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Features / February 23, 2017

Robert Linsley: 1952–2017

Rodney Graham, Kelly Jazvac, Mohammad Salemy and other artists remember Robert Linsley, whose passion for art infused his work and life.
A detail of a watercolour painting by the late Robert Linsley. Photo: via Facebook. A detail of a watercolour painting by the late Robert Linsley. Photo: via Facebook.

Kitchener artist Robert Linsley, known for his writing and teaching in addition to his painting, died earlier this February in a biking accident at the age of 64. Linsley moved to Kitchener to teach at the University of Waterloo in 2002. Originally born in Winnipeg, Linsley moved to Vancouver, where he later studied at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. He was also a valued contributor to this publication.

Here, artists and writers who knew and worked with Linsley remember him.

Robert was a dear friend who meant a lot to me as I was finding my way through the art world. His encyclopedic knowledge and love of art was contagious. He approached art and life without inhibition—sometimes getting himself in hot water with other artists and intellectuals for poignantly exposing their flaws or biases. Primarily a painter, Robert was open to all media. My favourite work of his is the artist’s book Epigraph from an Unwritten Book (1997) he produced with legendary publisher Yves Gevaert. In it we find Robert’s love of literature, criticism and history come together in a beautiful artwork brimming in intellect, marvel and Robert’s special sense of humour. Robert, we will miss you!Patrik Andersson, art historian and curator, Emily Carr University of Art and Design

Robert’s brand-new book, Beyond Resemblance, is a doozy and the buckled dog-eared pages of my copy attest to the multiplicity of humdingers penned inside. I don’t read blogs, but I read Robert’s religiously, and his feverish work will continue to be a grubstake for serious prospectors in the abstract realm. His mentorship to me was defined by geographical distance: we only jammed in person every couple of years, but we were fellow abstractionists, bound to our vocation to meet the measure of our global time. Those are his words, encouraging to any outlier. That he spent time to critique my work, in person and in press, was the ultimate flattery. It would be daring to take on his polemic, and for that I genuinely revere his legacy.Eli Bornowsky, artist

There are few people I would rather talk about art with more than Robert Linsley. In fact, come to think of it, there is nobody I would rather talk to about art more than Robert. We talked a lot over the years and he taught me a lot, and not just about art. He could discourse on Wallace Stevens, P.G. Wodehouse, Jack Vance, the latest research by his friends at the Perimeter Institute, Frank Sinatra—many things. Robert and I lived in the same building in Vancouver for a while, back in the day. I was very sad when he left Vancouver, sadder now that he has left us all for good. Almost every time I go to Pulpfiction Books we have a conversation with Chris Brayshaw, the owner and a dear friend of Robert, about the painting behind the counter, a view of the Fraser River by Robert. One of his best landscapes we agree. I know it will continue to give us something to talk about.—Rodney Graham, artist 

Robert put ideas out there with a warm energy. In studios, galleries, his blog, a museum cafe or in his kitchen while making lunch for his kids, his thoughts went places unpredictable and illuminating, quickly jumping, deducing and proposing a new direction or approach to how we might consider the gesture, the process or the result of whatever art we were discussing. His blog is full of this, written in a conversational tone that is as accessible as it is thoughtful. What I find so valuable in his writing (and his conversation) is surely linked to his being a painter, and his awareness of the limits of explaining art, its relevance and meaning, with words. Because with his words, as with his art, Robert always gives a poetics of making and viewing art a rigorous and expansive value – one that he strove to illuminate—and did.—Patrick Howlett, artist

I was looking at a Polly Apfelbaum installation at LACMA last week and all I could think about was Robert Linsley. In 2013 he asked me, more or less out of the blue, if I’d like to interview Polly Apfelbaum for his publication series by Old Mill Press. Of course I did. And I was grateful for the opportunity that came about solely from his interest in our work. Robert always wanted to know more, and in order to do so he was very generous in sharing his international networks with younger artists, as well as making opportunities for them to develop their practice.

Robert was the guy at the opening that was actually looking at the art. And he wanted to talk about art every time we met. How I valued those conversations. He was knowledgeable and opinionated, but always open to new ideas.

It’s easy to forget what a profound tool art can be—mostly because of its messy affiliations to things that are wrong in the world. Yet Robert always made me remember how rich of a language it is. I am deeply grateful for this. He will be missed.—Kelly Jazvac, artist

“Do Less.” Those were some of the first words I remember Robert saying, a kind of mantra for a few years. He always jumped in right away, forgoing etiquette, and that was so goddamn refreshing. Art had the grips deep into Linsley, and he chased it differently than most of us. He flattened it out, and it was all up for grabs, be it Tiepolo, Stella, Benglis or Gego. Many afternoons were spent in front of a Chardin or a Motherwell collage, just riffing on the specifics, the concrete particularities of it all. His generosity of intellect and humour were there at the right time for me, and it is with great sadness that I cannot imagine hearing his voice again.—Michael Murphy, artist 

I was Robert Linsley’s student at University of Waterloo. He exposed us to countless ideas and ways of approaching the world (whether through art history/theory, poetry or theoretical physics). As an academic, he employed rigorous thought and provocative statements. Yet, it was his light, playful, unsure side—the Robert who made all those enchanting watercolours—that was perhaps even more undeniable and alluring. He challenged us to take risks, travel, meet people, try different things. Always enthusiastic and optimistic, what he valued most was the undiscovered, the possible. Perhaps this is why he treated statements made by students as seriously and passionately as those by academics. In his lectures, his ideas moved quickly, in various directions, they shifted time and place. One moment you are in early-20th-century Soviet Union, then standing next to Cezanne, then right back into the potential of what tomorrow may bring.—Wojciech Olejnik, artist

The first time I met Robert Linsley was at the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery where our work was hanging side by side. This vibrant, tall man was wearing a baby sling and cradling his newborn baby daughter so tenderly with his left hand while creating large wild gestures with his right hand during our lively conversation about art. Robert Linsley balanced both extremes perfectly. Often playing the provocateur at the University of Waterloo and in the art world by crossing boundaries and not knowing when to step down, he also generously created a fellowship and lit the way for my art career. For that I am eternally grateful. In this moment I feel a connection to his new work and, true to his form, there is a lesson. I cannot imagine the loss his adored family is going through yet, like for them, he lives on in my heart.—Sasha Pierce, artist

I met Robert at Emily Carr University in the early 1990s where he was a painting instructor. Even though I never had a chance to study with him, those of my friends who did were impressed by his ability to define a unique ontology for painting away from the popular contemporary art of the time, which favoured the new media and installation. In the last few years, I had a chance to meet Robert again, this time in the context of Facebook, and develop a close friendship with him in regards to our shared political and aesthetic interests in Left Accelerationism. I asked Robert to contribute to the Superconversations project that was part of Supercommunity, e-flux’s entry in the 56th Venice Biennale. For an artist of his generation, Robert was a dynamic political thinker who could address abstraction at the three very different dimensions of aesthetics, philosophy and politics. He well understood the question of technology and both its limits and horizon of possibilities in the 21st century. At the time of the accident, he was preparing to teach a seminar for us at the New Centre for Research and Practice in fall 2017. We will be missing him and his insightful virtual presence.—Mohammad Salemy, independent artist, critic and curator

Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Walter Benjamin’s “Goethe’s Elective Affinities” were the first texts that really brought us together. Robert knew his Benjamin, he knew his Lukaćs and he knew his Adorno better than anyone I had the pleasure to know. Though he would change the way I said it, I don’t think he would mind if I said that we formed a collective of sorts, even knowing the tremendous prohibitions to collectivity that Adorno saw. In the years following 1999, when we first read those texts and discussed them at length in the old neighbourhood where Robert lived just off Granville Street next to Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Patrik Andersson and so many others, it was a given that he read everything I wrote and I read everything he wrote. I will sorrily miss him and I will watch for his ghost.Shep Steiner, assistant professor, University of Manitoba