Although the 1950s work of Harold Town shared many of the aesthetic concerns of American Abstract Expressionism, his paintings of the early 1960s moved away from the strictly formal doctrines laid out by Clement Greenberg. Greenbergian ideology prescribed the autonomy of the artwork and disavowed any reference to the external world. Town’s multi-coloured abstract paintings of this period, however, are replete with avant-garde experimentation driven by references to a multitude of eclectic sources. Town explored an expansive range of external themes and forms in his paintings, drawing on vivid urban imagery as well as visual references taken from museum collections such as those of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Toronto (today the Art Gallery of Ontario).
Optical (1960) is a bold and striking example of Town’s richly layered textural works. Thick paint, sometimes applied directly from the tube in brightly contrasting colours, is used to create an explosive tapestry of interwoven shapes and symbols: circles, stars, x shapes, dots, and heavily painted lines. Moray notes the way in which Town “highlights the artificial nature of sign systems and art styles, and the random ways in which signs collide and coexist in the contemporary environment” (Moray, Harold Town: Life and Work, University of Guelph, 2015). Intricately layered, these elements intermingle in an open pictorial space that seems to expand well beyond the physical limits of the canvas. The canvas is roughly divided into four quadrants, recalling the grid structure upon which much of modernist art is based, but Town innovatively counters this formal rigidity with his dynamic gestural brushwork and the spontaneous outburst of irregular forms.