Paint and Perseverance:
The Art of William T. Williams

Marshall N. Price

The paintings that resulted from this trip incorporate the use of an underlying grid to produce a pattern-like effect but retain a painterly expressionistic touch. This new body of work, like its predecessor, was created using a fairly narrow chromatic range based predominantly on earthtones, but now added animated slashing marks and a crackled surface exposing layers of paint underneath. These paintings were a prescient forerunner of the coming decade for abstract painting. Art historian H. H. Arnason and others called this moment “neo-abstraction” or “neo-expressionism,” inherently problematic terms that not only fail to acknowledge the variety of abstract painting that was occurring at the time, but also imply that it was somehow a reworking of earlier abstract concepts. During this period, however, Williams, along with many other painters, continued to expand the vocabulary of abstraction. Throughout the 1970s there was an increasing variety of approaches and abstract styles among painters, and although critical attention during the latter half of the decade was directed away from painting, it was a fruitful time not only for Williams, but also for painting in general. As Pincus-Witten put it, the earlier attention that sculpture had commanded was beginning to fade and be replaced by a new manner of “painting as the fundamental vehicle of expression of the present…”12 Williams and numerous other mid-career artists covering an array of styles and methods such as Sam Gilliam, Gerhard Richter, Elizabeth Murray, Jack Whitten, Bridget Riley, Tom Nozkowski, Gary Stephan, and others established a fertile landscape of abstract painting.13

The diamond shape begins to reappear as a central element in Williams’ work around this time in the Ellington series of hand-colored etchings from the mid-1970s. Created at Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop, this was an important series for two specific reasons. It enabled the artist to combine the complementary elements of line and color in his work and helped provide the foundation for subsequent works including Middle Passage (1984), Blue Monk (1991), and others. Additional works on paper from the 1980s integrate the diamond shape composition with drawing over a highly chromatic ground in works such as Pink Sardines (1986) and Southern Nights (1986). Williams has said, “I see the diamond shape in my pieces as a theme and presence I’ve been working with for 40 years, as a stabilizing force, a form that interacts compositionally with what’s around it. Duke's Place relates to the quilts of my childhood, the patterns and forms I grew up with.”14 Color has long played a central role in the artist’s work and by the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, it emphatically returns to his paintings and works on paper. In these works Williams begins to re-combine various approaches to mark making with subject matter still based on personal experience. Color’s expressive qualities are prominent here and confirm sculptor Mel Edwards’ assertion that Williams is “one of the most dynamic, sophisticated, and intellectual colorists.”15

Drawing is at the heart of Williams’s practice and for the last ten years or so the calligraphic imagery in his work has become more prominent as he has turned much of his attention to reconciling a figure­–ground relationship. Still very much rooted in process, the artist often combines the formal element of drawing with personal or historical associations and communicates these visually through variations on a repeated theme. These associations can be extremely private and even enigmatic, but always poignant as in Lost Passage (1997), which “is about loss of memories and the joy of rediscovering personal history as well as collective history.”16 Space and depth have remained essential in the paintings but instead of employing an unmodulated planar dimension, these works are excavations of time and memory and rely on a system of mark making that is based in the careful layering of paint. The drawing aspect of Williams’s work has been realized in three-dimensions and the composition of Aaron’s Light (2007) is based on the central theme found in Monk’s Tale (2006), either complicating or eliminating the figure–ground relationship. In the most recent group of works by the artist such as Last Voice (2007), Southern Express (2006), and States of Grace (2008) the importance of this figure–ground relationship is underscored as Williams has continued to reconcile these two elements. It is most obvious in these late works that drawing continues to be indispensable for the artist and as he has said it is “the underpinning of everything I do.”17

The boundaries of abstract painting continue to expand with a diversity of methods and approaches employed by an intergenerational group of artists who engages with, appropriates from, or altogether rejects aspects of modernism. Critic and curator Bob Nickas asserted in a recent survey of abstract painting that in spite of a “post-everything” world, “the persistence of abstraction is undeniable.”18 It is nevertheless clear that there is much in the art historical landscape of the recent past that remains to be excavated.  William T. Williams has played a key functional role in the development of postmodern abstract painting through a continually innovative body of work. While the artist’s oeuvre has received a great deal of scholarly attention, it has nevertheless operated relatively quietly among the greater art world. When examined over the course of the artist’s long career, his substantial artistic contributions to abstraction are clear. Williams has continued to refine and re-define the language of abstraction and his work is part of an increasingly complex continuum that will not likely be fully understood without the assistance of some historical distance. This exhibition at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland celebrates and recognizes Williams’s pioneering contributions to contemporary art and should initiate a thorough reassessment of the artist’s significant achievements over his entire career.

Marshall N. Price
National Academy Museum