The Evolution of an Artist

     What compels someone to make art? One of the most authoritative answers to this perplexing question was proposed in the middle of the last century by the French art historian and critic (not to mention archaeologist, resistance fighter, politician, and novelist) André Malraux. “What makes the artist,” Malraux maintained in his once widely read book, The Voices of Silence, “is that in his youth he was more deeply moved by his visual experience of works of art than by that of the things they represent – and perhaps of Nature as a whole.”[1] Since art often tends to be about other art, whether the connection takes the form of refutation, questioning, or expansion of the ideas the ‘other art’ posits, it would be logical to assume that the desire to make art is itself generated by existing art. It is tempting to conclude, as Malraux did, that the will to be an artist arises from a sensitive young person’s having been ‘imprinted’ at a formative age by a painting or a sculpture, so that the future art maker remains more impressed with painting or sculpture than by real experience. 

     Yet Malraux’s explanation fails to solve a much larger puzzle.  How do we account for all those remarkable men and women who were driven to paint or to make sculpture without having had any crucial, early encounters with significant works of art? The iconic mainstream figure Henri Matisse’s early life, spent mainly in the small Northern French town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, seems to have been devoid of encounters with works of art. Here, however, a variant on Malraux’s theory may at least partly hold true. In The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908, the first volume of her excellent two part biography, Hilary Spurling speculates about what might have triggered the nascent painter’s fascination with colour and shape during the years when he was growing up in a part of France known for its bleak landscape, gloomy weather, and emphasis on the practical, an area that, in Matisse’s day, moreover, lacked art museums and monumental architecture of any type. But Bohain was a renowned textile centre and Spurling suggests that the annual exhibitions of spectacular luxury silk fabrics, all glowing colours, sumptuous textures, and lush patterns that were produced in the dark homes and workshops of the local weavers provided the young Matisse with never-to-be-forgotten aesthetic stimulus.[2] Fabrics are not paintings, to be sure, but the silks of Bohain were visual feasts that may well have substituted for the works of art required by Malraux’s thesis, in superseding the utilitarian drabness of the future artist’s ordinary world. 

     Closer to the present day, the pattern of dedicated, gifted artists who emerge from unpromising circumstances, growing up in a relatively isolated place, outside of the centres where art of any kind – much less adventurous art – was produced and exhibited, is perfectly embodied by the history of the distinguished Canadian painter, William Perehudoff. Widely acclaimed for his bold, economical abstractions, which explore the expressive power of large expanses of radiant colour and simplified shapes, Perehudoff was born in 1918 into a Russian-speaking, utopian Doukhobor farming community, in Langham, Saskatchewan, about twenty-five kilometres from Saskatoon, and was a life-long resident of the Canadian Prairies. (The history of Perehudoff’s wife, the doyenne of Canadian landscape painters, Dorothy Knowles, is similar, albeit absent the Russian-speaking Doukhobor connection; nearly a decade her husband’s junior, Knowles was raised mainly on a farm near Unity, Saskatchewan, and recalled that in her earliest years, ‘art’ meant kittens on a calendar, although, she said, she knew even then that was not what she wanted to do.[3] )

     William Perehudoff’s early formation has been researched and discussed by Nancy Tousley in the catalogue of the exhibition William Perehudoff, which she organized for the Mendel Art Gallery in 1993, while his early work has been the subject of an informative essay by Roald Nasgaard. It’s a remarkable story – a combination of sheer talent, creative drive, formal and self-education, the example of local mentors, encouragement and assistance, substantial personal effort, and, sometimes, plain good luck. Yet another key aspect of Perehudoff’s story is his enduring relationship to place – more precisely, to a distinctive landscape with a very particular character. It is possible, then, and perhaps even useful to consider the generous geometry, ample space, and luminous hues of Perehudoff’s mature abstractions as deriving from his youthful experience of the prairies, in the same way that Matisse’s astonishing use of colour and patterns, and, often, of textile imagery itself, throughout his long life as a painter, can be thought about as resulting from his early experience of the luxury fabrics produced in Bohain. This is not to suggest that Perehudoff’s abstractions should be interpreted as ‘disguised landscapes.’ Quite the contrary. They are self-evidently autonomous constructions in the language of paint, deliberately detached from explicit reference. Their aim is plainly not to replicate appearances but rather to stir our emotions through wordless relationships of colour, eloquent intervals, thoughtfully deployed shapes, and nuanced surfaces.

     Perehudoff has said he prefers paintings ‘with a kind of pulse,’ by which he meant an active interplay among the elements of the picture. He provokes this pulse by variations of colour and intensity, as well as by subtle shifts away from horizontality or verticality, within his compositions, in order to create delicate, enlivening imbalances. These are all wholly formal concerns, yet we tend to interpret horizontal lines, as references to a literal horizon or, at least, to acknowledge them as allusions to the big divisions of the natural world – earth, sky, and water. In the same way, we are willing to allow the levitating disc in his paintings to evoke, at least momentarily, the sun or moon, and to permit the serried narrow verticals to suggest tree trunks, and so on. Whatever their origins, these associations seem inevitable to anyone who has spent any time in the seemingly limitless space of the Canadian prairies, in farming country, like the area near Perehudoff’s boyhood home, where the endless plains are divided by the neat geometry of a grid of roads, under a panoramic sky, where fields of yellow canola and blue flax compete for intensity, clumps of scrub punctuate, and the light reflected off of sloughs interrupts the flat expanse with episodes of unpredictable brilliance. It is impossible to resist making some sort of equation, however tenuous, between the clear light, the flat terrain, and the expansive spaces of Saskatchewan and the radiant colour, frontality, and openness of Perehudoff’s mature abstractions. (It is worth noting, however, that the singing colour that so distinguishes Perehudoff’s abstractions has been present in his work almost from the beginning, whatever his subject matter; early portraits are constructed with broad passages of heightened reds and blues that seem equally indebted to Paul Cézanne and to personal inclination, quite apart from any possible connection to prairie light or local colour.) 

     Perehudoff lived most of his adult life in Saskatoon, where he and Knowles raised three daughters, with extended periods spent at a cottage at Emma Lake, near the site of the celebrated summer art workshops organized by University of Saskatchewan. In addition, throughout his long career as a dedicated maker of art, even as an internationally recognized artist, Perehudoff continued to farm along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River; “You have to do something while you’re waiting for the paint to dry,” he would say, wryly.  The seamlessness of the two activities is embodied by the studio complex he had constructed for himself and Knowles on the working farm, a site distinguished by its spectacular views of the North Saskatchewan River. As well, like many Canadian painters, from Tom Thomson and the members of the Group of Seven to David Milne to Jack Bush, Perehudoff was, for many years, a highly regarded, successful commercial artist. Like his distinguished artist-colleagues, he was at home in the world of advertising, illustration, and design, and proud of being able to achieve a high standard in his commercial practice without ever compromising his dedication to making ambitious art at the highest level he was capable of.

     Yet Perehudoff is no local phenomenon, but a visually sophisticated, well informed, and widely known painter. The list of exhibitions in which his work has been included, the public and private collections in which his paintings figure, along with the honours that he has been awarded, bear witness to the esteem in which his art is held, in Canada and abroad. Nor has he been isolated from the mainstream. He had close connections with some of his most celebrated colleagues elsewhere in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Perehudoff’s broad horizon is the result of many experiences, including an international art education, beginning with his initial contact, in the mid-1940s, as an aspiring painter, with the progressive members of the Saskatchewan arts community. Perehudoff and his colleagues were knowledgeable about the history of modernist art – witness the homage to Cézanne implicit in the watercolours of his Doukhobor neighbours – but like the great majority of their counterparts throughout English-speaking Eastern Canada, their work was generally figurative. Its broad handling, intensified colour, and regional subject matter recall the persistent influence of the Group of Seven’s brand of Post-Impressionism on Anglophone artists. By contrast, at about the same time in Montreal, a small group of adventurous young Francophone painters and their mentor Emile Borduas – a constellation later known as ­­­Les Automatistes – had already begun to explore the possibilities of radical abstraction in paintings generated by the notion that each artist’s distinctive gestures in transferring paint to canvas were inevitable hallmarks of personality and as such, imbued the resulting painting with individual meaning. 

     Perehudoff received encouragement and some patronage from Fred Mendel, founder of Intercontinental Packers Limited, one of the region’s most important businesses, and a serious collector of modernist art. Mendel’s help, allowed the young painter to study mural painting at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, in Colorado, in 1948 and 1949, with Jean Charlot, a French artist who had worked closely with the Mexican muralists. Perehudoff’s work of this period was still figurative, but with broad simplifications and large expanses of relatively unmodulated colour, in part because of the requirement that mural paintings, that whatever their subject, strongly assert the flatness of the expanse of the wall on which they were painted. Encouraged by Charlot, Perehudoff went to New York for an extended period of study with the French abstract painter and theorist, Amédée Ozenfant – Le Corbusier’s former associate – at the Ozenfant School of Fine Arts. Ozenfant’s Purist aesthetic, founded on idealistic notions of “significant form” and a kind of Platonic belief in the underlying ideal geometry of even the most random elements of the perceivable world, not only reinforced Perehudoff’s attraction to modernism and abstraction, but could also be said to have persisted in the austerity, the economical shapes, and the eloquent clarity of his most characteristic developed works, from first to last. Stripping painting down to its essentials without sacrificing its power to speak to us remained central to Perehudoff’s approach from the 1960s on.  

     After taking in all the art that New York had to offer, in the fall of 1951, Perehudoff went to Europe. Knowles had gone to London to study art at Goldsmith’s College and Perehudoff joined her. The couple married in Paris and then travelled as far and as long as they could, in England, France, and Italy, eagerly absorbing as much modern and old master art as they were able to; they returned to Saskatoon to settle there permanently in 1952. For the next twenty-five years, Perehudoff, like Bush in Toronto, supported his family through his commercial artwork, chiefly as art director of Modern Press, devoting his own time to ‘serious’ painting.  

     Perehudoff might easily have been one of those Canadian painters who thriftily extracted maximum value from the works he was able to see at the start of his life as an artist, using those encounters to sustain a lifetime’s work outside of the mainstream, but as it turned out, other opportunities presented themselves. In a sense, the mainstream came to Perehudoff, starting in the late 1950s. The Emma Lake Workshops, originally a summer ‘art camp’ held on the shores of a northern lake had evolved into a more professional, ambitious program for practicing artists, with a well-recognized practitioner, usually from outside of Canada, invited to be the workshop leader.  In 1957 the New York-based painter Will Barnet (then making abstractions) accepted the invitation. Subsequently, Perehudoff participated in sessions led by Herman Cherry (1961), Kenneth Noland (1963), Donald Judd (1968), and the critic Clement Greenberg (1962). (In 1988 Perehudoff was the workshop leader.) From their nearby cottage, Perehudoff and Knowles frequently attended events at the workshops, and got to know many of the other visiting artists during the 1960s and 1970s, including Jules Olitski (1964) and Anthony Caro (1977). 

     Greenberg, the most articulate critical champion of colour-based abstraction at the time, was an admirer of both Perehudoff and Knowles’s work – he encouraged her to paint landscapes, not abstractions. Like the other artists whose studios he continued to frequent, on his later visits to the Prairie provinces, they remembered him with gratitude for his uncompromising eye and unmediated response to their work. Among these painters there was a commitment to the type of abstraction based on the structural and emotional resonance of chromatic relationships usually termed ‘Colour Field’ painting. Yet while colour-based abstraction may have dominated the workshops during the 1960s and 1970s, not all of the leaders were part of Greenberg’s circle – the critic Lawrence Alloway (1965) was not, for example, nor was Frank Stella (1967), or Judd, and there were many efforts to introduce alternative points of view.

     The result was to intensify both the seriousness and confidence of the most aesthetically audacious Canadians and metaphorically give them permission to take risks in pursuit of the kind of art they wanted to make. Perhaps because of this, beginning in the early 1960s, Perehudoff moved decisively towards the kind of pared-down abstraction that established his reputation as a painter to be reckoned with, addressing the same issues in his work as the vanguard artists of the time whom he had come to know and regard as friends. Like his friend Jack Bush in Toronto, Perehudoff found himself investigating territory identical to the American Colour Field painters; like Bush, he claimed some of that territory as his own, viewing it, in current academic parlance,  ‘through the lens’ of his own uniquely Canadian formation.

     Thirty years ago, I was asked by the Mendel Art Gallery to organize a ten-year survey exhibition of Perehudoff’s work, examining its development from 1970 to 1980. Then sixty-two, he seemed to successfully straddle the demands of both local and wider recognition, showing regularly in prestigious galleries in England, New York, and across Canada, and having work included in a number of important national touring exhibitions and in the survey 14 Canadians – A Critic’s Choice, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C. In the catalogue essay accompanying the show, I wrote: 

     It is always difficult for an ambitious artist, finding his own voice, to respond to what is being done by outstanding contemporaries and at the same time avoid being derivative. It is even more difficult when the artist lives in a region quite outside the major centers where outstanding work is being seen and made.  In fact, provincialism can even be defined as the imitation of mainstream modes, remote from the mainstream. All of which makes Perehudoff’s work more remarkable. Since the 1960s, his paintings have kept pace with contemporary issues, exploring the possibilities of thin, optical color in the ‘60s, and of denser, more painterly painting in the late ‘70s, becoming increasingly dramatic and expressive. Yet the pictures have always been personal. They have never degenerated into stylishness nor have they seemed provincial or self-consciously novel. They have evolved from arrangements of brilliant, clearly defined geometric shapes, to evanescent sheets and bars of pulsating color, to looming walls of inflected, even more subtle hues. They are characterized by what can only be described as a meticulous concern for design – manifest in austere layouts – and an unabashedly romantic quest for the Beautiful – in the form of ravishing color and surfaces.[4] 

     Since the early 1960s, Perehudoff’s mature paintings have tested the expressive potential of a large and diverse vocabulary of sometimes contradictory pictorial elements and approaches. At various times, paint has been rigorously thin or voluptuously thick, surfaces have been uninflected or nuanced, edges have been strictly disciplined or allowed to waver.  Perehudoff’s paintings were constructed of firmly delineated, geometric shapes arranged side by side across the canvas, tacitly affirming the literal flat expanse of the surface on which they were disposed. The same crisp rectangles, joined by narrow bars and smaller rectangles, reappear in canvases of the 1990s, and suggest the possibility of three-dimensions, not only because the overlapped planes, with their varied sizes and proportions, imply movement in space, but also because shifts of hue and brightness reinforce those implications. 

     Perehudoff’s decisions about the pictorial structure, shape, scale, and colour relationships within his pictures are driven neither by systems nor by theory, but rather by instinct and the dictates of the eye, in response to the capabilities of his materials. Like the façade of a classical temple, Perehudoff’s compositions frequently seem deduced from a geometric archetype – or at least from the vertical and horizontal axes announced by the dimensions of the canvas. Yet they are never static or predictable. Perehudoff’s extraordinary orchestrations of colour and his virtuoso paint handling, animate even the most restrained of his compositions. As it was for the majority of his most gifted painter friends, it was a matter of faith for him that the expressive power of a painting derives, at least in part, from the physical characteristics of his materials. For Perehudoff, the history of the painting’s making, no matter how fresh and direct the finished work appears to be, was a part of its meaning. This kind of unsystematic serial development resulted, over the years, in recurring ‘families’ of paintings with related compositions and related protagonists. Witness the lucid geometry of the series of the late 1960s, the luminous stains and floating bars of the series of the mid-1970s, the meaty slabs and contrasting delicate washes of paintings of the 1980s, or the piled rectangles and bars of paintings of the 1990s. We can follow the thread that links each series or acknowledge the differences between them. As Perehudoff’s friend, Anthony Caro, has frequently said, “You set up rules for yourself and then you break them.” In the 1980s, Perehudoff changed all of his own self-imposed rules in a group of paintings constructed in ways quite unlike anything that had preceded them. Instead of an all-over expanse of either raw canvas or evanescent washes, animated by clearly bounded colour shapes and rods, he began, to investigate centralized images – loosely oval, round, triangular, or square – apparently reserved from a surrounding ‘frame’ of colour, with the shape casually reinforced by a ‘halo’ of assertive strokes. In the 1990s, he essentially reversed this procedure.

     Each series explores the permutations of a common generating idea, yet each painting is freshly conceived and its individual mood-determining palette determined not by logic but by emotional response. Throughout these variations, we can find echoes, now faint, now more evident, of Perehudoff’s conversation with the art of the past and present that he admires. Sometimes the connections seem to be less the result of influence in the usual sense than the result of shared assumptions, among colleagues, about what a painting can be or common goals for the language of colour-based abstraction. Perehudoff declared, at various times, his admiration for Adolph Gottlieb, Jack Bush, and possibly Joan Miró, with a nod at Jules Olitski. There are, of course, clear similarities between Kenneth Noland and Perehudoff who could both be described as classicists, concerned with interval, visual weight, and rational structure, who spent lifetimes preoccupied by eloquent colour relationships.  Despite the initial apparent connection of Perehudoff’s bars with Noland’s celebrated Stripe series, however, Perehudoff’s celebration of horizontality is entirely his own. His colour bands can seem to pulse, their finely adjusted colour sequences levitating slightly against their grounds of subtly modulated, translucent near-monochromes. These supporting sheets of usually subdued but surprisingly complex colour shift from light to dark, like gathering clouds, announcing both Perehudoff’s interest in all-overness and his independence from the notion, widely accepted among most abstract painters of the period interested in chroma, that variations in value had to be suppressed if the canvas was to retain its integrity.

     Yet the evolution of Perehudoff’s paintings is never simple and his relationship to both his contemporaries and his chosen ancestors is complicated. For example, Perehudoff became interested in Johann Goethe’s colour theory. First published in German in 1810 and translated into English in 1840, Goethe’s Theory of Colour deals with the physical nature of chroma, with how we perceive it, and the kind of emotions it provokes. He described colour as the interaction of dark and light, creating a colour-wheel whose system, unlike that of other colour-wheels of the time, permits intermediary hues, such as magenta, which are seen as resulting from admixtures of ‘purer’ colours modified by darkness or light. Perehudoff said that reading Goethe inspired him to investigate ways of marrying chromatic changes with changes in density and reflectiveness. Instead of staining his grounds with thinned down paint and achieving variation with overlapping passes of the roller, as he had in the past, he began to lay down elaborate underpaintings, carefully adjusting colours and opacities. When he washed unifying tones over these preparations, the resulting field was astonishingly rich and luminous, with areas of surprising brilliance and visual weight. The bleeds and overlaps in these complex fields create activity akin to that of the superimposed bars, ephemeral colour shifts that tease our perceptions, competing for our attention with the slender, opaque bands. Other painted bars, so close to the hue and value of the inflected field that they all but disappear, flicker into our consciousness, as elusive as ghost images.   

     If 19th century art theory proves to be at the core of Perehudoff’s lyrical canvases of the 1970s, wholly contemporary antecedents underlie his sturdy paintings of the following decade: thickly painted, rather eccentric images that suggest that he was rethinking his conception of what an abstract painting can be. It is possible to find parallels between the new physicality of Perehudoff’s paintings of the 1980s and the heightened density of his friend Olitski’s broadly swiped canvases of the same decade. Both artists – like many of their contemporaries – were fascinated by the expanded capabilities of acrylic paint at the time, thanks to additives and mediums that gave the once flat, opaque pigment a new responsiveness to touch, a new physical density, and a new kind of translucency. Olitski gave full rein to his most Baroque aspirations during these years, tendencies already implied by the shifts from dark to light in even his most pared-down paintings of the 1960s and 1970s.  In his paintings of the 1980s, he flirted with iridescence, metallic paints, and chatoyant pigments that changed colour depending on the angle from which they were viewed. Perehudoff’s paintings of the 1980s, while relatively opulent for a thrifty prairie farmer, are more restrained, but their gestures seem more spontaneous than the paintings that preceded them, uncalculated and almost playful. By contrast, the tightly gathered geometric planes out of which the constructed his paintings of the 1990s call up associations with Russian Constructivism, which he acknowledged, although there are, of course, ample precedents for this kind of clean-edged, lucid conception within his own earlier work, most obviously in his clean, geometric paintings of the 1960s.  Yet there is never any single explanation for why Perehudoff’s work looks the way it does at any given moment. He was a complex man and a complex painter who draws upon many sources.     

     For six decades, since his first solo exhibition in 1950 to the present, Perehudoff’s work has embodied, in many different ways, the highest standards of aesthetic seriousness and excellence. Since his earliest years, he has been an important figure in the Saskatoon arts community, respected and admired by his peers. Perehudoff’s impressive reputation extends widely, not only to his native Prairie region, but also across Canada and in the U.S. and Great Britain. His death, early in 2013, makes this a particularly fitting time to survey the impressive body of work that he has left us, paintings that embody, in various ways, the essence of the prairie landscape in which he spent his entire life. This multiple legacy, in a sense, defines the unmistakable character of Perehudoff’s painting: its remarkable combination of a specific response to place with a firm belief in the universal quality of abstract forms and their ability to communicate wordlessly, eloquently, and widely.


Karen Wilkin


[1] André Malraux, The Voices of Silence, translated by Stuart Gilbert. (New York: Doubleday, 1953) 281.

[2] Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse:  A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908. (New York: Knopf, 1998), Chapter One, 1869-1881: Bohain-en-Vermandois, passim.

[3] All quotations from artists (Dorothy Knowles, William Perehudoff, Anthony Caro), unless otherwise cited, from conversations with the author, various dates.

[4] Karen Wilkin, William Perehudoff: Ten Years 1970-1980. (Saskatoon, Canada: Mendel Art Gallery, 1981) 5.