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Jack Chambers' Red and Green by Tom Smart  

What is the purpose of life? The purpose of art? What is the purpose of the artist? Jack Chambers probes these fundamental questions in his final piece of work – an unpublishable manuscript – ‘Red and Green’, now decrypted by author and curator Tom Smart.

In 1968, Canadian artist and filmmaker Jack Chambers was diagnosed with leukemia. Faced with his own mortality, Chambers began a programme of research into the nature of his own immortality. From that starting point the artist embarked on a nine-year journey that would ultimately take him to the end of his days. In his search, Chambers consulted many sources: philosophers, scientists, poets, priests, mystics and clairvoyants. Using the metaphor of the complementary-colour contrast of red and green, Chambers examined life’s inherent paradoxes, resolutely searching for synthesis. What resulted was ‘Red and Green’, a collage of quotations and ideas – a visual and literary mosaic – photocopied and diligently pasted into ring binders.

The manuscript called ‘Red and Green’ has spent the greater part of its existence closeted in a studio, a basement and an archive. Today, Tom Smart, with remarkable care and persistence, presents Jack Chambers’ Red and Green, Chambers’ final thoughts on the purpose of the artist in society.


2014—ForeWord IndieFab Book of the Year Award,

Table of contents



Perception and Perception

Sight and Vision

Down and Up

Realism and Real

Artists and Art

Reality and Reality


Review text

In Canadian art circles Jack Chambers’ Red and Green is the stuff of legend. Begun in 1969 when Chambers was diagnosed with leukemia, it’s the original literary mash-up: hundreds of quotations selected and arranged to present the painter and filmmaker’s theory of perception. Due to copyright restrictions, Chambers’s manuscript remains unpublishable, but now we have the next best thing. Former McMichael gallery head Tom Smart provides a detailed analysis even while retaining authorial distance from his subject, acknowledging, for instance, where Chambers’s mysticism may test readers’ credulity. This dense, theoretical book is not for everyone but it remains a fascinating portrait of an artist’s quest for transcendence in the face of mortality.

—Jade Colbert, The Globe & Mail

Review text

Tom Smart has embarked on a noble mission to decipher Chambers’ intellectual and deeply meaningful work about art, life, and spiritual philosophy.

Jack Chambers’ Red and Green is a peculiar work of art criticism that attempts to explain a complex, fragmented manuscript left by an artist after his early death. Jack Chambers was diagnosed with leukemia in the late 1960s, and the event served as an intellectual catalyst as he embarked on a near decade-long quest for meaning and understanding. Concerned with perception, representation, and comprehension, Chambers’ writing is steeped in esoteric philosophy and spiritualism, his concern with art soon becoming secondary to his rigorous examination through art of both the world and epistemology.

The text, however, is not easily digested—not only due to difficult content, but also its very physical formulation. Photographs are provided throughout of the actual document Chambers’ wrote, the material itself resembling one of William S. Burroughs’s "cut-up" works. For this reason, the work has been "translated" by biographer Tom Smart, who attempts to form a cohesive message from the chaotic—but meaningful—source material. Red and Green, the explanation of Chambers’ work, is segmented into small, palatable postulations interrelated by central tenets concerned with art.

Much of Smart’s text is devoted to deciphering Chambers’ complex theories regarding dichotomy, contradiction, and ultimately the unity of all things. Readers familiar with philosophy will note the similarity between these theories and the Aristotelian conception of form and matter, though Chambers almost always includes references to the metaphysical when addressing art and our relationship with it.

Critical and skeptical readers may take issue with the clunky juxtaposition of spirituality with his other, more sophisticated arguments—indeed, the unverifiable is often treated as real, feeling out of place in the work, despite being so prominent throughout it. Smart writes that Chambers hoped to "overcome the limitations of space and time, and to develop valid alternative understandings of how space, time and causality might survive death." This is most certainly a fine goal, though neither a reasonably attainable one nor one that complements the rest of his writing.

Akin to the occasionally wandering writings of the Transcendentalists, there is much to admire in Smart’s treatment of the material, but there is only so much he can do with it. His attempts to wrench meaning from Chambers’ writings—themselves looking almost like a palimpsest—are executed well, but the writings appear to fail to accomplish what Chambers is describing: a world made whole through the inherent contractions in the ideas and things of which they are comprised. Chambers’ failure on this count is, naturally, understandable, but the fragmented nature of his text makes for an unenviable task for Smart as well as confused reading.

Still, Red and Green is a highly intellectual work, engaging and thought provoking while tackling complex and crucial concepts about our world and beyond.

—Alex Franks, Foreword Reviews

Excerpt from book

(from ‘Down and Up’)

At the core of ‘Red and Green’, Chambers turned his agile mind to the distinction between being and existence, our relationship to God and to nature. He writes that, ‘the recurring theme of “God is Love” appears to mean exactly what it says; that there is a force, an energy, that binds the cosmos together and moves always in the direction of its harmonious action ... [In human beings], this force emerges and expresses itself as love, and this is the “spark of the divine” in each of us.’ In no other quotation comprising the densely rich mosaic of the manuscript, does Chambers so succinctly express his thesis. The reconciliation of opposites – down and up – and synthesizing the dialectical nature of being and spirit, body and nature, object and subject is made manifest through the force and energy of love. Love unites opposites and reconciles disparate energies, blends complements. Moreover, Chambers asserts that when the force of love (the spark of the divine) is ‘acknowledged and reinforced by the culture’ it contributes to humanity, relating harmoniously to one another, to the rest of the universe and ‘to move forward towards the most unique and awesome self-fulfillment.’

Just as it appears that Chambers has given us a moral centre to his manuscript, resolving the many threads which, up to this point he had been weaving, he opens another tangent to explore. If anything, the nature of the inquiry at the core of ‘Red and Green’ does not advocate one to be passive. On the contrary, Chambers vouches for a hybrid form of contemplation that calls one to be active. To deny the potent agency of the force of love to lead one to be redeemed is to risk the energy being inverted and perverted to cause one to hate, hunger for power, be greedy and ‘the real possibility of ... disrupting the expression of ... energy as to end [our] part in the cosmic design.’ He admonishes his readers, challenging them to tap into the energy of the universe and to accept the challenge that human beings are ‘a part of the energy of the universe and can only function harmoniously within it through [the] capacity to love – infinitely.’ What began as an artistic journey in ‘Red and Green’ has moved through the paths of a perceptual journey, a mystical quest, and arrives at this point as a profoundly spiritual inquiry into the mystery of God’s divine love, divinity and omnipotence. Furthermore, Chambers adds nuance to the journey by also making it philosophical and phenomenological, taking up the voice of Merleau-Ponty probing the essence of consciousness by which we are both a part and distanced from the world around us. For the philosopher, this pure centre is also ‘absolute emptiness observable only at the moment when it is filled by experience.’ Merleau-Ponty likens this centre to God. Through the authors Chambers quotes, he affirms that there are higher states of consciousness, and that these states are necessary for the human species to survive and, perhaps, overcome the day-to-day problems that plague the world – pollution, genocide, exploitation of natural resources, overpopulation, famine, disease and war. Inner space needs to be cultivated, and it should be the responsibility of humans to try to achieve at least a state of illumination in order to understand and process the higher aspirations of consciousness. This state of illumination is a form of animism, of magical perception of the world. Chambers calls for a counterbalance of the scientific worldview in the privileging of the magical perception and appreciation of the world – a perception that pays attention to the voices of the stones and plants and the magical essences of all things.

What Chambers advocated was a deep plumbing of the layers of reality to reach a mythic layer where archetypes rest below the level of consciousness. His view was that the universe is animistic, pantheistic, Christian and Jungian all at the same time. He also recognized the magical dimensions of reality, and the potentials of shamanism to provide alternative pathways for unlocking and channeling the profound currents of energy flowing through the entire cosmos. The perception of reality requires a belief in things unseen, graspable partly through contemplation and the practice of occult rituals. The occult, he averred, provided humanity with a vein of untapped resources that could be accessed in order to survive an external reality whose own resources are being depleted. The world of the occult is a reality defined by ‘secret knowledge’; it is a reality we all have the capacity to intuit and know, but choose to keep hidden from ourselves.

Unpublished endorsement

‘Many years ago, in London, Ontario, at the invitation of Olga Chambers, I sat at a table in the Chambers living room and examined a curious manuscript assembled by Olga’s husband Jack, an artist I revered, a painter at the height of his powers when he died of leukemia at the age of forty-seven. The manuscript is a collage of quotations drawn from many fields and arranged in chapters, a bold exploration of the conjunction of ‘intelligence, heart and flesh’ in approach to everything in nature and in both the creation and response to a work of art. There was talk of a ‘key’ to all the sources. Apparently it never showed up, so Tom Smart spent a decade ‘decrypting’; the manuscript and figuring out a way of presenting Jack Chambers’s ideas and his vision (in summary, paraphrase, quotation and interpretation), since the manuscript could not be published as assembled. Smart has done a service to the memory and the thought of a magnificent ‘perceptual realist’ in whose paintings the ordinary is brilliantly transfigured.’

—Stan Dragland

Unpublished endorsement

‘Tom Smart has done an extraordinary job of compiling, deciphering and interpreting Chambers’ perceptual philosophy. That he has done so in clear, unambiguous prose, free of critical or academic affectation, is an achievement in itself. The Red and Green manuscript that he has forensically recontructed is more than just an artistic or perceptual manifesto, it is a testament to Jack Chambers’ deeply self-transformative vision.

‘This publication adds a fresh and essential dimension to Chambers’ body of work, one that will cause viewers, even those already familiar with his paintings, to see them anew. Red and Green will do much to bolster Chambers’ critical legacy.’

—Christopher Dewdney

Introduction or preface

This is the story of a thirty-year-old manuscript titled ‘Red and Green’, made from the words of many authors, that has spent its existence secreted away in a studio, a basement and an archive. Its pages, bound in ring binders, comprise the scraps and copied pages from authors as varied as the human imagination.

Its history and reason for being – its story – goes as follows: Jack Chambers, an artist in midlife, realizes he is dying and in his search for redemption and eternity he asks questions about immortality. After a lot of instruction by following the courses of many writers, scientists, mystics, clairvoyants, philosophers, poets, priests, artists, critics and ghosts - taking place on the page, and in his art – he finds answers.

I was handed this project more than twenty years ago and was asked to find a way to have it published. But, it cannot be published because it is essentially a long mosaic of quotations lifted from the writings of others. Most of what has been written to date about ‘Red and Green’ – what it is, and what it might mean – is merely guesswork, because since it was begun in the late 1960s in the southwestern Ontario city of London, very few people have managed to read it or even have a look at it. For the better part of its life, despite the fact that it is thought to be an important, pivotal work of one of Canada’s most accomplished artists and filmmakers, ‘Red and Green’ has existed mostly just as a rumour, cosseted behind the veils of its own legend – respected and puzzled over only from a great distance, shrouded in its strangely hermetic form, and weighted by its ambiguous message.

Part of the challenge is that ‘Red and Green’ is more scrapbook than anything else. It is a very large, dense accumulation of texts that Chambers photocopied from other books and pasted down in a long, deliberate order. The many hundreds of entries set out his ideas on art. The words of others speak for him; Chambers expresses himself through them. Unusual, the accumulation of sources, sparsely interspersed with his own thoughts on perception, were identified by Chambers with a highly cryptic code notation that was incomplete at best, rendering the publication of the book as it was originally crafted and structured all but impossible.

Nevertheless, its message provides insights into the mind and art of one of the country’s most gifted artists of the twentieth century. When I promised Chambers’ sons that I would prepare the manuscript for publication, little did I realize the magnitude of the task. The challenge lay first in cracking his cryptic code – decrypting it – then identifying all of the quotations, consulting the original sources, and adding full bibliographic citations to the hundreds of entries, merely as a beginning to understanding who it was that Chambers had read and, perhaps, why he consulted these sources in the first place as written avatars of his own voice and ideas.

Deciphering the code and identifying the quotations took more than a decade, and this involved returning to the sources Chambers consulted and finding the exact passages he quoted, checking his version against the original text, and writing the citation. From the fragments, Chambers’ own voice rises above the chorus leading the reader on a long exploration of the multi-dimensionality of art, reality and its transcendent aspects.


Art curator and author, Tom Smart has written many award-winning books and organized numerous exhibitions about Canadian and international art. He has worked in art galleries across Canada and the United States, including the Frick in Pittsburgh, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, where he was its executive director.

His monographic exhibitions on east coast Canadian Realists—Alex Colville, Mary and Christopher Pratt, and Tom Forrestall, among others—opened new avenues for understanding this important art movement. While at the McMichael, Tom broadened its exhibition mandate to embrace First Nations art and artists, was instrumental in developing its acclaimed Ivan Eyre Sculpture Garden, and commissioned renowned author Ross King to write a historical portrait of the Group of Seven that was published in 2010 as Defiant Spirits.

Currently, as art curator and supervisor of education at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives, Tom is working closely with many First Nations artists from Manitoulin Island, among them James Simon Mishibinijima, Ann Beam and Anong Beam, and also with Sikh artists, among them the England-based Singh Twins.

Tom’s many publications with the Porcupine’s Quill treat the relationship between poetry, printmaking and the book arts (Fabulous Peculiarities, a consideration of Tony Calzetta and Leon Rooke’s Fabulous Fictions and Peculiar Practices, which was adapted for the stage), journal writing and painting (Jack Chambers’ Red and Green and Christopher Pratt’s Thoughts on Driving to Venus, adapted by David Ferry as an innovative staged reading at the Writers at Woody Point Festival), and graphic novels and wordless narratives (Palookaville: Seth and the Art of Graphic Autobiography, on the work of comic artist Seth). Tom has written extensively for the Devil’s Artisan on printmaking, the graphic arts and drawing, including on the art of George Walker, Seth and Rosemary Kilbourn.

For more information please visit the Author’s website »

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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ART / Individual Artists / General

ART / Canadian

ISBN-13: 9780889843608

Publication Date: 2013-07-01

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 176

Price: $22.95