Jack Chambers' Red and Green: Decrypted 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.

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Jack Chambers' Red and Green : Decrypted by Tom Smart

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

The Globe & Mail - Jade Colbert

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.

Foreword Reviews - Alex Franks

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780889843608
  • Publisher: Porcupine's Quill, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/1/2013
  • Edition description: First
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Author, art gallery director, curator, columnist and special advisor to art galleries and museums, Tom Smart is especially noted for his award-winning critical biographies, catalogues and monographs on Canadian artists, including Foreword IndieFab Silver winner Jack Chambers' Red and Green. To date, Smart has written about painters Alex Colville, Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, Tom Forrestall, Miller Brittain and Fred Ross; graphic novelist George A. Walker; and sculptor John Hooper. Smart has worked in art galleries and museums across Canada and the United States, among them the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Frick in Pittsburgh, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection where he was Executive Director from 2006–2010. Smart's essay 'The Wood Engravings of Rosemary Kilbourn' was recently published in the Devil's Artisan. His bi-weekly column 'The Curator' appears in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal.

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Read an Excerpt

(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.

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Table of Contents



Perception and Perception

Sight and Vision

Down and Up

Realism and Real

Artists and Art

Reality and Reality


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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.

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