Denyse Thomasos, "Birdie"

Denyse Thomasos, “Birdie” (2009), acrylic on canvas, 40 x 54 inches

Artist Denyse Thomasos, whose semi-abstract paintings evoke an architecture of floating cities, died suddenly yesterday. The cause was an allergic reaction during a diagnostic medical procedure. She was 47.

Denyse Thomasos

Denyse Thomasos (photo via

Thomasos was born in 1964 in Trindad. Her family moved to Canada in 1970, and she grew up in Mississauga, Ontario. She received her BA in painting and art history from the University of Toronto in 1987, afterwards moving to the US and enrolling at Yale University, where she completed her MFA in painting and sculpture there in 1989. She had her first solo exhibition that same year at Alpha Gallery in Boston.

After Yale, Thomasos moved to New York, but she exhibited little until 1997, when she began showing her work with Lennon, Weinberg gallery in New York and Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto. From 1995 until her death, she served as an associate professor of art at Rutgers University, where she was co-faculty with Hyperalleric Weekend editor John Yau. Yau offered this appreciation of Thomasos and her art:

Thomasos is known for her abstract paintings in which images of housing blocks, tiered parking garages, warehouses, scaffolding and abstract passages occupied an expanding, hyperbolic space. Her multi-layered, constructed space evokes something between a merry-go-round and a tornado, something under extreme centrifugal pressure. It’s as if everything is threatening to bust loose, and the painting itself can barely contain the accumulating forces. As Thomasos’ friends will readily attest, the dynamic forces found in her paintings were synonymous with her being. She was a force of nature.

Despite its semi-abstract nature, Thomasos’s art was also political, exploring both her personal heritage and larger social issues. Reviewing her most recent solo show in New York, in the winter of 2009, Cora Fisher wrote in The Brooklyn Rail:

The paintings, and the video, want us to consider whether the models of massive organization that we are building in the world are at all desirable or even efficacious. If Thomasos’s line work suggests an analogy to an architect’s blueprint, it would be for a dystopian remodeling job, where the end is nowhere in sight, and the wealthy client is never satisfied. Privilege, the ability to pay to isolate oneself from neighboring conditions, to overtop, just might be doomed here. These theoretical worlds signify overpopulation, an impersonal and confining density that has not fully taken hold.

Throughout her career, Thomasos received many grants and awards, including residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and Guggenheim and Pew Fellowships. Artist Andrea Belag met Thomasos at Yaddo, and told Hyperallergic:

She was the kind of person you were very attracted to — fun to be with, smart, talented, outspoken, generous. She had a real creative sense about how to make her life rich and bring that to whatever she did. She was really an admirable creative woman.

Denyse Thomasos, "Yves Bleu"

Denyse Thomasos, “Yves Bleu” (1999), acrylic on canvas, 78 x72 inches

One of Thomasos’s paintings, “Yves Bleu,” is currently on view at Lennon, Weinberg, in the group exhibition The Early Show, through August 17. Gallery owner Jill Weinberg Adams wrote to Hyperallergic:

Denyse was an exceptionally strong-willed person. She set goals for herself with determination, and achieved them all — travel, professional recognition, family — and never did less than challenge herself to make her paintings bigger, stronger, more complex and filled with meaning. Her sudden death at such a young age is a great loss, for her family most of all, her community at Rutgers, her students and the large and appreciative audience for her work.

Thomasos is survived by her husband, Samein Priester, and their daughter, Syann.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

9 replies on “Painter Denyse Thomasos, 47, Dies Unexpectedly”

  1. This is crazy!! She was one of my professors and I was supposed to take one of her classes next fall at Rutgers!! She will be GREATLY MISSED!

  2. This is my Professor! She is one of the most wonderful, strong, caring, all over the place women I have ever meet! She has heavy influence me as an artist, a women, and a mother. She is one of the pilar of strength that holds up my work! With great sadness in my heart my she rest in peace and my God be with her husband, her beautiful baby girl, and family!

  3. She came to my school to lecture and do studio visits, I got to spend some time with this amazing lady, and i think of her and her words and art often. She was a life changer, and a force of nature and I for someone who was in my life for a day, she made a huge impression on me. Extremely sad.

  4. Such an AMAZING artist, instructor, and mentor to myself and other Rutgers University students… she inspired me both in my artistic work, and personal life. She will be truly missed! Completely lost for words, and in shock… so teary eyed. Terrible news!

  5. Still haven’t gotten over losing her. She was my only mentor. I learned everything I know from her. It just doesnt seem right that someone with so much strength of character, an endless willingness to help as many people as possible, and such fascinating observations of the world should leave the earth so soon. There was SO much more she could’ve shared. Thousands of photographs, drawings, journals, and I’m sure radically new ideas didnt get the chance to manifest itself. And every time she painted she painted bigger, better, more complex. There was no stopping her. And then she was stopped. Its a tragedy thats tearing at me.

    She was the only one who believed in me. And the only thing I could do is use what she taught me…in her honor…to try to navigate through the art world. Without her guidance, though, I feel like I’m taking the journey alone. I’m sure she’s looking down on all of us who are so affected by her loss, but its hard going it alone. And every once in awhile I have to go to Newark, around Rutgers University…and the thought of that white Arts building, on the corner of the 5th floor, her office isn’t there…with her fabulous collection of art books and magazines…and her little older-than-the-hills mac computer…and that squeaky barstool chair that wouldnt turn. I used to go there to get my ass kicked when I felt stultified by fear and inadequacy…but by the time I left her room, I felt like a million bucks and I could conquer whatever the world would throw at me. The world needs more Denyses. Truly inspirational, motivational, life-changing individuals are rare these days…probably on the road to extinction entirely.

    I miss her terribly. Just today I had to return a book to the Newark Library…passing the Rutgers signs and seeing where I used to schlep my canvases and installations down those streets…it just felt so different. Newark lost some of its energy when Denyse passed.

    Love to the family, my sincerest condolences,


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