Canaday, John E[dwin] and, Head, Matthew, pseudonym
Date born: 1907
Place born: Fort Scott, KS
Date died: 1985
Place died: New York, NY
Professor of art history, University of Virginia, 1938-1950; chief art critic (and anti-modernist) for the New York Times during the period of abstract expressionism. Canaday was the son of Franklin Canaday and Agnes Musson (Canaday). His father was a Kansas attorney. The younger Canaday moved to Texas with his family at age seven. He attended the University of Texas in Austin, receiving his B.A. in 1925. His M.A. was granted from Yale University in 1932. He married Katherine Hoover in 1935. Between 1938-1950 he taught art history at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. During World War II, the federal government's Board of Economic Welfare sent Canaday to the Belgian Congo as an interpreter. When he returned, he served in the United States Marine Corps in World War II, 1943-45 rising to first lieutenant in the Pacific Theater. In 1950 he moved to Newcomb College, Tulane University, to chair the school of art. In 1952, Canaday was hired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to head the education division, which he did until 1959. In 1958, Canaday wrote an introductory educational series for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That year, too, the New York Times hired him as art critic, and the following year appointed chief art critic. Canaday used his art criticism to accuse many of the emerging modernist artists in New York, including the abstract expressionists, as frauds and charlatans. He criticized both the Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum and the art inside. Simultaneously he accused art faculty of brainwashing the public into accepting modern art. The relentless animadversion brought a response by the art community. In "A Letter to the New York Times" of 1961, a group of collectors, art history professors and artists wrote to protest to his views accusing artists of duping the art public. Among Canaday's supporters was the artist Edward Hopper. Canaday continued his anti-modernist, anti-intellectual reviews, and the art community, specifically voiced by Howard Conant (q.v.), chairman of the art department of New York University and the critic Irving Sandler (q.v.) When the Times assistant art critic, Dore Ashton (q.v.), was supportive of the movement the Times fired her (Sandler). Canaday published several sets of essays and memoirs, including Embattled Critic. Borrowing the title of the famous work by Giorgio Vasari (q.v.), Canaday issued his Lives of the Painters, also in 1963. He "asked to be relieved" of his art critic duties from the Times in 1973, remaining as restaurant critic of the NYT until 1976. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1985. Canaday published mystery novels under the name Matthew Head.
Canaday had a strong pedagogical manner and elegant writing style which made sales of his introductory surveys of art brisk among the general public. His writing was not primarily based on original research. His views on abstract expressionist art and the motivations of those artists have not stood the test of time.
Home Country: United States
Sources: Canaday, John. Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1963; "A Letter to the New York Times." New York Times February 26, 1961, p. X19; Sandler, Irving. A Sweeper-up After Artists: a Memoir. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003, pp. 241-44; [obituary:] Berger, Joseph. "John Canaday, Former Times Art Critic, Dies." New York Times July 21, 1985, p. 28.
Bibliography: Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1963; Culture Gulch: Notes on Art and its Public in the 1960ís. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969; and Canaday, Katherine H. Keys to Art. New York: Tudor Pub. Co., 1963; The Lives of the Painters. 4 vols. New York: Norton, 1969; Mainstreams of Modern Art. New York: Holt, 1959; Metropolitan Seminars in Art. 12 vols. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1958-59, revised and reissued as, What is Art? An Introduction to Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. New York: Knopf/Random House, 1980.