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Roland Wise: The Canadian Connection

Roland Wise, "Morning" (1954), oil on canvas. Whereabouts unknown.

A recently published article in the Canadian-based Galleries West magazine, written by the well regarded curator/artist Jeffrey Spalding, sheds new light on an important early chapter in the life of artist Roland Wise. Wise lived in Buffalo from the mid 1950s until his death in 2005; he taught painting and drawing at Buffalo State College from 1955 to 1992.

Prior to bringing his young family to Buffalo, Wise taught at the newly established School of Art at the University of Manitoba, Canada, from 1951 to 1955. There, he was part of an abstractionist collective that exhibited as the “Winnipeg Group.”

Spalding’s article essentially calls that group the missing link between Quebec’s Automatistes and Toronto’s Painters Eleven (P11). The Automatistes and P11 are regarded as two of the most influential modern art movements in the history of Canadian art. (The Automatistes were the subject of an extraordinary exhibition last year at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery: The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960.)

Wise was born in San Francisco and raised in Brooklyn. After serving in the war, Wise attended the Art Students League in New York City, where he studied from 1946 to 1949. Influential artists Will Barnet (b. 1911) and Morris Kantor (1896-1974) were among his teachers.

In 1951, armed with strong recommendations from Barnet and Kantor, Wise became an assistant professor at the brand new School of Art in Winnipeg.

The School of Art founders included William McCloy, Richard Bowman, and John Kacere. This nucleus had all studied under legendary printmaker Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa.

Lasansky influenced generations of students who went on to shape important university teaching programs throughout North America. Spalding also notes that among Lasansky’s students was David Hockney.

In his article, Spalding uncovers a significant exhibition history for members of the abstract group, in various configurations. Highlights include the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1951, the Annual Exhibition of Canadian Painting in 1953 at the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1954.

Owing to isolation and a provincial response to their work within Winnipeg, by the middle of the 1950s, most of the group left their teaching positions to pursue other opportunities.

Spalding feels that the output of the Winnipeg Group was at “the leading edge of adventurous experimentation in [Canadian] abstract art” during this period, and warrants reappraisal. He says of their impact during their day, “in this chapter of abstraction of the early 1950s, the daring young men in Winnipeg ruled the roost.”

He laments that “the art of Winnipeg’s distinguished American ‘visiting’ faculty are nowhere to be found in the larger Canadian art museum collections” and that “published histories of the art of the period blissfully overlook the entire episode.”

It will be interesting to see where this call to action and renewed scholarship leads. Roland Wise’s legacy as an important Western New York artist is already attested to; the Burchfield Penney Art Center holds more than 40 of his paintings and drawings in its permanent collection. That his significance could become more widely acknowledged for the work done during his brief time in western Canada would be a true testament to that legacy.

Dean Brownrout is president of 20th Century Finest (, dedicated to researching and trading in artwork by historically important, regional artists of the 20th century. Jeffrey Spalding’s article can be viewed at

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