The award-winning art and architecture critic John Bentley Mays died last week in Toronto, at the age of 75. His influential and insightful writing appeared in the Globe and Mail, Azure, Canadian Art and The Walrus, among numerous other national publications.
Mays had a Faulknerian upbringing. According to his biography, he was born in 1941 “into an old family of cotton planters, small-town merchants and local politicians in the American South.” In 1969, he took a teaching job at York University in Toronto and not long after resolved to become a writer. By 1980, he was the Globe and Mail‘s art critic – a post he held until 1998 – which established him as a major force in the visual art world. His exhibition reviews could make or break careers.
When he later turned his attention to architecture and urbanism, he brought a clarity and accessibility to a world of criticism that often feels abstruse to the general reader. His book Emerald City Toronto Visited (1995) – about the development and history of Toronto’s network of neighbourhoods and its slow progress toward an international city – is still required reading for anyone interested in Toronto’s urban planning history.
Mays was also known for writing bravely and eloquently about his own life, in books such as In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression, and Power in the Blood, in which he tracks his ancestral history through travels to Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Both were national best-sellers.
At Azure magazine, Mays was listed as a Contributing Editor on our masthead, and he wrote some of our most memorable stories, often about projects that reflected the changing face of Toronto. He had a fresh, and sometimes unexpected, perspective. Unlike most critics, for instance, he admired Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, describing its “dramatic aluminum- and glass-clad volumes that tilt and crash into each other like jagged ice floes colliding in an Arctic storm.” He pronounced it “festive architecture that defies mediocrity, boldly activating the streetscape and common life by the power of its exotic forms.”
He was skeptical – and searingly witty – about a starchitect creation that most in this city embraced: the twin residential Absolute Towers by MAD, which have been locally dubbed the Marilyns, in reference to their curvaceous profiles. In Mays’ opinion, “Somewhere in the process of growing from a digital sketch into a 56-storey marketable commodity made of concrete and steel, the original Marilyn grew buxom, heavy around the stern, kind of dumpy.”
And he wrote of the much-lauded Art Gallery of Ontario addition by Frank Gehry, in the full-blooded context of the city’s increasingly complex cultural setting. “Gehry’s electric-blue design stands in friendly combat with the soaring table-top, next door, of the Ontario College of Art and Design by British architect Will Alsop, and, with its windows open to the city, it encourages viewers to recall contemporary art’s vital and ongoing relationship with contemporary metropolitan culture, its social problematics, conflicts and opportunities.”
Mays also had a discerning eye for how a single project of less fanfare – such as 3XN’s Ørestad College in Copenhagen (one of the firm’s first major buildings), or a private residence by up-and-coming local architect Paul Raff – had resonance beyond its immediate context, creating an enduring dialogue with its surroundings.
Whatever the subject matter, Mays wrote beautifully, thoughtfully and authoritatively. He will be greatly missed.
There will be a mass held at St. Vincent de Paul Church, 263 Roncesvalles Ave., Saturday, September 24 at 10:30 a.m. In lieu of flowers, the Mays family requests donations be made to Doctors Without Borders, Syria Relief.