(This review lightly revised Nov. 2018)
The Way It Is: The Life of Greg Curnoe is a beautifully produced book, printed on heavy high-gloss paper to accommodate more than 70 colour photos of Curnoe’s art – worth its price for those more than for James King's commentary. The images create a parallel biography to the one which King attempts in his text, and to a large extent renders his pedestrian by contrast to its own richness and complexity. King doesn’t discover anything really new or unknown about Curnoe, or attempt to do much original research, but he does assemble much known information that has not previously been together in the same place. As well as a beautiful book, it’s a handy compilation of facts and opinions together with a bibliography of commentary about Curnoe in which the only items missing appear to be two articles of mine from 1995 and 2003 about his lettered work.
King gives the impression that he was fairly thorough in interviewing Curnoe’s family and friends and in researching Curnoe’s critical reception and the notes and journals he left for his archive, held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, but he seldom questions or reflects for long on what he encounters. He tends to accept at face value most of what his interviewees tell him, despite being aware that many speak from backgrounds utterly alien to the assumptions about art and art history that preoccupied Curnoe. Even about non-art matters he can be recklessly presumptuous in his generalizations. For example, he declares early in the book about the noise band in which Curnoe was co-founder and drummer (the Nihilist Spasm Band) that “all the members were men who felt strongly that a woman’s place was to be a helpmate to her spouse or partner” (136). How he or a possible informant – he does not identify a source – could claim to “know” such a thing about eight men – right to the strength of the feelings – is baffling. (In chapter 10 he quotes band member Art Pratten as saying of the group that “Playing in the only thing we have in common. [....] We couldn’t agree on anything, not one damn thing” .)
King is presumptuous also about Curnoe, buttressing otherwise unsupported claims about him with the phrase “Greg would have known” (139), or “Greg would have immediately realized,” “Greg would have been aware” (142), Greg would have seen” (151), “Greg would have known