Karen Wilkin Reflects on Curating Prairie Color-Field Painter William Perehudoff

Karen Wilkin Reflects on Curating Prairie Color-Field Painter William Perehudoff

New York-based curator and art critic Karen Wilkin had a long relationship with the work of Canadian color-field painter William Perehudoff before making him the subject of a summer retrospective at Oshawa’s Robert McLaughlin Gallery. Perehudoff’s large-scale acrylic paintings glow and pulse with color and charisma, and stand confidently next to American contemporaries like Kenneth NolandHelen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis, but Perehudoff remains somewhat obscure, being the subject of only major solo exhibitions in the past twenty years. ARTINFO Canada spoke to Wilkin about the struggles of curating a touring exhibition, the legendary Emma Lake workshops of the early 1960s, and the romance of Perehudoff’s color.

This final instance of “The Optimism of Colour” has been hung differently from previous iterations, and is about half the size of the original show at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. Why the reduction?

The Optimism of Colour” was installed differently at each venue because of the differences among the various locations and because a few works were too fragile to travel or their owners were unwilling to be parted with them for longer than one showing. I installed the show only at the Mendel. Each venue was given a list of the paintings we thought were the most significant of those available for the tour. I was frankly surprised at how reduced the show was at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, although I still think it looks strong.

What were your principal curatorial objectives, putting together this show? How is this exhibition different from 1981, when you first curated a Perehudoff exhibition for the Mendel, or Nancy Tousley's Perehudoff retrospective from 1993?

This exhibition, unlike any of the others, was conceived as a relatively complete overview of Perehudoff's evolution. “The Optimism of Colour” spans Perehudoff's entire mature career with major paintings and also includes some intimate, revealing works on paper. My objectives were to render homage to an important artist, unfortunately in very poor health and very elderly, by putting together a selection of paintings that bear witness to both the constants and variety of his work over almost half a century. I wanted to bring together the best works from important public and private collections throughout Canada -- a distinguished cross-section, as you can tell from the list of lenders -- as well as works still in the artist's collection, which he sometimes kept because he was particularly attached to them. Happily, I was able to include every mature work I wished. The hard part was deciding what not to include.

Much has been made of Perehudoff’s involvement in the University of Saskatchewan’s Emma Lake workshops, and although Tousley argued that they were but one part of Perehudoff's development, the stunning array of art made by participants in the ‘60s, as well as the all-star cast of workshop leaders, is a powerful rebuttal. You've participated in the workshops as well; is there something in the air down there?

Participating in the Emma Lake workshops was important for Perehudoff in that working side-by-side with international artists he admired furthered his ambition for his art. Like many serious painters and sculptors who’d participated, he began to think of his work not in terms of Saskatoon, the Prairies, or even Canada, but simply in terms of excellence -- trying to be as good as the best of what he knew. But Tousley is right; Perehudoff's formation was complex, because of his own adventurousness in going to study with Jean Charlot and Amédée Ozenfant, his omnivorous looking and reading, and his friendships with his peers in Canada, the US, and England.

What makes Emma Lake exciting, when it works, is the energy and concentration: a group of dedicated individuals working full out with no distractions, constant discussion of work among the group, and a sense of safety because of the isolation and the rapidly formed intimacy among the group (many of whom often know each other to start with or know each other's work), which encourages experiment, plus a healthy sense of friendly rivalry. This is often fueled by alcohol, the Northern Lights, dramatic weather, a sense of shared adventure, and intense conversations.  And of course, it's self-selecting, since only artists willing to remove themselves from their habitual workplace and abandon the familiar in an effort to shake themselves loose come to an event like Emma. Let's not talk about the mosquitoes.

Perehudoff's geometric abstractions, particularly his mid-sixties work (I'm thinking “AC-67-10,” 1967, and “Color Improvisation,” 1967, for instance) remain remarkably fresh today. Why do you think this is?

They are strong, inventive works with surprising compositions and surprising orchestrations of color. Or to put it more simply, they are of very high quality -- an unfashionable concept these days. I, however, still believe that excellence is a criterion and, following Immanuel Kant, that value judgments are involuntary and not subject to persuasion. Perehudoff's best work, like that of any other significant artist, is both characteristic of the desiderata of its time and helps to define that desiderata, but it doesn't look dated. That's because it's not about fashion or modishness, but aspires to broader (dare I say higher?) aesthetic concerns.

Canada has long struggled with provincialism – a fear of irrelevance is our national pastime. Clement Greenberg wrote in the '60s that somehow Saskatchewan had overcome that, but in the end, only Jack Bush really made the cut into the canon of color field painting. Do we have Greenberg to blame for that? Is there still room for growth, or is it better to lay it to rest?

People paid attention to Bush's work because he was a dazzlingly inventive colorist who structured his works in unexpected ways. Greenberg and Bush were friends. They were the same age and shared an appetite for alcohol. Greenberg introduced Bush to artists whom he came to regard as peers and colleagues, such as Kenneth Noland, but it was his work that created his reputation. There's a generation of terrific Toronto painters whom Bush encouraged: David Bolduc (a superb painter), Daniel Solomon, Paul FournierPaul SloggettKatja Jacobs, and others, all of whom have been exploring the expressive possibilities of the material characteristics of painting and the emotional resonance of color, but they seem to have been written out of the canon in favor of "concept based" artists whose work, coming out of Duchamp, is founded on ideas that can be expressed verbally rather than on purely visual, wordless events -- which was what Bill Perehudoff was after.  There's a real need for a Bolduc retrospective, after his untimely death. That's a show I'd love to organize. He was a fascinating, brilliant guy and a splendid painter and draftsman.  I miss him a lot -- we were friends since the early 1970s -- and I know a gathering of his work would be stunning. The AGO should initiate it, but I feel pretty certain it won't.

I was very struck by a passage you wrote in your catalogue essay for “14 Canadians” at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington: that Perehudoff's practice was “an unabashedly romantic quest for the Beautiful.” To make art for such a reason has been contentious for quite some time; do you feel that this is changing? If that's the case, what can we learn from Perehudoff's lifelong romantic quest?

Any young artist interested in what Perehudoff was interested in -- visual delight and surprise, addressing the entire being (intellect, emotions, and all), through the eye -- would have to come up with some conceptual construct or system to support it. Which is not to say that Perehudoff's work is mindless or empty. It is distilled from his entire experience as a human being and triggers powerful associations in an attentive viewer. Maybe looking at Perehudoff's work will remind people that the eye is directly connected to the brain.