Paint and Perseverance:
The Art of William T. Williams

Marshall N. Price

Williams’s first solo exhibition was in 1971 at the Reese Palley Gallery in New York, where his paintings were hung edge-to-edge and the opening included a musical accompaniment of radios playing jazz. It was a visual and aural installation that harmoniously combined images with music. There is an inherent correlation between Williams’s paintings and music and as art historian Kellie Jones asserted, the artist specifically “sought out jazz for formal inspiration, but also for its ‘reassertion of cultural identity.’”8 The linkage between music and painting is a long and complex one and in the twentieth century music has provided inspiration for notable artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and scores of other avant-guard painters. Furthermore, there have been many parallel innovations in music and painting and by the late 1960s, jazz, like painting, had taken on a more experimental role that now incorporated the electric sounds of Rock, with the innovative Miles Davis in the lead. Through Davis’s richly textural sounds and the interplay of syncopation, consonance and dissonance, cacophony and quietude, he propelled the music to a new level. Williams was concurrently breaking new ground with similar innovations in painting through his use of complex geometric compositions, a wide chromatic range, and a spatial dynamic that broke away from flatness.

Over the course of Williams’s career there are formal elements that continually re-emerge in both obvious and implied ways: the diamond-in-a-box and reference to the grid. The grid is suggested in some of the artist’s earliest paintings such as Sophie Jackson (1969) and HLK 1-4(1970) through receding geometric forms that establish a strong figure–ground relationship. By the early 1970s, however, Williams turned for a short period to a more painterly style that incorporated geometry in a much different way. Williams himself stated that he simply decided to cease making the geometric paintings and curator April Kingsely has noted that the artist’s work took a turn from a more “public” stance to one that was much more personal, inward, and intimate with a tendency toward nuance and subtlety. “For William T. Williams the 1970s were a time of personal upheaval and self-searching when he challenged his formalist training and sought to integrate the content of his life with his art. . . . Patterned yet unpredictable, the calmly controlled chaos in Williams’s recent work gives the measure of a man profoundly involved with questions of meaning and the role of the artist in today’s society.”9

Formally, paintings from this body of work such as Redfern (1973) are monochromes that still rely on geometry, but are no longer subordinated to it. The prismatic quality of the earlier paintings is replaced by gradations of a single hue with shimmering, flickering surfaces that constantly change under varying conditions of light. In addition, the artist focused on an all-over quality in the work, treating the entire area of the canvas in a relatively uniform manner. The notion of an all-over treatment of surface is one that stretches back to the late nineteenth century with Cézanne’s striated and non-hierarchical approach to re-ordering spatial relationships in his compositions. It continued in the mid-twentieth century with some Abstract Expressionist painters and many of the Color Field painters. Williams advanced his work beyond the conceptual foundation of Color Field by bringing the painterly touch of the artist’s hand back to the work. The use of nuanced groupings of brushstrokes in the paintings at once look back to the striations of Cézanne and precede the hallmark hatchings of Jasper Johns’ gray paintings from the mid-1970s.

Conceptually, these monochromatic paintings are closely related to the artist’s previous body of work. Just as Williams named the early paintings after family members and historical figures, these too were inspired by memory and experience, but were composed using a limited range of color combined with pearlescent pigment to give them a distinctive flickering presence. They have a depth of resonance that artist, scholar, and collector, David Driskell perceptively identified as ekphrasitc content—the relationship between the visual and the literary—in which a literary dimension is suggested as the paintings themselves effectively become storytellers. Likewise, Driskell noted how a poet may create a textured and even monochromatic “sound cycle” of words by placing specific words next to and over each other.10 The narratives expressed in these paintings are not those of relatives or significant figures of the past, but a distillation of more abstract memories: the motion of a leaf in rural North Carolina or the shimmering ripple on the water over Jamaica Bay. The monochromes were something of an interlude for Williams and his work underwent another significant shift following a deeply affecting trip to Nigeria in the mid-1970s. The artist had observed the colorful dress and combinations of patterns that Nigerian women wore and noted, “I had been impacted by pattern and the multi-patterns that you see people wearing in the street ....There’s a moment when they blend and other things can happen. There is just something else that is a kind of kinetic experience that I had seen there and that was reinforcing a lot [of] my interests.”11