highest price in an auction that included work by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Joan Mitchell, and Jean-Paul Riopelle.
Dog and Bridge was one of many paintings Colville made featuring bridges, naturally enough, as his father worked for a company that made bridges (perhaps even the one pictured here). Beyond the familial connection, the complex network of steel lines obviously appealed to an artist for whom geometry was an underlying obsession. The precision of a bridge, the geometry of its trusses, girders, and rail bed, is contrasted in this painting by an element from the natural world—a dog walking along the tracks towards the viewer. As with bridges, dogs are a familiar element in Colville’s painting. Often paired with humans, animals are part of a culture/nature binary, an existential conflict that, for Colville, was a key philosophical idea.
And while this dog, walking unconcernedly down the railway tracks, is presented with less drama than is found in Colville’s famous Horse and Train, there remains an unavoidable sense of foreboding to the approach of the German Shepherd, a contrast of near serenity and unbearable tension.
There is a cinematic feel to so many of Colville’s paintings, though unlike most films, they are not narratives. The dog does not continue to walk across the bridge, break into a run, or bark or growl, in subsequent frames. Where Colville shares a sensibility with filmmakers is in his sense of bodies in space and time, what Dennis Reid has described as, “The same concern for precise composition and the arrested moment, the same understanding of the body as being somehow the focus of the space through which it moves.”[i]
Colville is usually compared with narrative filmmakers, to Hitchcock by Dennis Reid, or the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson by Andrew Hunter. But their films proceed through time, lacking the essential completeness of a Colville image. Complete, but not necessarily still. There is a great sense of movement in Dog and Bridge, movement arrested, but still present, anticipated by the viewer. The bridge pictured, with its double superstructure, its long slow curve against the horizon, seems to be turning on its axis. It reminds me of another work from 1976, sculptor Richard Serra’s film Railroad Turnbridge. This black and white film, just nineteen minutes long, documents the turning span of a bridge from the vantage point of its centre—framing and unframing the landscape, and itself, as it goes through its slow revolution. “There is an illusion created,” Serra said, “that questions what is moving and what is holding still.”[ii]
Film, by its nature, cannot contain worlds in a single image the way that a painting or poem can. But a Colville image, or to use a term from postmodernist art theory, a “picture,” is staged like a film image. This staging, critic Douglas Crimp argued, was part of how a picture was conceived, “underneath each picture there is always another picture.”[iii] Colville would likely have argued that painters always knew that.
Pictures was the name of a celebrated art exhibition, curated by Crimp, in New York in 1977. One work included was Shane by Canadian-born artist Jack Goldstein. In this short film from 1975, a German Shepherd growls and barks on cue. In between, the dog is placid. The sequence repeats over and over for sixteen minutes, the dog playing its assigned role. And each time it “acts,” the viewer jumps, even though the action is anticipated. We soon figure out that the dog is trained to appear dangerous—yet that appearance still feels real. Colville’s German Shepherd neither barks nor growls, but it nonetheless exudes as much potential menace as Shane the stunt-dog does. In describing Goldstein’s films Crimp talks of “psychologized temporality,” describing the effects as “foreboding, premonition, suspicion, anxiety.”[iv] It is no leap to think of Colville masterpieces such as Pacific, Horse and Train, To Prince Edward Island and Dog and Bridge, in just those terms. Colville described himself in the 1950s as a “conceptual artist,”[v] meaning an artist who put the idea first. Should we then be surprised that New York’s postmodern avant-garde and he were thinking similar ideas, for all that they were articulating them in such different media?
Colville’s bridges are more than a means to cross over water. As Tom Smart wrote, the bridge signified “the line of demarcation between order and chaos, between rational and natural modes of existence.”[vi] Like so many of Colville’s paintings, Dog and Bridge presents an uneasy world. The demarcation represented by the bridge is not something we cross over, but rather, it is a place we inhabit. It is where we live.
[i] Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 266.
[ii] Richard Serra, quoted in Annette Michelson, “The Films of Richard Serra: An Interview,” in Hal Foster (editor), Richard Serra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), pp. 28-30.
[iii] Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” included in Brian Wallis (ed.), Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), p. 186.
[iv] Ibid., p. 180.
[v] Alex Colville, “My Experience as a Painter and Some General Views of Art,” lecture from November 1951, reprinted in Helen J. Dow, The Art of Alex Colville (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972), p. 206.
[vi] Tom Smart, Alex Colville: Return (Vancouver and Halifax: Douglas & McIntyre Publishing and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2003), p. 67.