Joseph Plaskett, OC, RCA (1918 - 2014)


Joseph Plaskett was born in 1918 in New Westminster, BC. Joe took a liberal arts grounding at the University of British Columbia, resulting in an honours degree in history. Though he was a teacher for a few years, Joe was already exploring his interest in art. Studying at the Vancouver School of Art (1940-2) brought praise and encouragement from GG Sedgewick, Lawren Harris, Jock Macdonald, Jack Shadbolt and BC Binning, the names on the foundation stones of Canadian art. Support came also from AY Jackson and then Emily Carr whose scholarship Joe was the first to receive. This scholarship was a turning point as it took Joe to San Francisco where abstraction awaited him in teachers like David Park and Clyfford Still. In New York City under Hans Hoffmann, a central figure in the history of modern art, Plaskett further explored the boundaries of pictorial structure and in 1949 Joe travelled to Paris where he tamed these forces with instruction from masters including Fernand Léger, a key figure in the history of all art. Innate talent began to stabilise into something greater.

This early forging of talent in the intense heat of modernity would have enormous influence on Joe’s understanding of space within a composition. Dividing his time in the next decade between Canada and his new home in Paris, tempered this understanding of modern abstraction taking from it a heightened and forceful sense of colour that in turn drives expressive and poetic presentation of subject matter. Rather than returning to representation after abstraction, Joe transcended abstraction with his new aesthetic which chose to represent glamorous bric-à-brac scenes of Proustian banality in dramatic colour.

Joe taught again at the Vancouver School of Art and Emma Lake in the 50s but made Paris his permanent home in 1960. Since then Joe has lived in Europe. Since 2001, he lived in Suffolk, England. Despite living abroad for over fifty years, he was staunchly Canadian. Almost annually he returned to his homeland and held exhibitions across the country. A legendary host and supporter of Canadian artists working in Europe, he was considered an unofficial Ambassador in Paris. He finally gave up his 15th century Paris townhouse, home to fantastic parties throughout the age of parties, in 2004 and dedicated the proceeds of the sale to the establishment of the Plaskett Foundation. The foundation funds a year of European development for a young Canadian artist annually. When the formation of the foundation was announced in 2005, Mr. Plaskett said, "I created this award in emulation of what Emily Carr did for me in 1946. I would like young Canadian artists to enjoy the privileges I experienced more than a half century ago. Europe and, above all, France, have left me richer in knowledge and experience. Although things have changed a great deal since I first traveled and studied abroad, the lesson of Europe and its past is always waiting for those ready to learn."

Beginning with his first exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1951, Joe exhibited in Canada’s greatest public galleries. His list of solo and group exhibitions throughout Canada and Europe, is immense and in 2001 Joe was invested into the Order of Canada. The Plaskett bibliography is similarly impressive including numerous reviews, catalogues and the celebrated 1991 memoir, A Speaking Likeness and the 2006 reminiscences of friends and colleagues published as The Book of Joe.

Joseph Plaskett was truly a national treasurer in the Canadian art world. Joe died in his home on September 21, 2014 at the age of 96. Joe will be remembered for his artistic vision, his kindness, optimism and generosity, the influence he has had on the Canadian art world and farther afield, and in his many artistic gifts - all of which were presented in his most humble way. His legacy will live on in his exquisite body of work, in the Plaskett Foundation and in the huge circle of people who were blessed by his friendship.


There’s always a hidden solemnity in the cheerful pastels and oils of Joe Plaskett. This exhibition is no exception, although this time, along with the time-tested truths, he lets slip a whisper: a secret that makes these among his most intimate works.

Drawing along the extended art historical line that began with Titian and Giorgione – of presenting human culture in juxtaposition to nature – Joe has dissolved his vision, much as the Impressionists did, into a unique handwriting of brushstrokes and pastel marks. Advancing down this same line, he poses the questions of the twenty and twenty-first centuries in that Impressionist language but updated to accommodate contemporary nuance.

After finding this nuance in western Canada, Joe travelled through Europe transforming his innate skill into defined artistic vision. He spent sixty years living a dream of artistic excellence – something so important to him that he established the Plaskett Foundation to make sure that contemporary Canadian artists could draw from the legacy of the European masters in a Plaskett Year award. Mortality is to be celebrated; it is a part of great art. Joe has ensured that the vitality of the historic connects with the truths of the today.

It is this that makes his work so interesting to major public Galleries and serious art collectors: the images are eternal in their simplicity, timeless in their subject and universal in their concerns. By looking at a Plaskett, one looks at everything that is possible and all the solutions one might need in life. A potted plant on the edge of a table, a clean blade in a sparse space, a table set for lunch stretching into strange painterly space…these are the hints at mortality, the smiles at possible success, the promises of redemption, the expectations of surprise that have characterised art forever and make our lives so challenging and rewarding. Joe takes life that is sometimes cluttered and muddled and at other times bare and isolated and reduces, clarifies and explains. The result is a seventy-year body of work that has distilled the thrill of being alive.

Like Monet, Joe has returned time after time to his own garden that represents so much to him. It is here that we realise that whilst his paintings and drawings portray so much that is universally true, he takes these truths very personally. They are his and so they can be ours too. It is this transcendent gesture that turns bold visual philosophy into the perfection of one’s own intimate truths.

Leopold CJ Kowolik, 2012


Think of it – the challenge and excitement of old age, the approaching extinction that death brings – all part of the drama of being alive!

To reach ninety is becoming commonplace. It is no longer a feat. I owe it to the luck of good genes – both parents lasted into their 90's. I am making a celebration of it only because, when I turned 70 I held a big party in Paris , and did the same when I turned 80 in Suffolk . That was the party to end all parties.

The third decade-celebration takes the form of holding seven separate exhibitions across Canada . My zest for exhibition has over a long career become increasingly a mania. The ecstasy I feel as I survey work I have done I want to share with the world – not the whole world which couldn't care less, but my private world, which is my country, Canada. An aged painter cannot help but accept the fact that his work belongs in the past. Younger painters have leaped into the phenomenon called contemporary, where it would be foolish of me to try to enter. But I can claim my own phenomenon, the existence of a public that loves and is moved by what I do, and this public even includes my peers some of whom are young and contemporary. I now paint works that I would previously have not been capable of painting, works that take me by surprise and leave me in a state of wonder and amazement. When I see older work that has stood the test of time (not everything I do does) I cannot recall how I have done it. At a certain point the painting seems to have painted itself without my help – what I have called the "eureka" moment when a sudden daring intervention has worked a miracle.

How much longer can this go on? I still feel 'in my prime'. I must look old, as younger people keep offering me a seat in a bus or metro. Deafness and ageing have restricted my activities so that all I am really good for is my work, but when painting I am almost as tireless as ever I was. I keep saying that painting keeps me youthful, or ageless. But hovering over waking, and even sleeping, brain-activity is the spectre of Death, which I insist on not seeing as an invisible enemy but as a friend. At an early age death is tragic. I would resent it coming tomorrow, but when it comes in the fullness of time, it must be counted a blessing. I think back on the most vivid encounter I have had with death, that of my father in 1963. After minor strokes and a fall that broke his leg, I was summoned home from Italy . He was hospitalised and for a month my mother and I made daily visits, but as his brain was affected, conversation was limited, so I began bringing paper and pastels and making constant drawings of him. There must be nearly one hundred, depicting a man slowly dying. Was I cruelly exploiting a human predicament for the sake of art and its glory? One night there was an unheard of natural phenomenon, a hurricane. I remember watching through the window the wild turmoil outside. A large tree in the garden was swaying back and forth until a moment came when there was no forth, the tree was laid back. At 4 a.m. that night I was awakened by a phone call, the hospital announcing that my Dad had died. I made one more drawing of him in his coffin. This portfolio of drawings is an homage to death, or the homage that art can pay to it. These works have never been exhibited, but they are perhaps a unique record.

But let me return to life, which goes on and on as long as it can. Because of my art, every moment can be precious. I will be happy if I can be granted five more years of joyful activity. This small exhibition is a cross section of what the other six contain.