For the painter Bill Hill, literature, art and life swirl in the same air
“We were on page 565,” says Hill. “And the first words are ‘- here Hill slips into a gruff bass in imitation of Sanders – ”Night by night of silent sailing, Isobel, eyes of wild wood and hair of primrose…’.” While the senator went mute, he stayed loyal, according to Hill, who says Sanders left the group with a parting note: Reading this book is harder work than fighting Republicans.
Bernie isn’t the Wakers’ only VIP guest reader; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has previously sat with them, as has a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump. In the past 12 years, the club has gone through ‘Finnegans Wake’ once, at which point readers have simply started over the 688-page novel.
For Hill, an art manager and painter who has called the DC area home since 1982, this stream of consciousness text is more than a high point for modernism. To Hill, Joyce is more like a key to unlocking the universe — and perhaps a blueprint for her own mind.
“Modalities,” an exhibition of Hill’s paintings at Dupont Circle’s Gallery 2112, opens a window into the artist’s multi-faceted perspective. His luminous abstractions recall the style, techniques and formal experiments of the Washington Color School, artists who transformed abstract painting in the 1960s and 1970s.
Hill, 65, knew them all: Gene Davis, Leon Berkowitz and many others. Hill rented a studio on U Street NW from Sam Gilliam, a close friend and mentor and an artist who became internationally famous for his drapery paintings. Hill says he and Gilliam would meet for breakfast and spend the morning reviewing an artist’s work; for their last semester, in the spring of 2021, they studied Kenneth Noland. (Gilliam died in June.)
Works such as “Field Painting II” (2022) indicate Hill’s strong connection to Washington’s pictorial pantheon. An atmospheric painting of teal, tangerine and yellow ocher resembles light reflecting off clouds at sunset – a mottled abstraction that would be at home in Berkowitz or Gilliam’s studios. Still, a few random dashes of eggshell blue suggest a tension on the surface.
Hill describes the Washington Color School as his top education in painting. Once, Gilliam and fellow artist Simon Gouverneur even showed up at his studio door, demanding tuition (and carrying six packs of beer.) “My whole youth was kind of like a floating opera house with all these guys,” he said.
Hill grew up in the DC area. Her parents met at Naval Station Pearl Harbor just before the attack, and her father studied law under the GI Bill. The family moved to McLean, where as a child Hill befriended the children of Robert F. Kennedy at their Virginia estate, Hickory Hill. Years later, as an art manager working for galleries and collectors in DC, Hill would oversee the move of a massive decorative urn four feet high for Kerry Kennedy, RFK’s daughter.
After rejecting the corporate law route, Hill’s father moved the family to a farm in southern Maryland, where Hill says he picked tobacco in his youth. In his father’s library, he found a copy of “Ulysses”, another Joyce bumper, which put his life on its course. Hill studied painting at Carnegie Mellon University, where he met his wife, Elaine, while studying Chinese philosophy. But his real education didn’t take off until he returned to the district, drawn to art and ideas from Washington.
With his feathered white hair and easy cackle, the entertainer could be a Dr. Seuss storybook character. He certainly has the Lorax mustache. But the ease with which Hill weaves stories about Washington’s art with heady ideas of modern art experiences makes for a more psychedelic, if not less animated character – like Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar.
A conversation with Hill splits into dozens of fractal tangents. Over the course of an hour, it watches from connection to connection, reminiscent of a burner included in the Bethesda’s Artery Capital Group corporate collection who made the last set of prints by mercurial composer John Cage, or an assistant to sculptor Anne Truitt who went on to make jewelry for the Sultan of Brunei, or the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduates who helped train Jefferson Airplane.
It is not necessary to follow to understand Hill’s work. Strictly speaking, following isn’t much of an option for someone who doesn’t possess his extraordinary recall, which he attributes to his early Jesuit upbringing. But his fluid yet highly structured way of speaking his mind offers insight into the decisions that guide his work as a painter.
Hill’s voracious intellectual appetites haven’t always served him so well. When he and his wife divorced seven years ago, Hill says, she told him he still behaved the way he did as an undergrad. “I consider that one of my best qualities,” he says.
But when Hill explains that he was thinking of Pierre Bonnard when he made “Solas Nua II” (2022), a subtle, almost impressionistic painting, it works. And when Hill describes an Aristotelian sequence involving Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, in which his thoughts trace his steps on the beach as if they were on separate celestial spheres – and how that passage reflected his feeling when he was doing biking along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay – well, it almost follows.
Hill has discovered a “chromatic operation” in Joyce’s work which he intends to explore, using the tools Gilliam, Berkowitz and Gouverneur have given him. Hill carries the torch of a tradition not yet outdated: abstraction based on chance and experimentation, resulting in paintings that resemble landscapes seen through the lens of verses borrowed from hundreds of different dog-eared pages.
Gallery 2112, 2112 R St. NW. 202-213-9768. gallery2112.com.