When Harold Feist opened a show of new work at a Toronto gallery in April, an old friend and faithful collector was struck by a new colour in the artist’s usually cheery palette: black.
“I was taken aback. It was as if he expected something to happen,” said art lawyer Aaron Milrad.
Mr. Feist, abstract painter, unrepentant modernist and computer nerd, succumbed to a heart attack on May 7, on what was scheduled to be the closing day of his show. He was 76.
“Harold was a genius in many ways,” Mr. Milrad said.
Harold Elmer Feist was born on Jan. 23, 1945 to Elmer Feist and Ruth Cronan in San Angelo, Tex., where his father, a U.S. Air Force pilot, worked as a flight instructor. The family came from Collinsville, Ill., but, because of his father’s job, moved continually during Mr. Feist’s early childhood, living on bases everywhere from El Paso to Terceira Island, in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. His parents’ marriage collapsed when Mr. Feist was about 10 and his mother, who suffered poor mental health the rest of her life, took him and his brother back to Illinois.
Mr. Feist escaped an unhappy and now impoverished home when he won a scholarship to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He enrolled in architecture, a program that spoke to his mathematical skills and artistic interests but while taking the same core courses as the fine arts students decided to switch. The students were discouraged from pursuing visual art as a career unless they had “something to say.” Mr. Feist did – for those who were willing to listen.
He would go on to spend five decades producing innovative and surprising abstract compositions. Early ones featured bars of colour arranged as spokes radiating from a hub; later colour-field paintings used translucent drip patterns to create veils of bright blues and pinks, an effect he achieved by mixing dish soap into the paint so that it stained rather than covered the canvas.
“They are complex and evocative, but they are hard paintings to ‘get,’ in part because they seem so artless,” the New York critic Karen Wilkin wrote in a catalogue essay for a 1988 show at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston. “They can appear, at their best, effortless, a little clumsy, even simple, and their true intelligence is less obviously apparent. They reveal their intricacies only over time. Their eccentric drawing, unexpected colour harmonies, and varied surfaces demand a great deal of the viewer, but they reward that attention.”
Most of those viewers, it turned out, would be in Canada.
While at university, Mr. Feist married his girlfriend, Suzanne Benoit, also from Collinsville, but the youthful marriage didn’t last long when he moved to Baltimore to pursue his masters at the Maryland Institute College of Art. And Baltimore turned into another place to escape, after race riots consumed the city in 1968. Mr. Feist described flames burning in the rear view mirror as he drove a friend north to a job at what was then the Alberta College of Art (now the Alberta University of the Arts) in Calgary. Mr. Feist soon secured his own offer there, and completed his final year at the Maryland Institute remotely.
Teaching in Calgary and then at the University of Regina, he was quickly identified as a rising young Prairie painter. He took up another teaching post at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick in 1975, before bravely dedicating himself full time to painting in 1978. He then spent a year on a Canada Council grant in New York but settled permanently in Toronto on his return in 1979 and began showing at Gallery One in Yorkville.
Mr. Feist never wavered from abstraction, encouraged both by his friendship with the famed American colour-field painter Jules Olitski and by the mighty Clement Greenberg himself. The New York modernist critic visited Toronto regularly after the death of the Canadian painter Jack Bush in 1977 because, along with Mr. Milrad, he was a trustee of the estate.
“[Mr. Feist] was both convinced of his commitment [to his art] and self-critical of his work. It was important to have a response and from a critic with a legendary eye, that was exciting,” said Ms. Wilkin, a long-time friend who taught at the University of Toronto in those years and stayed with the Feist family.
By this point, abstraction’s monopoly, which Mr. Greenberg had rigidly enforced since the 1950s, was long past, and it was no longer easy to be a modernist painter. Conceptual art, and video and photo art, two areas in which Canada was particularly strong, had taken hold in the 1970s to be followed by a revival of figurative painting in the 1980s. Sales became more scarce for Mr. Feist in the late 1990s, but it mattered little to him that neither he nor Mr. Greenberg were in style.
“My father had an equally narrow view [as Mr. Greenberg’s]. He knew he was in the minority; he wasn’t in the popular set. He was in with Clem after Clem was no longer necessary. But he felt he on was the right side,” said his son Ben Feist.
Mr. Feist was known as quiet and unassuming but a highly acute observer who could tell you all sorts of things he had noticed in a room full of people while you had failed to notice him. He disliked the “pomp and circumstance” of the art world, his son said, and in particular the way art was priced and valued. He was committed to doing what he loved, yet well aware of the necessity of selling regularly through Gallery One, which represented him until 2006 and placed his paintings in dozens of corporate and public collections across Canada.
It was at one of those many gallery openings in the mid 1980s that his daughter Leslie, about 8 at the time, was so entranced by the celebratory atmosphere and flattering attention that she announced that she wanted to be an artist too. “Not on my watch,” her father replied, talking discouragingly of the difficulty of finding a dealer who would show and sell your work. The little girl then turned to gallerist Goldie Konopny and asked if she would show her art, to which the dealer naturally agreed.
In this regard, Mr. Feist’s children – Ben and Leslie by his second wife, Verlyn Achen, and Emily and Jackson by his third wife, Margo Welch, – tended to follow his model rather than his advice. Leslie did not become a visual artist but the singer-songwriter Feist, taking her father’s forceful surname as a stage name. And Ben parlayed a hobby building a website charting the Apollo moon missions in real time into a job as a software engineer with NASA. Jackson, meanwhile, is another computer programmer, following in a parallel family tradition.
Mr. Feist became interested in programming in the 1980s and taught himself coding, saying with characteristic humility that it was something to do while the paint dried. He went on to work with various tech start-ups, investigating the use of CD-ROMs to store art images and working on the development of 3D tours.
“He was learning really deep assembly-level coding,” said Ben Feist, who would get his father’s help on his NASA assignments.
The 3D tour of Mr. Feist’s current show at Gallery House in Toronto, where he had exhibited since 2018, is as much his creation as are the paintings on the walls. That show was extended after his death and Ben Feist suggests a more mundane explanation for the sombre tones that Mr. Milrad noticed in those recent paintings: His father had cataracts removed from his eyes in 2020 and was surprised to discover how bright his colours had become. The remarkable thing, his son concluded, was that despite failing health, he had produced yet another new show. The artist who saw painting as “putting something good into the world, adding to it as best I can,” kept doing so to the end.
Mr. Feist leaves his four children, three grandchildren and his brother, Robert Feist.