Denyse with Babylon in her NYC Studio, 2005. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo: The Estate of Denyse Thomasos.

A look at the life and work of artist Denyse Thomasos

One of the finest painters to emerge in the 1990s, the late Trinidadian-Canadian artist Denyse Thomasos (1964-2012) left an indelible, yet frequently overlooked, mark on contemporary painting.

A career retrospective, Denyse Thomasos: just beyond brings together more than 70 paintings and works on paper, many rarely seen, to show how she challenged the limits of abstraction, infusing personal and political content onto her canvases through the innovative use of formalist techniques. Through pattern, scale and repetition, Thomasos conveys the vastness of events such as the transatlantic slave trade without exploiting the images of those who were most affected.

Thomasos leaves a notable impact on those who’ve engaged deeply with her art, including curators, professors, and her studio assistant. Read on for insights from those who have a close proximity to her life and practice.

Michelle Jacques, curator

Michelle Jacques, Head of Exhibitions & Collections/Chief Curator at Remai Modern, reflects on the first time she met Denyse Thomasos in the 2000s while working at the Art Gallery of Ontario. They quickly became friends, finding connection in their shared artistic and cultural backgrounds. The following quote comes from one of the four fictionalized letters that she wrote to Thomasos, published last year in reminiscence of their relationship and significant points in Thomasos’ career.

“I thought that my background and upbringing had prepared me well for studying art, and particularly for engaging with the colour and rhythms of painting. From the multihued houses dotting photographs of Caribbean coastlines and hillsides to the geometric constructions of my upbringing in suburban Toronto, I always felt like I had an eye for colour and composition. Until I recently took a graduate course in art criticism. I felt so alienated from our discussions. I found the insistence on formalist analysis to be almost suffocating in its refusal of my cultural experiences. But your new works… renew my faith in painting.”

—Michelle Jacques to Denyse Thomasos, for the Art Gallery of Ontario

Denyse Thomasos. Rally, 1994. Acrylic on canvas, 274.32 x 426.72 cm. Courtesy of The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo: Andre Beneteau.

Renée van der Avoird, curator

Renée van der Avoird, Associate Curator, Canadian Art at the AGO, goes into detail on three of Thomasos’ works that resonate with her the most.

“When I look at Rally, I try to understand how many lines are layered beneath the surface, which leads me to think about the amount of labour and time that went into it. The built-up layers evoke a sense of depth, despite the fact that compositionally the work is very flat. I see energy stored within each brushstroke, a reminder of her physical interventions. The drip marks add a sense of immediacy and spontaneity.”

—Renée van der Avoird for the Art Gallery of Ontario

Denyse Thomasos. Excavations: Courtyards in Surveillance, 2007. Acrylic on canvas, 106.68 x 152.4 cm. From the collection of Bob Harding. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo: Michael Cullen.

Sally Frater, curator

Sally Frater, Curator of Contemporary Art for the Art Gallery of Guelph, talks about her journey into Thomasos’ work and the qualities that make it so relevant today.

“Her work certainly seemed prescient. She couldn’t necessarily have predicted say the protests of 2020, but she frequently alluded to systemic racism and oppression. The ways in which we view the prison-industrial complex, the ties between our economic systems and the exploitation of Black labour and Black people—all of that is embedded in her work. It seems that we’re just now beginning to dig into these conversations, at least in a “mainstream” sense. Those aspects of her work certainly give it relevancy.”

—Sally Frater for the Art Gallery of Ontario

Linda Martinello, studio assistant

Linda Martinello had the chance to work with Thomasos as a studio assistant in the summer of 2011. She shares the experience of creating an accessible studio environment, and how it felt to see her research and painting process up-close.

“A resonant memory of the studio was how light I felt every time I walked in. Every time, I felt energized surrounded by Denyse’s years of fascinating research and remarkable paintings. It made me excited about the day’s possibilities. I’ll always remember feeling a sense of optimism.”

—Linda Martinello for the Art Gallery of Ontario

John Armstrong, professor

John Armstrong is a professor at Sheridan College and the University of Toronto Mississauga, where Thomasos completed her BFA. Armstrong notes the early emergence of Thomasos’ distinct gestural style and the development of scale and subject matter in her paintings.

Further Reading

Read more from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s AGOinsider:

Denyse Thomasos: just beyond is on view at Remai Modern from April 15 to September 3 in the Marquee Gallery.

This exhibition is organized by Remai Modern, Saskatoon and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

Artist Biography

Born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the acclaimed painter Denyse Thomasos was raised in Toronto and spent most of her professional career in Philadelphia and New York City. Thomasos earned a BA in Painting and Art History from the University of Toronto in 1987. She attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in 1988 and the following year completed her MFA in Painting and Sculpture, Yale School of Art, Yale University. Throughout her career she attended various residencies, such as the Ucross Foundation Artist Residency, in Ucross, Wyoming in 2000 and the Bogliasco Foundation Artist Residency in Genoa, Italy in 2003. She won numerous prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship Prize in 1997; the Joan Mitchell Foundation award in 1998; and the New York Foundation for the Arts award in 2008; as well as grants from both the Canada Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been collected by private collectors, as well as major corporate and public institutions, including Rutgers University, New Jersey; Canada Council Art Bank, Ottawa; Bank of Montreal, Toronto; Banque Nationale du Canada, Montreal; Art Gallery of Guelph; Oakville Galleries; the Hart House Collection at the University of Toronto, and private collections throughout Canada and the United States. When Thomasos died tragically in 2012, she was at the height of her career, with major museum shows, a full professorship, New York and Toronto gallery representation, and many prestigious awards and residencies.

An abstract painting by Denyse Thomasos.
Denyse Thomasos. Arc, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, overall: 335.3 × 609.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, with funds from the Women’s Art Initiative, 2022. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo: Michael Cullen. 2021/356