14th February - 8th March 2008
Paintings 1967 - 1997
William Perehudoff: Paintings 1967 - 1997
William Perehudoff – A Sense of Place
At the age of eighty-nine, William Perehudoff has a most distinguished career to look back on. But it’s not just the high level of his accomplishment that is noteworthy. Perehudoff is remarkable also for his strong identification with a specific place and its values. Born in rural Saskatchewan in 1919, he worked on farms in his youth and has retained close ties to the land ever since. Viewers might be tempted to see a reflection of the vast spaces, the great flatness, and the fertile, blossoming earth of the Canadian prairies in Perehudoff’s suggestion of an extensive but indeterminate space, his frequent use of broad horizontal elements and his urge to combine earth tones with pure hues of the spectrum - however indirect and subliminal that influence may be. But there’s much more to his art than that.
Perehudoff’s identification is not just with a specific place but also with a community – indeed with a set of communities. The first of these was the very supportive Doukhobor community within which Perehudoff, the son of Russian immigrants, was raised.
The second was The Prospectors, a closely knit group of Saskatoon painters formed in 1948, the year of his first solo exhibition. Besides Perehudoff, The Prospectors included well known local artists Reta Cowley, Wynona Mulcaster and Ernest Lindner, whose Saturday night socials were the glue keeping that community of painters together. To this day Saskatoon artists enjoy a national reputation for their mutually supportive ethos.
Moreover, Perehudoff’s province of Saskatchewan is distinguished by a vital movement of co-operative businesses and other endeavours, the Federated Co-operatives. In the artist’s youth Saskatchewan had the only social-democratic government in North America, that of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the C.C.F.), which brought universal, government-financed medical coverage to the province and was instrumental in getting it eventually adopted by the government of Canada. Not surprisingly, Perehudoff’s work of the late 1940s was influenced by the great Mexican muralists, Orozco and Rivera, and their concern for a progressive art aimed at a more cohesive society.
The specificity and the solidity of Perehudoff’s identification with a particular place, with a set of communities, and with their values, freed him, I believe, to reinvent himself as an artist, time and again. Not only was his art constantly renewed, but it also achieved a universal validity and appeal. That is the paradox of so much profoundly successful art: the artist’s vigorous sense of self and the place from which he came is by some strange alchemy transcended, and the result belongs to the world. Think of Elizabethan England or classical Greece.
The process of reinventing himself as an artist began with a visit to the Seattle Art Museum and then with study at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center with French muralist, Jean Charlot. By 1949 Perehudoff had begun studying in New York with Amédée Ozenfant, who, together with Le Corbusier, founded the Purist Movement. It was an unusual, almost eccentric decision, but Ozenfant’s teaching turned out to be a seminal influence for Perehudoff. It eschewed chance effects and mere facility. Rather, it emphasized compositional principles such as dynamic symmetry and the analysis of colour. Purism was to Ozenfant “an attitude of mind and a procedure” that could produce “universal form” by mean of a “universal language.” For Perehudoff it was encouragement to pare his art down to its essentials and, eventually, to adopt abstraction.
In the fall of 1950 Perehudoff left for Europe and, after marrying Saskatoon painter Dorothy Knowles in Paris in 1951, traveled throughout Europe with his new wife: England, France, Italy, where he was impressed by the great English watercolourists and early Renaissance frescoes.
After returning to Saskatchewan, Perehudoff did farm work, and like so many of the best Canadian painters, supported himself, his wife and three daughters as a commercial artist while he continued to paint. He did not begin to paint full time until 1960 - 25 years after beginning commercial work at Modern Press.
Perehudoff was then in a position to take greater advantage of a new institution. Young artists in Saskatchewan were acutely aware that isolation from the major artistic centres was an impediment to their professional advancement, and so in 1955 they had established the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop with the goal of bringing leading practitioners from those centres to northern Saskatchewan. The result was the creation of another of those communities that nourished Perehudoff’s art. He attended five of the annual Workshops and was particularly involved with those led by Clement Greenberg in 1962 and Kenneth Noland in 1963, both of whom welcomed Perehudoff into their circle of friends.
As Nancy Tousley has observed in her catalogue text for Perehudoff’s traveling retrospective in 1994, Greenberg re-affirmed his belief in the Purist stream of modernism and in the primacy of colour. Greenberg’s interest in the work of Jack Bush, Morris Louis and Noland, and the example of Noland himself, stimulated Perehudoff to shift from oil to acrylic, a medium for which he had a natural affinity, having long been proficient at that other water-based medium, watercolour.
But perhaps the greatest impact of Greenberg and company on Perehudoff stemmed from the critic’s exceptional visual intelligence and the high standards he set. Perehudoff was eager to accept the challenge and place himself in a more demanding international community of artists committed to excellence in the advancement of modern art.
Such an artist never sits still for too long. As Perehudoff’s 1999 exhibition, Five Decades of Colour, established, he continued to reinvent himself as a painter, with a rather distinctive body of work emerging in each of the decades from the 1950s through the 1990s. Every viewer will have his or her favourites among them, although they are all united by Perehudoff's singular vocabulary of forms and his strikingly personal aesthetic,
Perehudoff is in poor health these days and is no longer able to paint, but his mature working method was distinctive. He would paint on unstretched canvas on the floor, listening to
classical music the while - Bach, Beethoven – and thinking, Tousely reports, about “harmonies, dissonances… crescendos, diminuendos.” Again, this brings to mind Ozenfant, who had recommended listening to Bach while working and who emphasized the affinity of abstract art with music by observing, “Form and colours will pass before us like music.”
The citation for Perehudoff’s honorary doctorate at the University of Regina called him “a born colourist,” as indeed he is, but he's an unusually independent-minded, inspired and enduring master too. His place in Canadian art, and beyond, is with the very best.
President, Canadian Section, International Association of Art Critics