Abstract Critical

William Perehudoff 1919 – 2013

Written by John McLean

William Perehudoff AC-88-10, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 138 x 282 cm, Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

William Perehudoff, AC-88-10, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 138 x 282 cm, Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

In 18th century Russia a sect was formed called the Doukhobors. They were pacifist but their unwillingness to accept secular or religious authority did not go down well with the Tsars, who began to persecute them. By the end of the 19th century Tolstoy, who sympathised with their tenets, was taking an interest in their plight. In 1899 he had just published Resurrection and gave them his fee so they could emigrate to Canada.

7,000 Doubhobors, William Perehudoff’s parents among them, arrived in Saskatchewan, where in Langham in 1919, Bill was born. The community were mostly farmers and Bill once told me as we scanned his rich dark newly ploughed land from a knoll in the prairies, that it was the best earth in the world. I could believe it. The soil was almost black with a purple sheen. Wheat farming in the short growing season of Western Canada is not time consuming: just a couple of fortnights a year of intensive work. He owned three gigantic combine harvesters imported across the Pacific from the Ukraine, home of his ancestors. I knew he worked the land more or less single handedly; so I asked what the two extra machines were for: dismantling for spares, was his reply. Always a reflective man, he was prudent too.
 
William Perehudoff AC-88-81, 1988 acrylic on canvas, 169 x 172 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

William Perehudoff, AC-88-81, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 169 x 172 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

Sometime in the 1980s he introduced me to his mother, a hale 99 year old, still living in Langham and even then speaking only Russian. Bill was bilingual and interpreted. Her younger sister, I learnt, called in to translate the T.V. soaps for the old lady. On one of her walls hung a religious picture that used lots of silvery filigree effects. After glasnost, the likes of it have shown up in London in the hands of dealers who take vans to eastern Europe to buy up folk art. There are some treasures among their booty.

While there never seemed even a whiff of religion about Bill, he was deeply serious. But never pompous: quite the opposite. His humour was gentle. He wasn’t a self-publicist but everyone was drawn to him. His spirit was magnetic.
 
William Perehudoff AC-79-S, 1979 acrylic on canvas, 132 x 203 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

William Perehudoff, AC-79-S, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 132 x 203 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

I first saw his work in Theo Waddington’s London gallery in 1979, then in 1980 I actually met Bill and his wife Dorothy Knowles in London (Dorothy’s landscapes are rightly so famous they have twice featured on Canadian postage stamps). It must have been due to their visit to my studio on that 1980 trip that I got invited the following year to be a guest artist at the well known Emma Lake workshop which was under the wing of the University of Saskatchewan. From the first they struck me as a most open-hearted couple. I later found that if they heard any local artist was down on their luck, Bill and Dorothy would each quietly buy something from them.
 
Once I asked Dorothy how she got to school when it was 30˚ or even 40˚C below – “In a cutter” she replied. A cutter, I discovered, was a horse-drawn sledge with a cabin, stove and chimney. Only the horse was out in the cold. During such winters grown-ups can get a lot of painting done. Bill built big Quonset barns not just for his farm machinery but also one for the storage of paintings and another for painting them. They sit very naturally in the huge landscape. He and Dorothy are the most prolific painters I have ever known. 
 
John Golding’s book “Paths to the Absolute” traces the numinous aspects of abstract painting from their beginnings in the works of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian to the development of those qualities in the paintings of the Americans Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Perehudoff’s work fits into the kind of epiphanic painting characterised by Golding. The last sentence in Golding’s book, after some reflections on the situation since the American’s achievements, runs: “Profundity has been in short supply but it can and will reassert itself”. I once stood with Golding the painter in front of one of Bill’s best works. The former knew Bill was then in his 90s. He turned to me with a smile, saying “So there’s hope for us all yet”.
 
William Perehudoff AC-76-51, 1976 acrylic on canvas, 161 x 164 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

William Perehudoff, AC-76-51, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 161 x 164 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

The earliest Perehudoffs I’ve seen were his 1953 murals for the reception room of the Mendel Meat Packing factory in Saskatchewan. The owner, Fred Mendel, founded the Mendel art gallery in Saskatoon. The paintings were wall-sized and figurative but abstracted enough for me to mention their echo of Purism and the fact that Bill studied for a while Ozenfant when the latter taught in New York. But their scale and the simplification of the large shapes he deploys make for the kind of orchestration of colour you have to go back to 15th century Italy for comparisons. Puvis de Chavannes used too much tonal modelling to be comparable. Because there is so little detail in his murals to take away from the sheer colour of Bill’s shapes, Masolino’s work in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, or San Clemente in Rome, comes to mind. 
 
By the time he had moved away from figuration, the burden of Bill’s painting fell even more on colour. And it is as a colourist that he had most influence. I am deeply indebted to him, as are many others in Britain and North America.
 
William Perehudoff AC-88-048, 1988 acrylic on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

William Perehudoff, AC-88-048, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery and the Estate of William Perehudoff

In 2010 the critic Karen Wilkin curated a Perehudoff retrospective at the Mendel. The top lit galleries made a fine occasion to appreciate the varied strands of Bill’s oeuvre. He deserves more such displays, world wide, until it is generally realised that he was one of the most significant abstract painters ever. I cannot think of any other artist who rang so many changes on colour: light hues, dark hues, primary, secondary, tertiary, quaternary and so on… dissonances and harmonies, thick paint and thin, sometimes all on the same canvas, with an exquisite sense of placement. And all this without ever losing tension across the painting. He worked hard but what fun he must have had too. 

William Perehudoff, painter: born 1919, Langham, Saskatchewan, Canada; died 26.2.2013, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He is survived by his wife Dorothy, three daughters and three grandchildren.
  1. William O'Reilly said…

    Bill Perehudoff always reminded me very much of his paintings. Thank you John for bringing back some things and reminding us of others. To say he is a painter’s painter is almost damning with faint praise. His work was immediate and it stayed with you. Wonderful painter.

  2. Sheila Vollmer said…

    Thank you John – I enjoyed your memories and words of Bill Perehudoff’ work and life. Western Canadian painter Jack Bush must also have been a great influence on Bill’s work.

    • nameer davis said…

      Yes I’m reminded of Jack Bush in the floating ground spaces, there is a lot of common ground in the way landscape becomes abstracted, I also think of Kenneth Noland in the deductive clarity and purpose.

  3. Willard Boepple said…

    Thank you John for your thoughtful, moving tribute to this wonderful, underrated artist.
    His pictures show us how play can be majestic and do so with a superb, tender colorist’s touch.
    This big hearted artist of the prairies.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you ,John for that appreciation.Bill’s images live on in their ability to grasp the viewer in his best pictures.

  5. Katherine Sicotte said…

    I didn’t know Bill very well but was impressed with his quiet confidence, and underlying sense of humor in his being as well as in his work.

  6. Emyr WIlliams said…

    I have very happy memories of Bill, having met him – shortly after my graduating – at the Emma Lake workshop. I was broke and had to camp in the woods. He kindly gave me his paints to use, invited me out to his studio and house afterwards. His daughters bought some work which enabled me to journey to Edmonton and the west coast of America. Kenneth Noland was at the workshop and had visited Bill prior to me calling in with Canadian painter Gerry Faulder. Noland had cropped some of Bill’s paintings so that the planes of colour anchored themselves to the top – which had the result of bringing them up front more, away from the more seductive floating that he often favoured. He was looking at them and giving them time to settle. It has been enjoyable seeing glimpses of them in London periodically since then – would be great to see a big retrospective . Enjoyable reading.