William T. Williams emerged in the late 1960s, a time that was full of political, social, and artistic upheaval. As the decade drew to a close, modernism was gasping its last breaths and the aesthetic paradigm was undergoing a fundamental shift. Many artists, including Williams, were producing pioneering new work and beginning to move beyond the reductive forms and primary structures of Minimalism. It was not an entirely clean break from the past however, and Williams, like many painters of his generation, integrated aspects of the modernist doctrine with these groundbreaking methods and techniques. Critic and art historian Robert Pincus-Witten eloquently characterized this moment of change in the art world by noting that many artists had turned away from “an agenda based in modernist self-referentiality,” and developed diverse and innovative strategies of art making that ultimately led to “the activities covered by the term Postminimalism.”1 The postminimal—or, more common label, postmodern—era has often been described as “pluralistic” indicating the tendency to support multiple approaches simultaneously. Since that time, abstract art has undergone an ever-widening pluralistic development as artists have continued to push the boundaries of painting. Williams has long been at the forefront of these developments and this exhibition allows an opportunity to not only examine the artist’s extensive and productive career, but also to explore his innovative work against the historical context of abstract painting.
Born in rural North Carolina, Williams moved to New York with his family as a youth. He attended the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design), before enrolling in Pratt Institute in 1963.2 At the time, the remnants of Abstract Expressionism were still present, but at the tail end of a long and assertive reign as abstract artists began exploring new vocabularies of expression. Pratt’s faculty, however, included some of the foremost figurative painters of the day including Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz, Lennart Anderson, Gabriel Laderman, as well as lesser-known but nevertheless influential artists Lucien Kurkowski, Richard Bove, and Ernest Briggs. Initially, Williams followed the traditional course of study with life drawing and painting as a fundamental part of the curriculum. It was Bove though, who encouraged him to work from intuition and memory rather than from observation. The resulting abstract work found support among his professors whose encouragement led Williams to pursue graduate studies at Yale University. The graduate department at Yale provided a rigorous theoretical foundation and studio practice for the artist as the faculty included George Wardlaw, with whom Williams studied during his first year, Jack Tworkov, Al Held, Gabor Peterdi, Lester Johnson, and others. Held played a particularly encouraging and influential role for Williams. “[It was the] best experience I ever had. [Held] was relentless in terms of pushing me….it was really good for me because it forced me to focus on what I wanted to do and why I was doing it.”3
After graduating from Yale University with an M.F.A. in 1968, Williams captured the attention of artists, critics, and curators with a series of innovative paintings. In 1969 his work was selected for inclusion in five group exhibitions including the Whitney Biennial, the seminal X to the Fourth Power at the newly established Studio Museum in Harlem, and Young Artists from the Charles Cowles Collection at the Larry Aldrich Museum (now the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art). Further acknowledgment of these seminal paintings came when the Museum of Modern Art acquired Elbert Jackson, L.A.M.F. Part II (1969) for its collection that year and included it in the exhibition New Acquisitions. By the late-1960s, painters—especially those who were old enough to have experienced the tail end of the gesture painting of the Abstract Expressionists and the rise of Color Field painting—were wrestling mightily with the notions of flatness, anti-illusionism, and object-ness espoused fervently by critics Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd, and Michael Fried.4 This body of work, which also included First Dew (1969), The Tattoo Artist (1970), HLK 1–4 (1970), and others, was at the vanguard of challenging many of these constricting formalist issues found within late modernism. In addition, Williams recognized an institutionalization of certain artists and a lack of aesthetic diversity. “I remember you would go to a museum in the Midwest and it would look like a museum in New York.…they were the exact same artists all over the country.”5 Like many painters of his generation, Williams surpassed the confines of the grid, the favored modernist icon, by adapting, distorting, and ultimately subverting it.6 The strategy was a fundamental way to advance beyond modernism and Williams’s paintings were at the forefront of this change.7