Thank you, Robert

Jan Verwoert pays homage to Robert Linsley – a brilliant thinker, passionate painter and, moreover, a generous person

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.

islda_jpg.jpg

Robert Linsley, Broken Waters, 2001, enamel on canvas, 1.8 x 1.5 m. Vancouver Art Gallery collection

Robert Linsley, 
Broken Waters, 2001, from the ‘Islands’ series, enamel on canvas, 1.8 x 1.5 m. Vancouver Art Gallery collection

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.’

9.jpg

Robert Linsley, Untitled, 2012, watercolour on paper, 56 x 76 cm.

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.’

islac_gif.jpg

Robert Linsley, Northern Passage, 1998, enamel on canvas, 1.8 x 1.5 m. Vancouver Art Gallery collection

Robert Linsley, Northern Passage, 1998, from the ‘Islands’ series, enamel on canvas, 1.8 x 1.5 m. Vancouver Art Gallery Collection

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.

islde_jpg.jpg

 Island Development 2001 (private collection)

 Robert Linsley, Island Development, 
2001, from the ‘Islands’ series, enamel on canvas, 1.8 x 1.5 m. Private Collection

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!

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his most recent writing, is available from Sternberg Press.

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018