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beyond an assistant

We connected with Denyse Thomasos’s former studio assistant, artist and professor, Linda Martinello, for a look inside the master of abstraction’s Manhattan studio.

Denyse Thomasos in her studio

Denyse in her studio, Feb 8, 2010. © The Estate of Denyse Thomasos and Olga Korper Gallery, Photo © Nancy Borowick.

In 2011, a young Master of Fine Arts candidate named Linda Martinello received a research scholarship to work as an assistant for a professional artist of her choosing. Deciding to offer her services to contemporary painter Denyse Thomasos would change her life forever. During that summer in Thomasos’s Lower East Side Manhattan studio, Martinello gained a mentor and profound source of artistic inspiration, observing a genius at work. 

Included as part of the landmark AGO exhibition Denyse Thomasos: just beyond, a video interview featuring Martinello provides visitors with a detailed account of her experience assisting Thomasos that summer. She describes preparing endless colour-coded containers of paint, watching Thomasos intuitively move around the studio as she simultaneously completes multiple masterworks of abstraction.

We connected with Martinello to learn more about her time with Thomasos and her thoughts about the late artist’s monumental legacy. 

AGOinsider: How did you first meet Denyse Thomasos and end up as her studio assistant and mentee?

Martinello: I met Denyse Thomasos as a gallery assistant at the Olga Korper Gallery. Then in 2011, as an MFA candidate, I received the Keith and Win Shantz International Research Scholarship to spend the summer term working as an assistant in a professional artist's studio. I asked Denyse if I could come to New York and work for her as an assistant. She had been an artist I had long admired since I first saw her work as an undergraduate student in the UTM Art & Art History Program. As a first-generation Mexican/Italian-Canadian, a common thread for me in her work was a desire to excavate history and, in particular, heritage. I grew up without relatives in Canada and had a limited understanding of my family's past, so I immediately gravitated to Denyse's work and how she used travel for heritage research, investigations and knowledge gathering and then translated all her findings into visually dynamic and complex painting compositions. It was crystal clear that an opportunity to work closely with Denyse would significantly expand my artistic practice. I had not known what kind of extraordinary force she was. And had no idea how much she would change my life and outlook. 

AGOinsider: Can you share some of your most resonant memories of the look and feel of her studio? What made it a special place for you?

Martinello: Denyse's studio was in the Lower East Side in NYC. A bustling creative neighbourhood with several new galleries opening up nearby. Her studio was in an older building, and it was full of history and energy. There were many other painters on her floor, and you could tell it had been that way for many years, especially in the shared spaces where you'd see years-old built-up paint-splattered hallways and washing sinks. It was great! Denyse's studio itself was beautiful. It had 14-foot ceilings and was full of natural light. The space would change daily, with paintings of all sizes moving around the studio to establish creative working flows. A resonant memory of the studio was how light I felt every time I walked in. Every time, I felt energized surrounded by Denyse's years of fascinating research and remarkable paintings. It made me excited about the day's possibilities. I'll always remember feeling a sense of optimism. 

AGOinsider: During your just beyond interview, you spoke in depth about Thomasos's unique painting style – the physicality of it, how she worked on multiple paintings at once, the way she extended her brushes. Can you share some of those details with us?

Martinello: Denyse completed a remarkable amount of research over many years, leading her to paint with incredible embodied knowledge. She would move, react and translate through marks and gestures without hesitation. Transitioning from colour to colour or line to structure, this immediacy to mark-making resulted in stunning complex compositional responses. You could not decipher where Denyse started with a painted gesture and where she ended. Denyse also worked on multiple paintings simultaneously, switching back and forth from one work to another in a dichotomy between longer and shorter rhythmic successions. Working as her studio assistant, I witnessed in awe this magic in the studio, unlike anything I had ever seen. 

AGOinsider: Considering her complete body of work, how would you define Thomasos's legacy as an artist?   

Martinello: Denyse's striking visual language of abstraction has a remarkable way of connecting to representation — to visualize and depict matters of our social, political and economic systems. Her energetic and dynamic use of colour and structure pulls you in almost magnetically, holds you still, then profoundly moves you. It's just powerful, emotional, and exciting. Upon closer inspection of her paintings, one begins to see and understand just some of the grappling issues Denyse was working through and addressing in her work. Denyse addresses serious subject matter while also being celebratory. Although darkness is being addressed and a warning of reckoning, she matches it with optimism and joy. And she does this in a way where you can feel it right in your gut, in a way you cannot forget. And despite your cultural background and upbringing, there is something for everyone to learn from and take pleasure in when experiencing her paintings. That, I believe, is her legacy as an artist.

Come and experience Denyse Thomasos: just beyond at the AGO now, before it closes February 20.

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