Some people are so alive you cannot imagine they may pass away. I am finding it impossible to convince myself of the fact that Robert Linsley has died, at the age of 64, in an bike accident on the 2 February in Waterloo, Canada. He was a brilliant thinker, passionate painter, generous person, loving husband and father, a man of such intensity and presence that one would want to refuse speaking of him in the past tense. He ‘was’? What do you mean? His ‘is’ such a strong voice in the discussion on abstract painting today. His book Beyond Resemblance — Abstract Art in the Age of Global Conceptualism (Reaktion Books, 2016) only came out in December. Look up his writing and painting on his blog newabstraction.net. This stuff is good. He is so present in it. He is a one-man lesson in understanding why art matters and how the meditation on artistic form can become an existential concern, as you deepen your experience of what shapes, colours, paints and textures can be and do, for each other, on a canvas.
Study Linsley's paintings and you see him experimenting with pouring enamel paints. Flattening out the surface, this approach draws all attention to the edges of the colour fields born from the liquid pour. Sometimes flowing evenly, sometimes fraying out in surprising ways, the fields' rims look strikingly geological, like coastlines. With only a few such pours on monochrome backdrops, Linsley's paintings give you entire archipelagos of richly coloured islands. His watercolours open up a parallel universe to the enamel paintings. Again fields form according to the logic of liquid finding its way on to paper. Only here shapes touch, overlap and blend into each other. Recently, Linsley had begun mixing both approaches in collages. Flat opaque fields with frayed edges mingle with translucent layered patches of colour. As he was trying this out, he was putting his observations into words, as he always did. In his blog you find him reflecting on new pieces, as they emerge, while discussing his inspirations: late work by Frank Stella and early collages by Russian Constructivist Olga Rozanova. Of her works, he wrote: ‘They have that beautiful freshness of beginnings.’
Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had on the legacy of Adorno's criticism were with Linsley. He told me which of the available translations of Aesthetic Theory to get. He knew the difference. Even if I didn’t always agree with his arguments, I appreciated tremendously the particular tone of passionate precision he garnered from Critical Theory for his own writing. On the 2 February he posted this entry:
‘Many of the things I say on this blog are widely recognized. They are not always expressed the same way. Actually, I don’t know if “widely recognized” is the right phrase – it might be more like conventional wisdom of the past. What was conventional once is now so far beyond the fence that it seems new. But you can’t repeat the past. What was once true and is again has to be rediscovered, reinvented in fact. But all freshness comes from art. When it’s right you don’t think about the precedents. Those kind of thoughts are charmed away.’
There is such a thing as a public intensity of thought and Linsley embodied it in the most exemplary manner. His love for painting led him to open the doors of the studio and be a public intellectual, happy to host guests who want to talk about art, as abstractly or concretly as necessary: at his place, in schools, on panels, in bars, over dinner, with no time limit set. ‘Visiting Toronto? Go see Robert Linsley. He's good to talk to.’ It takes people with such a strong and open mind to build a cultural public – one for a city. This is what Linsley did with contagious energy, wit and verve.
Having been his guest, I owe him, as many will, gratitude for his hospitality; for firing up discussions on painting and critical theory. Intellectually, and viscerally too: with intense body electric emanating from his tall frame, eyes sparkling, eyebrows forming expressive shapes, big grin signalling he was about to go out on a limb, provoking you to also do so. ‘It's all about the edges, right?-!’ I remember him saying. I try it in front of the mirror. Broad grin, brows up: ‘right?-!’ I can't quite do it as well as him. But I swear, next time I seek to push a debate with a claim that needs an exclamation point to follow the question mark, I'll perform it as a tribute to Robert Linsley. Please, can anyone who knew and loved him also give this a try?-! To get a good conversation on art going, someone's got to show some chutzpah and raise the stakes, right?-! Damn right. That's what he did. Thank you, Robert, thank you so much!