Even within the dynamic and tumultuous 1960s West Coast art scene, painter Joan Balzar stood out from the crowd. In person, the chain-smoking fashionista exuded the verve and bravado of the most testosterone-fuelled artists of Los Angeles and New York. Her op art canvases matched her persona: intensely bright and highly sophisticated. They grabbed attention 50 years ago, when she began making them, and more recently in belated solo exhibitions. When Ms. Balzar died in North Vancouver on Jan. 16, the 87-year-old artist left a legacy of bold, luminous paintings that suggest power and vitality.
Although many scholars consider Ms. Balzar’s work to be in the same league as exalted West Coast artists Roy Kiyooka, Michael Morris and Iain Baxter, she struggled to gain the same attention from the 1960s establishment. “She was at the cutting edge of whatever it was,” said curator Scott Watson, head of the University of British Columbia’s visual arts department. But, he added, “the art world wouldn’t take these women as seriously as they would the men.” It wasn’t until the later in life that her accomplishment was fully recognized, with group and solo exhibitions at significant venues such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, Simon Fraser University Art Gallery, Belkin Satellite, Seattle Art Museum and West Vancouver Museum.
Nonetheless, Ms. Balzar still commanded much attention in the crowded 1960s West Coast scene. Her huge, unsettling “X” and “W” series of paintings aggressively project the illusion of three-dimensional relief sculpture of these letters, although they are two-dimensional works on canvas. In other works, she worked with the then-avant-garde medium of neon lighting, but took it one step further by incorporating the luminous tubes into the body of her paintings. “Other artists used neon, but not like Joan,” said curator Grant Arnold of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which has featured Ms. Balzar’s work in several exhibitions. Instead of considering it as a standalone sculpture medium, “she used it to shift a painting right off the wall and push forward its visual presence.” That kind of audacious exploration, Mr. Arnold added, made her stand out among her peers in the West Coast art scene of the late 1960s.
Wilma Joan King was born to Wilfred and Mae King on Nov. 8, 1928, in Vancouver, and moved with her family to Victoria at age five. She first studied art at the Broadway Edison School, in Seattle. In 1950, she married Roman Balzar, an engineer, and became deeply interested in science, structures and technology. Her spouse’s two-year stint at a paper mill near Squamish, B.C., enabled her to experiment with industrial materials such as powdered aluminum in her work. Forgoing more traditional subject matter, such as landscapes and still lifes, she gravitated toward the abstract, depicting the arcs, orbits and other curvilinear forms of the atomic age. “I was obsessed with science, the space program and the moon landing,” she told curator Bill Jeffries, as quoted in the exhibition catalogue Joan Balzar: Vancouver Orbital. “I just can’t get into trees.”
In the late 1950s, Ms. Balzar studied at the Vancouver School of Art under Peter Aspell, Don Jarvis, Joe Plaskett and Jack Shadbolt. Her early representational approach soon evolved into hard-edged abstraction distinguished by its grand scale, skillful execution and high intensity. Mr. Shadbolt in particular remained a huge influence. “I will always remember how he told me that when you put one colour next to another you should create a kind of spontaneous combustion,” Ms. Balzar later said of Mr. Shadbolt. She took his advice to heart, creating explosively vibrant streams of colour that seem to jump right out at a viewer.
Her confident, flamboyant personality likely helped her combat the sexism many female artists face. “She was a classic ‘tough broad,’” Mr. Watson says with admiration. She joined the stable of artists at Vancouver’s Bau-Xi Gallery, then a major force on the West Coast art scene, and struck up an important lifelong friendship with fellow artist Audrey Capel Doray. Together they struggled to gain the same recognition as their male peers.
Fascinated by the geometry of infrastructure and urban forms, Ms. Balzar would occasionally sketch and paint in downtown Vancouver in the middle of the night on a gritty stretch of Granville Street, or in Chinatown, or underneath the Burrard Street bridge. It was a practice that often drew the attention of local police, either suspicious of her professional intentions or nervous about her safety. But she worked fearlessly. “I became a night painter because I loved the ‘neon jewels of the night,’ the city lights glowing in the dark,” she told Mr. Jeffries in a 2010 interview. By illuminating the paintings from within, Mr. Jeffries added, she anticipated the soon-to-be-famous light box works of West Coast artists Jeff Wall and Iain Baxter.
Following the breakup of her first marriage, Ms. Balzar left Vancouver and moved for an extended period to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and then Guatemela. During her long sojourn, she continued to paint and exhibit, generating many favourable reviews in regional Spanish-language journals. She returned to Canada a decade later, and although her professional upward trajectory was irrevocably slowed, she continued her exploration of abstract geometries. In Vancouver Orbital, Mr. Jeffries described her arc and orbit paintings as “Rorschach tests – the more time spent looking at them, the more the mind free-associates, and, in effect, rediscovers what was so exciting about the entire abstract program.”
Ms. Balzar lost a significant cache of work in the 1970s, when a fire broke out in her West Vancouver home and studio. Some of her paintings and documents were also damaged and lost during her travels in Mexico and Central America. However, her surviving body of work – including luminous pieces in the Vancouver Art Gallery, Seattle Art Museum, West Vancouver Museum and private collections – is enough to ensure her place in Canadian art history.
Ms. Balzar was predeceased by her second husband, Alexander Cotter, and is survived by her sister, Marcia Macmillan, extended family and many friends.
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