York Wilson
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York Wilson Retrospective

Introduction by Paul Duval

Toronto born, Wilson entered commercial art at the local Central Technical School. He first worked at Brigden’s engraving house in 1926, where Charles Comfort and Will Ogilvie had a strong influence upon his first efforts at painting. After employment at several other art studios at home and in Detroit, he opened up his own studio in Toronto in the early forties in the New Wellington Building at 137 Wellington Street West. (That building is important in local art history, because during the years of 1942-45 many of the people who were to change art in Toronto worked or owned studios there. Besides Wilson, there were Jack Bush, Oscar Cahen, Walter Yarwood, D. Mackay Houston and M. F. Feheley, all of whom, one way or another made an impact on the local art scene for the next two decades.)

Wilson first gained notice as a painter with a number of studies of burlesque, one of which Burlesque #2, was shown with The New Canadian Group of Painters at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. After that, he concentrated for some years on figure studies of ballet dancers and satirical comments on local society. His first full-scale show was with Jack Bush at the Women’s Art Association in Toronto in 1944.

By 1950, Wilson was able to give up commercial art and devote full time to painting. That year, he made his first trip to Mexico – a trip that marked his emergence as an original artist. The forms, colours and textures of the Mexican towns, people and landscape completely changed his creative outlook. A second visit to Mexico in 1953 brought him into contact with the great American painter, Rico Lebrun. Lebrun’s genius and philosophy made Wilson question his own approach to painting and also brought him into contact with many new techniques. Wilson’s interest in mural painting was aroused in Mexico, where he was surrounded by the monumental wall paintings of Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros. He has travelled and painted in many parts of the world, but it was Mexico that gave him an open-ended perspective in art and confirmed his future as a mural painter.

Wilson must be ranked as the most important of all Canadian mural designers. Since 1954 he has completed ten major commissions including McGill University’s Redpath Library, Montreal (1954), the Imperial Oil Building, Toronto (1957), the O’keefe Center, Toronto (1959), General Hospital, Port Authur (1963) and Carleton University, Ottawa (1970). The giant Imperial Oil design, comprising two panels each twenty one feet high and thirty- two feet long, is the most ambitious and impressive in the country. On July 14, 1959, Lawren Harris wrote to Wilson in Vancouver: “Although it is certainly not my customary habit to write so-called ‘fan’ letters to my colleagues, in this singular instance I feel moved to do so. The reason being that on my way here I made a point of stopping over in Toronto with the express purpose of seeing your Imperial Oil Building mural. I am happily convinced that this break my journey was completely justified and rewarded, for said murals proved to be beyond my fondest expectations. You have succeed in a gigantic undertaking, the very thought of which would undoubtedly terrify the great majority of your contemporaries in your own profession.”

Within a few decades, Wilson has developed from a spirited and competent reporter to one of the Canada’s finest abstract painters. His works have been exhibited in the Carnegie International at Pittsburgh, the Sao Paulo Bienal, and in one man shows at the Musee Galliera in Paris and the Pallacio de Bella Artes in Mexico City. He first exhibited with The Canadian Group of Painters in 1939 and continued to appear in its exhibitions until it disbanded.

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