The Whitney Biennial is typically a testing ground for up-and-comers as they rise to the top. But for some viewers, the big discovery at last year’s edition was Denyse Thomasos, a painter who died about a decade ago in relative obscurity.
Thomasos was represented by several 9-foot-long paintings from the ’90s featuring abstract swarms of crosshatched black and white marks. Those lines cohere in the mind’s eye to form impossible architectural structures—Piranesi-like prisons, perhaps, or angular postmodern housing. In fact, their referents were ships that held enslaved people and forms of anti-Black violence, from 1985’s MOVE bombing to mass incarceration.
These paintings may at first overwhelm the senses with their dazzling brushwork. Then they strike deep at the soul by tapping that terrifying feeling of being confined.
Adrienne Edwards, who curated the 2022 Whitney Biennial with David Breslin, recalled finding Thomasos’s work almost by chance. Renée van der Avoird, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, had asked Edwards, an expert in abstraction, to speak about Thomasos, and Edwards was shocked she’d never heard of the artist. Then David Hammons, who was unveiling a new commission at the Whitney, gave Edwards a copy of the catalogue for a 2002 show he’d curated in Vienna called “Quiet as It’s Kept,” which included work by Thomasos alongside the painters Stanley Whitney and Ed Clark. (That show’s title eventually became the Whitney Biennial’s too.)
Edwards asked Julie Mehretu and Ellen Gallagher, two well-known painters who have worked in abstraction, whether they’d heard of her. Much to Edwards’s surprise, they both said no. That was when Edwards knew she had to dive deeper.
“I felt like Denyse was tapping me on my shoulder,” Edwards said, speaking by phone. “I’m not kidding. It was almost like she was insistent, like: ‘Yes, I’m here, and I want to be in this show. Pay attention, pay attention!’”
Viewers across Canada, the country where Thomasos grew up and went to art school, have begun to do just that. Her first-ever retrospective is currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto and, after its run there, will travel to Remai Modern in Saskatoon, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Michelle Jacques, the Remai Modern chief curator who co-organized the show with van der Avoird and Sally Frater, explained in a Zoom interview that Thomasos’s paintings have only come to seem more vital since her death in 2012 at the age of 47, following a rare allergic reaction during a medical procedure.
“She approached the oppressions and legacies of Black life since slavery in a metaphorical way that maybe didn’t seem political enough in some spaces, and that maybe seemed too political in others,” Jacques said. “The way she approaches all this is a really effective way to draw in people who maybe thought they didn’t want to talk about this.”
More than 10 years on from her death, Thomasos now has more widespread fame than she ever did during her lifetime. In 2022 alone, she figured in the Whitney Biennial and the Toronto Biennial of Art, and her retrospective went on view at the AGO. While she was alive, she never had a major survey, even as she built up some renown in Canada.
Part of the appeal of Thomasos’s work is what seems like a paradox: it is extraordinarily specific to her own personal history while also broaching universal themes about the alienation and diasporas that impact a multitude of communities.
“She was a multiracial Black person who had ties to many different geographies,” Frater said. “She came from the Caribbean, her family emigrated to Canada, and she herself moved to the States. She was someone who was aware of space and place because of the effect they had on her own life. But she could also zoom out and see how it affected other people’s experiences of the world.”
Born in 1964 in the Port of Spain, Trinidad, Thomasos moved with her family to Canada in 1970 amid an uprising in her home country. The family’s comfortable existence in Canada was comparatively much calmer, but she felt isolated, due to her race and her heritage. She recalled that she watched her father, a mathematician and physicist, “suffer under racism in Canada,” and her sister Lisa once said that she, Denyse, and Gail, another sibling, were the only Black kids at school.
According to Lisa, Denyse knew she wanted to be an artist as early the fourth grade, when a teacher asked her to decorate a bulletin board. Denyse went on to attend the University of Toronto, Mississauga, where she studied art history and painting.
Thomasos’s earliest mature works were figurative, and to see them in the context of her later paintings can be jarring. Working under the sign of painters like Eric Fischl, Théodore Géricault, and Anselm Kiefer, she produced works like Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1984–85, in which Thomasos pictures herself seated and looking at the viewer. At first blush, she appears to be posed before a street scene where two women are staring off in opposite directions. Then you come to realize that this is a painting, and her feet nearly touch a packing crate that may be intended to house it, effectively eliding any distance between life and art.
Within the next decade, people would disappear from Thomasos’s art, but Frater, the cocurator of the current retrospective, said this doesn’t mean Thomasos had stopped focusing on bodies.
“She made this shift from, like, figuration to abstraction, but she never actually abandoned interest in the figure,” she explained, “because all her work is dealing with bodies and how they’re confined in the spaces they inhabit.”
Some believe that Thomasos began making this transition in her work while she was a student at Yale University, from which she would later receive her MFA in 1989. Her father died while she was in the first several weeks of that program, and her work would come to inhabit the darkness that loomed over her.
Last year’s Toronto Biennial of Art featured a grouping of untitled charcoal drawings by Thomasos from the late ’80s; they had been kept under a bed by one of her sisters until recently. They offer surreal visions of environments that cannot exist—a warped landscape filled with windowless walls, a ramp that leads downward into an ovular area with no exit. Tairone Bastien, a curator of the Toronto Biennial, pointed out that in one work, “the underbelly of a ship has been turned into a dark honeycomb that resembles graves or claustrophobic spaces that bodies would’ve been contained within.” He called works like these a “revelation.”
The charcoal drawings are hermetic and claustrophobic. In that way, they prefigure her large-scale paintings, which grew so big, she had to work on a scaffold to create them. (Her studio’s physical dimensions kept her from growing her paintings even bigger.) Thomasos did not let the making of these works be easy: Frater conjectured that she started in the middle, using a small brush, and then painted her way outward, a process that doubles as an act of formal bravado and a test of endurance.
Edwards spoke of these works by referring to the scholar Hortense Spillers’s idea of the “zero degree of spatial conceptualization,” in which a “body” lacks a subjecthood and a gender under captivity or enslavement. As a result, the “body” becomes “flesh.” According to Edwards, through the paintings’ scale, Thomasos made herself—and her viewers—feel like “flesh.”
“It’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m not separate from you. I’m in you, I am of you,’” Edwards said. “That’s how I think she approaches painting. She’s in it.”
Yet Thomasos was never one to be constrained, and in the 2000s, she traveled across the world, recording things that fascinated her in her journals. Mostly, she seemed fascinated by architecture. In Cambodia, she was drawn to the ways that former high schools were used as prisons. In India, she found a lot to admire in the rooftops in Jodhpur. In Mali, she visited the Dogon escarpment, where she saw burial caves once used by the Tellem people, whom she considered her ancestors.
These structures all began to make their way into Thomasos’s paintings, which grew ever more expansive, filling walls and galleries. Babylon (2005), the 20-foot-long painting that ends the Toronto retrospective, appears to be a city packed with colorful buildings of all kinds. Their edges meld and disintegrate, and graffiti-like scrawls periodically interrupt them, like flocks of birds or groups of people moving through space. Around this time, she also did works about prisons in the United States, which she knew disproportionately detain African Americans. She rendered them as boxy amalgamations whose walls “fly apart at the seams,” as Frater put it.
Works like these continue to prove haunting, and not only because, even in 2023, at a time when an increasing number of artists are taking up the subject, they feel like missives from the future. “Haunting” was also the word that Edwards used to describe what Thomasos was doing to her in a New York Times essay from last year called “My Artist Ghost.” Everything about Thomasos’s work implies a life after death, one that she seemed aware of even as she was working.
Of her method, Thomasos once said, “With every line, every mark, it’s a language that I weave together to survive.”