Thornton Willis’ aversion to perfection
I was not surprised to learn that abstract artist Thornton Willis, born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1936, the son of an evangelical minister, never had a survey exhibition in New York. He belongs to the largely unaffiliated group of artists living in downtown New York between the late 1960s and late 1970s who worked to establish themselves in post-Abstract Expressionist painting. , minimalism, pop art and the “death of painting”. when the art world was dominated by conceptual art and anti-optics. With the exception of the revealing traveling exhibit, High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975 (2006), curated by Katy Siegel with contributions from David Reed, the experimental abstraction of this decade has been largely overlooked. And even that show didn’t address the extent of what was happening in the abstract during that time, like Thornton Willis Latte paints were not included.
The 21 abstract paintings of Thornton Willis: A Painting Survey, Six Decades: Works from 1967 to 2017, downtown David Richard Gallery and the new Chelsea site (Downtown: April 4 to May 13; Chelsea: March 30 to May 13, 2022), tell of a restless artist working in the field of geometric abstraction who never developed a signature format. Rather, he found a way to be open and improvisational in his work, cultivating a flexible process that resulted in paintings containing a record of their creation. Instead of trying to achieve the cool, flat, detached look that was valued in the art world as the required response to the turbulent surfaces of Abstract Expressionism, Willis wanted it all out in the open. Brush strokes and traces of previous layers of paint are often visible in his paintings.
In 1967, when minimalism, pop art and tinted paint were all the rage, Willis began a series titled Slats. In an interview with the painter Julie Karabenick published in her magazine, geoform (September 2013), Willis, who had just moved into a loft on Spring Street in Soho, discussed the source of these paintings:
Most of the buildings had cast iron facades with old, irregular, handmade brick sides. There were vacant lots between the buildings and the walls invited graffiti artists. I felt that looking at those old brick walls, you could see evidence of the buildings history. Walking through this abandoned neighborhood at night was like entering a cave and reading its history on the walls. I was looking for something to get me going, and those rough old walls definitely swayed me.
Willis did the Latte paints on the floor, using long-handled rollers to apply the paint to the unstretched canvas, working wet-on-wet. He used the vantage point offered by a ladder to see the entire composition. Each painting was completed in one sitting, which lasted between 10 and 14 hours. In their layering and rawness, the Latte the paintings reject the dominant modes of abstraction. In this regard, Willis belongs to a generation of painters who rejected the status quo of the art world, such as Jack Whitten, Mary Heilmann, Thomas Nozkowski, Gary Stephan and Harriet Korman.
Spending time with the paintings in both exhibitions, on different days, I was struck by how Willis continued to reconfigure his interest in structure and gesture in different series, while changing his palette in unpredictable combinations. For the past six decades he has used stripes (or bands), either at right angles or diagonally, and employed solid geometric shapes – irregular triangles and rectangles – while remaining determined to keep the painting open in order to than earlier color notes by.
Willis’s use of opacity and transparency, his joining of structure and gesture, and the layering of paint as he worked out his composition, as well as his refusal to seal the paint’s surface into a single unified paint skin, have become the hallmarks of his work. . These qualities connect him to both the gestural and geometric branches of abstract expressionism, exemplified by Franz Kline and Barnett Newman.
In the early 1980s, at the height of Neo-Expressionism and the rise of figuration, Willis never attempted to adapt his work, as evidenced by one of his Corners works, the squarely frontal “Full House” (1981), or both Zig-Zags, “Brown Zinger” and “Hot Shot” (both from 1983). Frontal abstractions with bold structural forms, they stay true to their roots in abstract expressionism, without becoming nostalgic for thick, wet brushstrokes. The paint is laid in a simple manner that conveys unhurried research.
Glimpses of the red line on both the left and right edges of “Full House”, contrasting with its yellow background, as well as hints of earlier colors extending just beyond the edges of the blue corner which occupies a large part of this figure-ground painting. What is clear is that Willis enjoys the physical act of painting, but does not fetishize it.
In “Hot Shot”, Willis started applying red and yellow to the silver-gray zigzag running through the red ground, but then stopped, leaving thin streaks and streaks. The two vertical bands of the zigzag, which frame the diagonals, are gray and unmarked except for a few drops of red. I had the impression that the painting was both finished and unfinished.
This ambiguity is more evident in the two series triangular and Prismatic, from the 1990s. In these series, triangles of different sizes divide the rectangular plane of the painting image. While the triangular paints consist of one layer, in Prismatic, a second group of triangles covers the first; these are composed of solid color planes and linear outlines that do not completely cover the previous layer. The two sets of split planes establish a space that, paradoxically, appears entirely flat. If this tension is specific to “Brooklyn Bridge” (1993), in general Willis’ paintings are animated by the tension between figure and ground, surface and depth, wholeness and incompleteness.
In “Black Bear” (1998), Willis uses black, red, green and yellow – colors that share something with the tricolor (red, black, green) created by Marcus Garvey and members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the flag of Saint Kitts and Nevis, which also includes yellow and white. (In 1966, while Willis was a student at the University of Alabama, he was involved in the civil rights movement and participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King Jr.) The painting contains pencil lines (some crossed out), raw canvas and drips. It seems Willis considered altering the painting but changed his mind and left it as is.
This openness suggests that he does not believe that painting should achieve visual perfection; rather, painting is a process that does not seek closure. If we think of Willis’ work through the lens of philosophy, aesthetics, metaphysics, and social change, it is clear that he followed a very different path from that of his contemporaries. And yet I would consider him a quintessential New York abstract painter and part of a continuing line that began in the 1930s and did not end in the 1960s, as so many critics have claimed. and art historians. The vibrant diversity of abstract painting in New York has rarely been celebrated by institutions in this city, as it is easier to single out a few stars.
Thornton Willis: An Inquiry into Painting, Six Decades: 1967-2017 continues at the David Richard Gallery (508 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan; and 211 East 121st Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through May 13. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.