Friday, June 5, 2015

Greg Curnoe - the Bicycle Artist

Many of Curnoe's self portraits show
him in a bicycle cap, or jersey.
After posting an article about the rebirth of Mariposa Bicycles recently, a reader suggested that I should also post something about Greg Curnoe, a Canadian artist and avid bicyclist who featured bicycles (including his own Mariposas) in his work. I've seen some of Curnoe's bicycle-themed work, and agreed it would make a good topic for discussion.

Greg Curnoe was primarily known as a painter, but he was also an organizer in Canada's artistic community, and a highly "regionalistic" artist. His "regionalism," or what I've read some call "nationalism," was reflected in one of Curnoe's famous bicycles and paintings. The bicycle was built by Mariposa in the 1970s. Mike Barry recalled that Curnoe was excited about discovering a custom frame builder in Toronto, and he ordered a bike from Barry's shop. When the mustard yellow bike was complete, Curnoe immediately added a statement to the bike's top-tube using cut-out letter decals. In typical Canadian style, it was in English on one side, French on the other. The statement? "Close the 49th Parallel etc," a statement that seems to capture a number of Canada-centric sentiments. The bike was the subject of more than one well-known painting, such as this watercolor:

Close the 49th Parallel calls to mind a number of sentiments
in U.S./Canadian relations.
Apparently, Curnoe's pro-Canada sentiments were sometimes construed by some as anti-American. In one famous instance, a mural he did for Montreal's Dorval International Airport, Homage to the R34, was removed for what amounted to political reasons. Curnoe claimed he wasn't anti-American - just pro-Canadian, but some Americans were offended. Whoever those people were, they must have hated the Guess Who's American Woman.

The 49th Parallel bike was damaged in an accident. When Curnoe brought it back to Mike Barry for repairs, he ordered another bike - a dedicated time-trial machine. Keep in mind that time-trial bikes in the 1970s were quite a bit different than such bikes today. But that green machine also served as the model for several famous paintings and drawings.

A watercolor of Curnoe's Mariposa TT.
Another image of the Mariposa T.T. was a limited edition print on plexiglass - and was meant to lean on the wall, much the way a bicycle might be parked.

The plexiglass print of the Mariposa TT. A copy of this work is in the National Gallery in Ottawa.
According to the Bicycle Specialties blog, the time-trial machine was also damaged in an accident with a car. When it was brought back to the shop for repairs, it was completely re-imagined as a "low-profile" time-trial bike, more in the fashion that was then becoming popular. And once again, the bike was the subject of several paintings.

"Mariposa Low Profile"
"Untitled" (orange bicycle) from 1990.

One thing people will notice about Curnoe's style is his almost shocking use of color. Bright, bold, and extremely eye-catching. According to the National Gallery of Canada, which houses some of Curnoe's works, this can be attributed to the artist's love of comic books when he was young. "As a child Curnoe enjoyed copying images from popular comic books as well as creating his own comic book characters and stories. His interest in the bright color palette of his comic books, and in recording the minutia of the world around him, would stay with him into adult life." That attention to "minutia" can be seen in some of the bicycle paintings, in that Curnoe would record a complete list of build details, such as tubing, components, builders, etc., about the bicycle in the painting.

Tragically, Greg Curnoe's life was cut short while he was doing what he loved - riding his bicycle. In 1992, Curnoe was riding with the London Centennial Wheelers club when a driver in a pickup truck plowed through the group. Curnoe was killed, and six others were seriously injured. The driver, who was described as "distracted," was later acquitted of all charges. Mike Barry wrote later, "That morning we lost not only one of Canada's most prominent artists but also one of the nicest, most cheerful persons one could meet. Greg it seems was always smiling and never more so than when he was riding his bike or doing his artwork."


  1. The second watercolor you show is the one I have a framed copy of. It hangs by my workbench in the garage, where I sometimes stare at it and think about Greg Curnoe. Like all good art, it does not go with any of our furnishings or decor in the house, and my wife sees nothing in it that she likes. But, she does not know anything about fine bicycles. I, on the other hand, do.

    1. I'd love to have one of those plexiglass prints of the green TT bike. My wife probably wouldn't "get it" either.

    2. Oh - and thanks for the idea, Jim!

  2. One thing I find very interesting is that as bold, even jarring, as Curnoe's use of color could be, the actual colors themselves were actually pretty traditional bike colors.

    It's terrible that he died as young, and the way, he did.

  3. I also have a print of the second pink background Mariposa watercolor. Looking to sell/give it to a new home. Any interest in this?