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Remembering Robert Linsley: working in the abstract with many twists

In memoriam

His work lives on

Robert Linsley, 64, died last week after a collision with a car in Waterloo, Ont.

As Wojciech Olejnik remembers, Robert Linsley produced approachable paintings, wrote evocatively and with precision, and loved to mentor young students

On Feb. 2, due to a tragic bicycle accident, Canada lost an admired artist, thinker, art critic and writer.

Robert Linsley was devoted to his family and his community in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. He was also devoted to art – in particular, to abstract painting. In his paintings, he used bright colours and various pooling techniques to create "islands," and these layered translucent shapes were endlessly crafted and composed into playful formal relationships.

His paintings are approachable, seemingly simple and direct, yet there was always a twist, something unexpectedly askew, like when one watercolour shape gets draped over another – or is it under? (Did that happen by accident or was it coaxed into position?) This is how Robert seemed to think, his argument clear, but perched to leap off somewhere unexpected.

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Robert Linsley’s Island Development (2001), like most of his works, are enamel on canvas.

In fact, even now, I hesitate to call him an "abstract" painter, because when we talked about abstraction, somehow he seemed to talk about everything else but "abstraction." Perhaps the conversation itself was his best platform, his paintings seemed that way, his prodigious writing even more so.

When lecturing at the University of Waterloo, it often felt like he would always be on the verge of an important point. You would tune in and be rewarded: He would say something bold. Then in the very next sentence, he would knock it down. Without a doubt he read Hegel and Adorno, without a doubt he was not afraid to be bold, but he was also not afraid to be subtle.

When he wrote, he wrote like an artist. You could see and smell everything he was talking about, as though he was breaking down each element, each gesture into tiny atoms of ideas, like monads (he laughed every time I used that word). I never had a conversation with him in which we didn't talk about all the things I knew and all the things I didn't know.

Linsley’s Passage des Parques, made in 2001.

Fifteen years ago, I met him as a masters student at the University of Waterloo. "The world is the world of the false," so he began one of the seminar classes. I don't remember the reading, perhaps it was Wallace Stevens (poetry was another of Robert's passions), perhaps Paul Valéry. But this was a typical move, like a chess player seeing six moves ahead, this statement was already like a counterargument, as if you were engaging in a heated conversation or debate without even knowing it. He often took the role of your adversary, a devil's advocate. It made some feel uncomfortable, but for him, every conversation had the potential for something greater. It didn't matter if it was in your studio or in his, at a podium or at a bus stop.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he took part in countless national and international symposiums and panel discussions, including at Tate Modern (London), National University of Mexico (Mexico City), the Power Plant (Toronto). Or that he had a reputation for asking the first (and often most pointed) question in an audience.

He wrote many critical and engaging articles for important journals and magazines, such as Art Forum, Canadian Art and Fillip. He collaborated and worked with internationally renowned theorists and writers (Boris Groys, Jan Verwoert and Richard Shiff). He engaged in countless more conversations and debates on his blog.

Islands: Domains in the Sea of Milk (1999) measured 72 inches tall by 60 inches wide.

He recently completed Beyond Resemblance, a book that considers conceptual art, digs through important figures from the Western canon, and champions lesser-known artists from Asia and Latin America. As an artist, Robert's long and distinguished career has included exhibitions in Berlin, Barcelona, Dusseldorf, Vancouver, but also locally in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo.

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During his tenure at the University of Waterloo, he secured a major research/creation grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Premier's Research Excellence Award from the Province of Ontario Ministry of Economic Development. With this support he created a fellowship in fine arts, which promoted research in abstraction and provided exhibition opportunities, studio time and critical context for recent fine art graduates.

More than just an educator, Robert was a mentor. Many young artists benefited from his guidance and direct involvement in their careers, his knowledge of art history was vast, yet it was the future that excited him the most. It is difficult to see one without his contribution. More important, it is difficult to imagine that someone with so much energy, vitality and hope could be gone.

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