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Tuesday November 20, 2012

Commanding artist productive to the end

In June, Montreal native received the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award for lifetime excellence in artistic images

In his fashion, Arnaud Cyril Benvenuti Maggs was as much a work of art as the art that made him a commanding and demanding presence in Canadian photography. There was always a design to his appearance, a fastidious elegance - the result clearly of the 25 years or so the Montreal native spent as a successful graphic designer, art director and fashion photographer before his now-legendary decision at 47 to teach himself how to "be" an artist.

The cover for the famous 1953 Jazz at Massey Hall concert featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie is just one of his many claims to fame, as was the Governor-General's Award for excellence in visual and media arts that he won in 2006.

Nobody, except perhaps Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, wore black better than Maggs. Traditionally the default colour for the artistically inclined (and impaired), black fit Maggs' tai chi-honed, almost-elfin body to a, well ... T. Combined with oversized owlish glasses, a rigorous hair cut, a fondness for dapper chapeaux to rival that of Lester Young, an unblinking gaze and the lean cut of his face, black made Maggs an attention-grabbing ascetic aesthete, a hip monk with a taste for Alexander McQueen, a minimalist masterpiece in his own right.

"In his heart he was someone who organized everything in such a meticulous way that everything about what he did was artful, from the way he organized his studio to the way he ate a meal. Meticulous, yes, but not fussy," recalled his friend, the critic and academic Robert Enright, on Monday two days after Maggs died of cancer at 86 at Toronto's Kensington Hospice.

"You never had a sense that it was a game with Arnaud; it was actually a way of being in the world for him. And his art clearly was the obvious manifestation of that orderly and beautiful way of being."

That art achieved an especially heightened prominence this year. In June, he received the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award for lifetime excellence in art photography. A month earlier, the National Gallery of Canada had opened what would be a hugely successful four-month survey of his work, going as far back as the mid-1970s and the 64 Portrait Studies solo exhibitions that immediately established Maggs as an artist of substance and import.

To this day, the portrait studies, with their almost taxonomical rigour and grid structure, serve as a model of the Maggs method. Yes, agrees Josée Drouin-Brisebois, senior curator of contemporary art at the NGC, this could give his work a reserved, almost cold cast. "But if you look at the materials themselves, they're very human; they're the traces of people's lives" - be they human heads or hotel signs or the found, quotidian documents that commanded his attention in recent years. These included textile industry tags from the early 20th century, Eugène Atget's address book, French mourning envelopes from the late 19th century, and a water stain in an accounts book from the Klondike Gold Rush.

"He saw so many things almost with a child's wonder," Drouin-Brisebois remarked. "He was so excited about finding things ... and to show others his way of seeing, one of the true signs of an artist."

Enright recalled visiting Maggs's Toronto studio earlier this year and being entranced by his large collection of humble old enameled pitchers from France. "The way he had arranged them on his shelves was so beautiful," Enright said, "and, if memory serves, he made a comment about how he'd love to be buried with his pots.

"So if emperors of China want to have a 60,000-man clay army, Arnaud, it seems, would be happy to go to whatever other world there is with these white pots. Of course, like everything that's white, they're never just white, they're every possible shade. And it was his acute sense of tonality and design, the way they could go from ivory to a kind of blue to bright white, that made him appreciate them."

"Everything for Arnaud was about precision," observed fellow photographer Edward Burtynsky, one of the prime movers of the Scotiabank Photo Award. "Chance wasn't an option." At the same time, it couldn't be too precise: Burtynsky recalled working with Maggs at his printing facility, Toronto Image Works, to get a sharp 8-by-10-inch negative of a botanical book. "We went on to make a nice big print of it - but then he abandoned the whole project because he thought it was too beautiful. The aesthetics were too strong; he wanted something more neutral."

Susan Hobbs, Maggs's Toronto-based dealer for almost 20 years, remembers a twinkly eyed, dry-witted, often mischievous man who was "kind, generous, engaging." Their relationship wasn't without its difficulties, she confessed, "but I hope he got as much pleasure from the relationship as I did."

She recalled the start Maggs gave her in May this year when he informed her at the opening of his NGC show in Ottawa that he wouldn't be staying for the reception she'd arranged afterward. "I'm too tired; I think I'm just going to go back to the hotel." Nonplussed, Hobbs told him that wouldn't be a good idea; "we have 60 people coming to have a drink with you. Just come for 15 minutes, then go." Maggs did as he was told - and, Hobbs laughed, "he was the last to leave, the centre of the party, in fact ...afterwards, I told him, 'That was a very long 15 minutes.'"

Another photographer (and friend of 40 years) Michael Mitchell went to visit a bedridden Maggs a few weeks before his death at which time Maggs informed Mitchell that he'd once tried to be a composer. "I knew in the last year or two he'd been trying to play the harmonica of all things but a jazz composer?" Maggs explained that this was while he was living in Montreal in the 1940s.

To test his compositional proficiency, he took a melody he'd written to a nearby club where the great Oscar Peterson was ensconced. Peterson kindly looked at the chart, brought it to the attention of his band and together they started to play "all the chord changes to what was a popular song of the day! That was their very gentle way of saying that his song was completely derivative and that Arnaud should try something else in his life."

"You know what I admired about him?" Mitchell asked. "He had a vision of what he wanted to do ... and he stayed with it. ... He was a model of how to be true to yourself, to keep the faith and how to be productive right to the very end. And he was. He got better. He just got better."

Maggs, born May 5, 1926, leaves his wife, the artist Spring Hurlbut (whom he met in 1986 and wed in 1997). He also leaves two sons, Lorenzo and Toby, and one daughter, Caitlan, their mother, the illustrator Margaret Frew (the two married in 1950 and divorced in 1968), one sister, one brother and nine grandchildren.

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