Skip to main content

The art world is a fickle beast at the best of times, and Peter Kolisnyk was one who knew that well. A bright star who won critical acclaim in the 1970s with his groundbreaking minimalist work, he began to fade from view as his style of working fell from favour.

He taught workshops in Southern Ontario, served on boards and juries, and continued to show in regional galleries, but the intense creative spark of his earlier years was nearly extinguished by the lack of public acceptance. Years later, in his 60s, he was able to find it again.

The art scene of the 1960s and early '70s was a heady time of freedom, experimentation and distillation. In New York, artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd were rewriting the rules, moving away from the painterly processes of abstract expressionism toward a more austere vision that explored the building blocks of the visual world.

Mr. Kolisnyk, a former commercial artist who had been making a name for himself with watercolour, fully embraced the spirit of the times, honing his personal vision to produce what art historians call Canada's most original art of that time.

His constructions of grids, squares, and other elemental forms out of wood, steel, aluminum, canvas and paint, shown throughout Canada and beyond, were simple and direct, intended to coax the viewer into seeing the art, and the space around it, in new ways.

"One could almost call them perception machines," said Roald Nasgaard, author of Abstract Painting in Canada and former chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario. "Peter had a special sensibility which was about drawing our attention to the details of the everyday world that we are always too busy to pay attention to."

A simple line in wood or metal painted white and affixed to the wall, for instance, would invite the viewer to notice how the light fell on it, how the colour changed around it, how the wall itself and the room were transformed. The artist's simple frame-like structures, some quite large, had the same sort of surprising effect.

"What you thought would be nothing when you looked through, in an odd and strange way, would frame something that made us look attentively and fascinatedly at it," Prof. Nasgaard said.

Mr. Kolisnyk experimented with colour-field paintings, then began to embrace the fullness of white and the emptiness of black. Seeing himself as somewhere between a painter and a sculptor, he created a bas-relief effect with strips of masking tape and meticulously constructed installations out of stretched canvas.

"I call myself a visual technician," he said in a catalogue for a show at the Gallery Stratford in 1977. "My art should be used to activate the space of its environment."

Peter Kolisnyk was born in what was then called New Toronto (now Etobicoke) in 1934. His mother, Mary Kozlok - unwed in days before it was fashionable for a woman to have a child on her own - raised him with the help of her parents, Ukrainian immigrants who had come to Canada in the early part of the century.

The hard-working family laboured in the factories that at the time employed many of their fellow newcomers. When Peter was 11, his mother married Fred Kolisnyk. She died of cancer when her son was in his early 20s.

Somewhere along the way in this less-than-privileged world, young Peter developed a promising visual acumen. Though he grew up in a place devoid of art and all its trappings, he decided early on that he would be an artist.

In 1951, he enrolled in the Western Technical Commercial School as an art major, where he thrived. After graduating, he worked as a catalogue illustrator, eventually meeting fashion illustrator Anne Buckley. The two set up a commercial art studio on Yonge Street in 1957; they married in 1959.

The business had potential, but Mr. Kolisnyk's heart was not in advertisements or corporate logos. In 1963, the family, which by then included Peter Jr., left Toronto for slower-paced Cobourg, where, as Anne Kolisnyk puts it now, they could be "decently poor" while her husband pursued his creative aspirations.

The family, eventually growing to include baby girl Beth, ended up living in a 3,000-square-foot building that had been a stable for a large estate home. Anne taught high school and her husband made art, made dinner and began teaching workshops.

Their children would grow up in the creative milieu that Mr. Kolisnyk's own childhood had lacked.

"It was not your typical white-picket-fence family," says Peter Jr., now 49.

"Dad was a unique individual. You had your politicians, policemen, insurance people, business owners, and then you had Dad, who wore a big heavy cardigan sweater and a French beret."

The house/studio was a hive of activity, visited by poets, artists, curators - and the children's friends, who thought it was the coolest place in town. "Every walk of life came through our door, from the super wealthy to the troubled teens that Dad took in," Peter remembers. "The people we met … how many kids can say the met the Queen and Prince Philip?"

Indeed, when the royal couple came to town in the early 1970s, Mr. Kolisnyk presented them with an interpretive drawing of Cobourg's historic Victoria Hall.

The artist was selling his watercolours, but by this time his creative instincts were leading him well away from representation into the world of elemental forms.

Anne remembers the transition and how it was a natural progression for a man who was always able to see beauty in the everyday world, even in stark surroundings.

"Peter had an incredible sense of seeing, above the ordinary, so he could see things in something very minimal," she said. "He kept wanting to refine and refine. And he kept following that."

His work was represented by the Pollock Gallery in Toronto. He was in shows in Montreal, Calgary, Chicago, San Francisco, Florida and New York.

When Prof. Nasgaard mounted a one-man show of Mr. Kolisnyk's work at the AGO in the mid-1970s, he gained new prominence. He was awarded grants from the Ontario Arts Council and commissioned to make sculptures for public spaces, such as Toronto's Harbourfront complex.

"I think he was a bit of a superstar," says artist Lynn Connell, who later studied with Mr. Kolisnyk and employed him to teach at her Dunedin creativity retreat near Creemore, Ont.

But by the end of the decade, minimalism was out of favour. And by its very nature, it was a hard act to follow. When the Pollock Gallery fell on hard times, no other major establishment took on Mr. Kolisnyk. The type of work he was doing, ahead of its time in Toronto, had little commercial potential. The world stopped knocking at his door, and the once disciplined and prolific artist found it difficult to adjust.

"He was one of the most exquisite, thoughtful and most thoroughly contemporary of the Toronto artists of his time," says Dennis Young, a professor emeritus at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and former curator of contemporary art at the AGO, who began championing Mr. Kolisnyk's work in the 1960s. "I cannot really understand why his art didn't prosper more than it did."

Friends and family are still a bit baffled about what caused Mr. Kolisnyk's long creative dry spell. They say changing tastes in art and a lack of public acclaim explain only part of it. "There was definitely a phase where he did feel bitter," Peter Jr. said.

All of this took a toll on both himself and his family. He and Anne moved back to Toronto in 1988, and she found work in the city; they separated in 1989. Mr. Kolisnyk moved into a small house in the east end, a 21/2-metre-wide sanctuary that had been a coffin storage unit for the funeral home next door. He set up a studio. He also continued to teach, at the Koffler Centre, Glendon College and other places throughout the area.

Though he was struggling hard to find his own creative vocabulary, he worked wholeheartedly to help students find theirs.

"He was an amazing teacher," Ms. Connell said, adding that his workshops were in much demand. "He would help students find their own unique way of expressing themselves and then get them to go further and further and further into that."

He was a patient teacher, but he pushed and challenged his students. It wasn't always an easy process, especially if a student was thin-skinned, Ms. Connell said. "But if you could relax and let go of what was holding you up and see what he could do with you … it was incredible how the students catapulted in their work."

But Mr. Kolisnyk was drinking too much, neglecting his health. Eight years ago he landed in hospital, where doctors ordered him to trade the booze and smokes for the clean life. He complied, and it was the beginning of a creative renaissance.

He began working on a series of what he called watercolour sculptures - great swaths of paper saturated with single hues, which he would fashion into three-dimensional shapes.

He described his new work this way in the last thing he wrote about his art: "The paper at the start is smooth, but as the watercolour is applied it begins to heave and move. It seems to recognize the different colours and its surfaces behave differently. You realize that you could be looking at moonscapes - croggy, undulating, flat, luminous, shiny and opaque …"

Recently, he told friends he wished for five more years to complete this new body of work. But it was not to be. In July, he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and lived for only a few months.

The history books will remember Mr. Kolisnyk as a visionary who helped define Canadian art during an exciting, if not revolutionary, time.

Family, friends and students will remember him as an inspiring presence who gave them new ways of seeing the world.

Peter Kolisnyk

Peter Kolisnyk was born on Nov. 30, 1934. He died on Oct. 22, 2009. He was 74. He leaves Anne, his son Peter, his daughter Beth and his grandchildren.