Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Painter of Palpable Frisson: Denyse Thomasos, 1964-2012

Denyse Thomasos in front of her monumental wall-painting at Rotunda Gallery, Brooklyn in 2006.  Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

Denyse Thomasos in front of her monumental wall-painting at Rotunda Gallery, Brooklyn in 2006. Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

Denyse Thomasos, a painter whose works are at once conceptual and abstract, intimate and monumental, died suddenly on Thursday, July 19th.   The cause was an unexpected allergic reaction during a medical procedure.  She was 47

Born in Trinidad, her family moved to Canada when she was 6 years old.  She developed an interest in art early on, and in 1987 she graduated from the University of Toronto with a BA in painting and art history. She then attended Yale, where she received an MFA in painting and sculpture in 1989. Upon graduating, she immediately moved to New York and began teaching at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.  In 1995 she became an Assistant Professor in Painting at Rutgers.

Thomasos’s bold, sometimes monochromatic, gridded abstractions have a visceral kick that immediately draws the viewer in.  Layered fat strokes of acrylic paint hover in a constant state of flux, sketching out the frameworks of architectural structures that exist on the edge, caught precariously between full formation and total collapse. Though successful on a purely abstract level, Thomasos spoke of more earthbound, often darker themes when asked to discuss her work.  A frequent world traveler, she spent a great deal of time studying prisons and slums, looking at ways disenfranchised people are constrained, both physically and socially.  Coming from a privileged background herself, she struggled intellectually and emotionally to understand how culture can warp self-perception and, ultimately, destiny.  Taken in this light, the super-enlarged crosshatches cascading across her canvases are not a loose representation of actual places, but an attempt, repeated consistently over many years, to create a multi-dimensional map for understanding the world as we live in it.  The intensity and passion Thomasos brought to this project, as much as the subject itself, are inextricably woven into the palpable frisson her paintings elicit.

Denyse Thomasos in her studio, 2006. Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

Denyse Thomasos in her studio, 2006. Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

Thomasos exhibited regularly and had over 15 solo-exhibitions. Olga Korper began representing her in Toronto from 1994, and Lennon Weinberg in New York from 1996, and both continue to do so.  She received numerous prestigious awards and grants, including multiple grants from the Canada Council, a regional NEA grant, two Pew Fellowships, grants and residencies from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Ucross, NYFA, the Guggenheim, Marie Walsh Sharpe, the Bellagio Foundation, P.S. 122, Mac Dowell, and Yaddo.  Her work is in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, along with many other major corporate collections.  Reviews of her shows appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artnews, Artforum, Art in America, and the Village Voice among many others.

Interviewed for Rutgers Observer TV in February 2011, Thomasos said, “I have had the most magical life I could imagine…every dream I’ve ever dreamed has come true…to travel around the world.  Being an artist you have the opportunity to live a creative life every minute of the day…it feels like I’m an explorer…and I get to translate everything that I’ve seen, show it in a gallery, and get feedback from audiences. I love every aspect of it…”

Thomasos is survived by her husband, documentary filmmaker Samien Priester, and her daughter, Syann.

Denyse Thomasos, Free, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

click to enlarge

  • danila rumold

    So sad when a life ends so suddenly and at such a young age. Her gratitude for life displays an understanding for the meaning which she sought in her work. Although I am seeing and hearing about her work for the first time here, her life is an inspiration to me. My heart goes out to those who knew and loved her.

  • Aliza

    I literally just found out her passing and I’m beyond shocked. I’ve taken many classes with her and learned so much. She had this intense energy about her — and it was contagious. It is true that she lived her dreams and she made it seem like *you* could do the same — that anything was possible. So intense and dedicated to what it was to be an artist — to experiment, to constantly be in the process, in the moment…though her life was so tragically cut short, I have no doubt that she lived every day to the absolute fullest, and she inspired others like myself to do the same. Denyse made you feel, when she was talking to you, like you were the only one in the world that mattered. She had so many gifts and will be missed by so many. My heart goes out to her husband and little Syann.


  • Ani

    So sad when a life ends so suddenly and at such a young age. I will always remember your streght, your optimist and your love for life. Always working hard for your goals and dreams! Each one of them came true! Will always share the childhood memories!