Pretty much everything about the late Gordon Lebredt was surprising—and always in a distinctly salutary way.
Lebredt died of cancer on February 26, not long before his 63rd birthday, but when his obituary notice appeared in the Toronto Star and the Winnipeg Free Press on May 5, the memorializing photograph showed him in profile in motorcycle racing gear, his face occluded by his helmet.
Who knew about this passion for racing? According to his lifetime partner, editor and writer Lin Gibson (she and Lebredt were together for 35 years), there were those who knew about his racing enthusiasms but didn’t know he was an artist, and there were those, on the other hand, who knew something of his work as an artist, writer and theorist but who knew nothing about his racing—or, for that matter, about the quiet joy he took in his great skill as a motorcycle mechanic. And, as Gibson reminded me during a recent conversation about Lebredt’s life and works, there existed another similar split between those for whom he was an artist and those for whom he was a highly gifted designer and, for the past quarter-century, art director much in demand by the film industry.
These various strands of expressive activity, these procedural traces of Lebredt’s works and days, were not separately lived conduits running in tandem but were, rather, the filaments of a solid braid of thinking and making.
All of Gordon Lebredt’s work—and there was a great deal of it that, like the bulk of an iceberg underwater, you knew about and felt even if you did not actually see it—was unfailingly, quietly, precisely visionary and (in similarly paradoxical fashion) exuberantly exacting. There seemed to be such exactitude in everything, whether in the repair of a motorcycle engine or in the devising of one of his highly cerebral yet generously sensuous installations. In this heady sense of analytical passion, Lebredt always rather reminded me of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who brought this feeling as deftly to the design of a kite or a propeller as he did to his investigations into the limits of language.
Artist Yam Lau—in his essay “Gordon Lebredt: Dialogue in Reticence” from the recently published book Gordon Lebredt: Nonworks 1975–2008—speaks eloquently of the nature of his friend’s “clear and compressed thought.” Lau goes on to point out that “likewise, his work demonstrates a condensed and resistant kind of beauty. Both the work and the person situate a precipitous sort of presence, at once remote, but noble and complex in all its manifested clarity.”
Nonworks 1975–2008 was born from the accelerating fascination for Lebredt’s work experienced by artists David Court and Josh Thorpe. Increasingly drawn to what they describe, in the book’s prologue, as Lebredt’s “conceptual rigor, obstinate materiality, sublime negativity, oblique sense of humour and experimental attitude to exhibition, consumption and signification,” the two initiated this exceedingly handsome “major retrospective of a body of work that exists only as possibility.”
The book, published this year by the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art and Plug In ICA, is clearly a labour of love (and respect and admiration). It contains excellent reproductions of plans, drawings, paintings, photocopies, schematics, photographs, models and (in many cases) texts for 125 unrealized works from 33 years of the artist’s invention, research and production. In addition to the Court-Thorpe prologue and the aforementioned Lau essay, the book includes texts by Ian Carr-Harris, Yvonne Lammerich, Andy Patton and myself, plus an afterword by Lin Gibson, who edited the volume. Lebredt was able, almost as a final work, to design and typeset the book himself.
As Patton puts it in his essay, “On the Impossibility of Seeing Gordon Lebredt’s Work,” the Nonworks volume “has the great virtue of putting ‘nonworks’ on an equal footing with works that have indeed been realized. It may be impossible to see the work as a whole, but here, it is possible to glimpse what the always contingent history of his exhibitions hasn’t allowed to be seen until now.” Patton continues with a brilliantly chosen remark of Robert Smithson’s: “You don’t have to have existence to exist.”
“Remembering Gordon Lebredt,” an art, food, music and conversation event, takes place this Sunday, May 15, at 3pm at Emmanuel Howard Park Church, 214 Wright Avenue, Toronto.