Throughout his life, the Canadian painter William Perehudoff maintained a close connection with the prairie of Saskatchewan, Canada, where he grew up and established his studio. His art developed from his personal response to the light and color of the Canadian Prairie as well as from historical art and theory. At the same time, his work reflected the present, expressing the literalist perspective of the Color Field movement, epitomized by the idea that the force of painting must reside in its materials.
The eldest of four children, William Wassily Perehudoff was born in 1918 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and raised in the Russian Doukhobor colony in rural Bogdanovka, twenty-five miles northwest of Saskatoon,. His parents, who emigrated from Russia in 1899, were part of a wave of spiritual pacifists, who left their homeland to escape from Czarist persecution. By the time he was in his early twenties, Perehudoff had begun to paint, receiving advice from local artists, including Ernst Lindner, known for high-keyed, sharply focused watercolors of the Saskatchewan countryside.
Perehudoff began to receive recognition from the press in 1945, when the Saskatoon Star Phoenix described him as one of the most promising artists in the Saskatoon Art Center’s fall exhibition. Having developed a fascination on his own for the art of Mexican muralists, in the summer of 1948, Perehudoff sought instruction at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center with Jean Charlot. From Charlot, Perehudoff learned the age-old technique of fresco painting and developed social realist imagery rendered in the monumental and reductive style of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. In 1949, he began what would be a long association with Fred Mendel, the owner of International Packers Ltd., one of Saskatoon’s largest employers and an art collector who would establish a museum in 1964. Perehudoff created murals (ca. 1949) for Mendel’s business and home, portraying figures with a Baroque muscularity paralleling the style of Thomas Hart Benton.
In 1950, Perehudoff was featured in his first solo exhibition, held at the Saskatoon Art Center. In the fall of that year, he arranged to study with the German figurative painter Max Beckmann in New York. When this plan was precluded by Beckman’s death, he instead enrolled in the Ozenfant School of Fine Arts, New York. There he worked under the French Purist Amédée Ozenfant, who emphasized relationships of art to architecture in color and form. After a brief return to his family’s farm, Perehudoff traveled to Europe, spending time in Paris and London. In London, he was joined by fellow Saskatchewan artist Dorothy Knowles. The two were married in Paris within the year and traveled through France and Italy during 1952. The couple settled in Saskatoon but continued to work on the Perehudoff family farm. Perehudoff and Knowles would have three daughters. With a family to support, in 1954, Perehudoff accepted a full-time job as an artist-designer at the Modern Press, a publishing firm in Saskatoon. His art from that time consisted of abstract paintings with thickly impastoed surfaces, along with representational, modernist-inspired murals.
Perehudoff was aware on his own of currents in contemporary abstract painting in the 1950s. His contact with some of the leading figures in the field occurred during his participation in the summer artist workshops held on the shores of Emma Lake in Saskatchewan, beginning in 1955. In the summer of 1957, he participated in the third summer artist-workshop, led by Will Barnet, who at the time was painting abstractly. Perehudoff attended most of the Emma Lake workshops in the following summers, including those led by prestigious New York artists Anthony Caro, Herman Cherry, Donald Judd, Kenneth Noland, and Clement Greenberg, the art critic and champion of Post-Painterly Abstraction. Perehudoff developed close relationships with many of these guests, most notably Noland and Greenberg. He also became a great friend of Jules Olitski, who led the workshop in 1964—the two artists visited each other at their respective homes. Herman Cherry’s workshop in August 1961 was especially influential. Afterwards in the 1960s, Perehudoff thinned his paint. He began staining his canvases and layering the surface with large abstracted shapes. Jean Swanson remarked in 1961: “[Bill] suddenly developed a new way to express his responses to the world.”
From the 1960s until the end of his career, Perehudoff created works in the Color Field aesthetic, with which he sought a means of expression based exclusively on the language of color and form. Although his progression was not linear, he developed generally from a concern with all-overness of unified figure and ground to geometric forms that are both embedded in and break the surface. The movement toward separation culminated in his floating, ethereal Amyot and Andante paintings of the mid-1970s. He commented that the luminous, unstable fields and panoramic views of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) informed the long horizontal format of these works. His study of Johann Goethe’s (1949¬–1932) color theories in part resulted in his luminous thin fields, consisting of overlapping thickly applied brilliant colors. When the paint industry expanded the capacities of acrylic paint with new additives and mediums, Perehudoff incorporated these means into his process—as did his friends Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. The new physicality can be seen in the orb-like forms of his paintings of the 1980s, in which the illusory and actual surface is elusive. In the 1990s, he returned to a greater lucidity, like that in his earlier rectangles and bars, the geometric planes recalling Russian Constructivism, a movement that occurred in the decades after his parents left Russia.
The art historian Karen Wilkin has observed an Apollonian/Dionysian opposition in Perehudoff’s work, reflected in his tendency toward the harmonious and rational that he then had the courage to subvert with “seductive, syncopated color.” Many of his paintings evoke musical harmonies and reverberations, while they are also suggestive of light flowing across the open plains of the prairies. Recalled in 2013 by Timothy Long, head curator of Saskatchewan’s Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery, as “one of the greatest colorists this province and Canada has produced,” Perehudoff was a friend of and is regarded as the heir to Jack Bush, as Canada’s most important Color Field painter. During Perehudoff’s diverse periods, the artist painted brilliantly impactful works that continue to influence a younger generation of artists.
Throughout his career, Perehudoff received accolades in commissions, exhibitions, and awards. In 1965, he had a one-man show at the newly opened Mendel Art Gallery. Three years later, he became the first Saskatchewan artist to be appointed associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He had a number of solo exhibitions in the 1970s, including shows at the Edmonton Art Gallery in 1972, the University of Saskatchewan and the Waddington Galleries in Montreal in 1974, and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1978. In 1981, a ten-year retrospective of his art, 1970–1980—organized by the Mendel Art Gallery—traveled to a number of museum venues. In 1987, he was invited to participate in the Triangle Workshop, begun in 1982 by artists Robert Loder and Anthony Caro “to counterbalance the tendency of the Western art world to put the emphasis on the object and its marketing rather than on the creative process itself.” Perehudoff continued to receive several honors in the 1990s and 2000s. He was given the Canada 125 Commemorative Medal in 1993, the Member of the Order of Canada in 1999, an honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Regina in 2003, and the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal in 2005. In 2010, a major traveling museum retrospective, The Optimism of Colour, was organized by Mendel Art Gallery. Its catalogue, in French and English, included important essays by Karen Wilkin, Roald Nasgaard, and Robert Christie. Perehudoff continued to farm and paint until close to the time of his death at age 94 in 2013.
Lisa N. Peters, Ph.D.
© Berry Campbell, 2015