York Wilson

Born in Toronto, December 6, 1907
 / Died in Toronto, February 10, 1984

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About the Artist


Toronto-based artist York Wilson became renowned for his large-scale murals during the 1950s, and developed his characteristic lyrical semi-abstract style by 1958. He worked in many media including lithography, serigraphy, watercolour, acrylic, oil, gouache, ink and charcoal, and also created tapestry designs, poetry illustrations, and small scale abstract collages from brilliantly coloured papers. He periodically maintained studios in Paris, New York, and Toronto.

Ronald York Wilson was born in Toronto, in 1907. Following two years of formal education in art at Central Technical School in Toronto, Wilson began a career as a commercial artist at Brigden’s Ltd., where Charles Comfort and Will Ogilvie had an influence on his first paintings. He took night classes at the Ontario College of Art, and later at the Detroit Institute of Art. In 1927, Wilson began working in Detroit where he learned illustration and lettering and was also exposed to museums and books about fine art. However, he lost his job due to the Depression and returned to Canada in 1930. He married his wife Lela in Toronto, in 1932.

Wilson’s independent paintings from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s were representational and satirical, and depicted subjects such as theatrical, burlesque and urban scenes, including his social realist painting Welfare Worker, 1941. He also participated in Toronto’s art scene, and became President of the Ontario Society of Artists from 1946-48, and was elected a full member of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1949, duly submitting a diploma painting, Dancing Class, an expressive figurative work, which was deposited at the National Gallery of Canada in 1950.

In 1949, Wilson’s first six-month sojourn in Mexico at the artist’s colony of San Miguel de Allende became the impetus that changed his life. At age 42, he abandoned his lucrative career in commercial art (where he was known as Ron Wilson), and began working as an independent artist, initially signing his paintings R. York Wilson, and later, York Wilson.  He also became an innovator in the use of new synthetic paints. While in Mexico in the early 50s he met renowned muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros who was already experimenting with industrial paint for outdoor murals. Siqueiros taught Wilson how to use pyroxalin (duco), an industrial material typically used as a car finish. For his Redpath Library mural at McGill University (1953), Wilson found a way to eliminate the gloss finish of pyroxalin by mixing sand with the paint.

Wilson’s new career met with early success. His large scale, semi-cubist painting Toluca Market, 1951, inspired by the modernist social realism of Mexican muralists and painted in pyroxalin using a limited palette of white, black and earth colours, was exhibited with Ontario Society of Artists and won a J.W.L. Forster Award in 1951. In 1952, his painting, Margaritones was chosen to represent Canada at the prestigious Carnegie International Biennial Exhibition in Pittsburgh. It depicted a Mexican theme of textiles, baskets and flower textures painted with a similar palette of dark earth colours arranged within an abstract composition.

In 1955 Wilson returned to Mexico to study another synthetic paint – vinyl acetate – as it was more flexible than pyroxalin (duco) and had a flat, matte finish. Back in Toronto, Wilson worked closely with scientists at Imperial Oil to create (poly)vinyl acetate (PVA), a durable, fluid synthetic paint which he used almost exclusively for his murals including his Imperial Oil commission, The History of Oil, 1957-58, in Toronto. Wilson received a glowing letter of praise from his colleague Lawren Harris for the accomplishment of this work.

Wilson lived a nomadic way of life from 1949 to the late 1960s, travelling extensively in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Commenting on his world travels, Wilson explained, “Being abroad, I was more able to find myself as a person. I also found that I could explore the new concepts I had in mind much better when applied to a new locale…Travel for me has never been an escape, but rather a reaching into the creative unknown.”

Another of Wilson’s major murals The Seven Lively Arts, was completed in 1960 for the O’Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts (now the Sony Centre), Toronto. At the time it was the largest mural ever undertaken in Canada, measuring 30.4 by 5 metres. Restored in 1987, it remains a focal point of the lobby. Wilson’s brightly hued composition portrays the themes of dance, drama, painting, sculpture, literature, music and architecture in a decorative cubist or lyrical abstract style, and includes symbols from ancient through to modern arts. The mural received notoriety as Wilson had to fight a legal battle against the International Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America, eventually winning the right to complete the mural as an independent artist, without joining their union. He received financial support from the Royal Canadian Academy, the Ontario Society of Artists, the Canadian Group of Painters and the Sculpture Society of Canada, who paid half of his legal costs.

Wilson’s painting of the 1960s was primarily abstract, and characterized by a complex manipulation of layers of texture, organic form, shape and colour.  Art historian Paul Duval described a typical work, La Seine, 1963, is characteristic of this period, with its vigorous knife-work, textural depths and broken colours accented with emergent jewel-like patches of pure hue. During this period and throughout his career, Wilson also made representational studies of the female nude, laying several figures close together on the page.

Wilson’s ‘Geometric’ series of the late 1960s are a distinct body of work, distinguished by their striped hard-edge compositions, rhythmic design and bold colour. They were subconsciously inspired by the constructivist paintings of his friend Luc Peire, in Paris. As Wilson commented in 1973, “My geometric period was the result of two dreams…The result was that from July 1966 until sometime in 1971, I was unable to paint any other style… It is because of experiences like this that it is difficult to understand the creative process.”

In 1981, Wilson was honoured by commission for a self-portrait from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, for exhibition in their gallery of twentieth century self-portraits. He died in Toronto in 1984, at the age of seventy-six.


Judith Parker
Compiled May 2008

A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Studied at

Central Technical School, Toronto with Fred Challener, Peter Haworth and Alfred Howell


1945, J.W.L. Forster Award, Ontario Society of Artists
1951, J.W.L. Forster Award, Ontario Society of Artists
1956, Green Blankstein & Russell Award, Winnipeg Show
1959, Baxter Art Foundation Award
1967, Centennial Medal
1983, Ontario Society of Artists, Lifetime Achievement Award

Professional Activities

At the age of 17, began as a commercial artist with Brigdens, working with Charles Comfort, Andre Lapine, Will Ogilvie and Fred Finley. Career with Sampson-Mathews, working with Frank Carmichael, A.J. Casson and Joe Gauthier.

Member of

1942, Member, Ontario Society of Artists; 1945, Vice-President; 1946, President
1949, Academician, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts
1960, Member, Canadian Group of Painters; 1967, President

Solo Exhibitions

1944, 1954, 1958, 1974, Hart House, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1945, Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1947, The Little Gallery, Peterborough, ON
1948, 1954, 1967, 1975, 1978, 1980, 2007, Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, ON
1948, Eaton's Fine Art Galleries, Toronto, ON
1950, 1952, Laing Galleries, Toronto, ON
1952, Circulo de Belles Artes, Tenerife, Spain
1951, 1952, 1954, Watson Gallery, Montreal, QC
1955, 1957-60, 1966, 1969-74, 1976, 1978-83, Roberts Gallery, Toronto, ON
1959, Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1963, Musée Galliera, Paris, France
1964, 1966, 1967, Galerie Agnes Lefort, Montreal, QC
1965, York Wilson Retrospective, Sarnia Public Art Gallery, Sarnia, ON; Confederation Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown, PE; Roberts Gallery, Toronto, ON
1966, British High Commission, New Delhi, India
1968, Rose Fried Gallery, New York, NY, USA
1970, Museo des Bellas Artes, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
1970, Drawings, New Brunswick Gallery, St. John, NB
1971, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1981, Wallack Galleries, Ottawa, ON
1974, York Wilson Retrospective 1974, Sarnia Public Art Gallery, Sarnia, ON; Gallery Stratford, Stratford, ON; Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, ON; Museum London, London, ON
1979, Manuge Galleries, Halifax, NS
1979, Retrospective, Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, ON
1983, Retrospective, Moore Gallery, Hamilton, ON
1985, Memorial Exhibition, College Park Gallery, Toronto, ON
1994, York Wilson: The Geometric Works 1966-71, McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON
1997, York Wilson: The Mural Projects, Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa, ON, curated by Sandra Dyck; travelling, 1998, York Wilson: Murals for Architecture, University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, Lethbridge, AB

Group Exhibitions

1931, 1941-1971, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, Montreal, QC, Ottawa, ON, Toronto, ON
1931, 1955, 1956, 1960, 1963, Spring Exhibition, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC
1939, New York Worlds Fair, (with the Canadian Group of Painters), New York, NY, USA
1944, Two person exhibition, Ron Y. Wilson and Jack Bush, Women's Art Association, Toronto, ON
1939-1983, Ontario Society of Artists, Toronto, ON
1939, 1944, 1945- 47, 1949-1955, 1959-1961, 1963-1964, 1967-1968, Canadian Group of Painters, Toronto, ON
1941, 1945, 1947, 1948, Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, Toronto, ON
1944, 1945, 1946, Eaton's Fine Art Galleries, Toronto, ON
1946, Willistead Art Gallery, Windsor, ON
1947, Drawing Exhibition, Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, ON
1949, 1950, 1953, 1959, 1960, 1968, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, ON
1949, Fifty Years of Painting in Canada, Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1950, Contemporary Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1950, Canadian Portraiture, Hart House, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1952, Carnegie International Competition, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
1953, Housser, Penton, Wilson, Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1954, Three Canadians, Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1956, Canadian Abstract Painting, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON
1956, Canadian Artists Abroad, London Regional Art Gallery, London, ON
1957, 1961, 1963, Canadian Biennial Exhibition, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON
1958, Galleria Appia Antica, Rome, Italy
1958, Vancouver Annual, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC
1959, Canadian Contemporaries, London Museum, London, ON
1959, Ten Canadians: The Stratford Festival Art Exhibition, Stratford, ON
1959, Circulo de Bellas Artes, Tenerife, Spain
1959, Third Exhibition of Fine Art, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, ON
1960, Contemporary Canadian Painting, Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, ON
1960, Ontario Artists, O'Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, ON
1961, Eight Ontario Painters, Vancouver International Festival, Vancouver, BC
1961, Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, AB
1961, Milestones of Canadian Painting, London Regional Art Gallery, London, ON
1962, L'Art au Canada, Galerie des beaux-arts, Bordeaux, France
1962, Orient-Occident Gallery, Paris, France
1962, Salon L'œil de Bœuf, Nantes, France
1963, Fifth Biennial of Canadian Art, Commonwealth Institute Gallery, London, England
1963, School of Paris Exhibition, Sao Paulo, Brazil
1964, Salon International Confrontation, Dijon, France
1966, Studio 65, Brussels, Belgium
1968, Group de Centre Integral, Galerie Suzanne de Coninck, Paris, France
1969, Salon International, Palacio Bellas Artes, Mexico City, Mexico
1970, 1973, Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Gallery of International Modern Art, Calcutta, India
1970, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Le Havre, France
1975, Art For All, Windsor Art Gallery, Windsor, ON
1978, Portrait de L'Oiseau Qui N'existe Pas, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
1979, 1980, Atelier 19, Montreal, QC
1979, 100 Years of the Poster in Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON
1981, Autoritratti del '900 per gli Uffizi, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
1982, Fourteenth Annual Exhibition, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, ON
1983, Canadian Landscape Experience, Canada House, London, England
1985, From the Shadows: Toronto in 30's and 40's, Market Gallery, Toronto, ON
1992, The Artists' Mecca: Canadian Art and Mexico, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON; travelling, The Gallery Station, Whitby, ON, The Gallery, Stratford, ON, Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, ON, WKP Kennedy Gallery, North Bay, ON


Calcutta, India, Birla Academy Museum of Arts & Culture
Calgary, AB, Nickel Arts Museum, University of Alberta
Dijon, France, Musée de Dijon
Edmonton, AB, Edmonton Art Gallery
Ein Hod, Israel, Janco Dada Museum
Florence, Italy, Uffizi Gallery
Fredericton, NB, Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Guelph, ON, MacDonald Stewart Art Centre
Halifax, NS, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
Hamilton, ON, Art Gallery of Hamilton
Hamilton, ON, McMaster Museum of Art
Jerusalem, Israel, Israel Museum
Kitchener, ON, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery
Kingston, ON, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University
Kleinburg, ON, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Lethbridge, AB, Lethbridge University Art Gallery
London, ON, Museum London
London, ON, McIntosh Art Gallery, University of Western Ontario
Mexico City, Mexico, Museo del Arte Moderno
Montreal, QC, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Montreal, QC, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal
Oshawa, ON, Robert McLaughlin Gallery
Ottawa, ON, Carleton University Art Gallery
Ottawa, ON, National Gallery of Canada
Ottawa, ON, Ottawa Art Gallery, Firestone Collection
Owen Sound, ON, Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery
Paris, France, George Pompidou Centre, Musée national d'art moderne
Quebec, QC, Laval University Art Gallery
Sackville, NB, Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Centro Cultural Bellas Artes de San Miguel de Allende
Saskatoon, SK, Mendel Art Gallery
Sudbury, ON, Laurentian University Art Gallery
Tenerife, Spain, Museo de Bellas Artes Tenerife
Toronto, ON, Art Gallery of Ontario
Toronto, ON, Hart House, University of Toronto
Toronto, ON, Victoria College, University of Toronto
Vancouver, BC, Vancouver Art Gallery
Victoria, BC, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Windsor, ON, Art Gallery of Windsor
Winnipeg, MB, Winnipeg Art Gallery