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Friday December 4, 2009

His minimalist work had maximum impact

Artist honed his vision to produce works that helped define a boundary-pushing period in Canadian art

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.

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