William T. Williams: Variations on Themes

Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims

The works on paper (and related paintings and sculptures) by painter William T. Williams in exhibition at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, were executed between 1969 and 2008. The works have been selected to demonstrate specific phases in the prolific career of one of the most important artists who emerged in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s.

To set the context for Williams’ work, it is important to remember that this was a period of transition in American art: Abstract Expressionism was on the wane—but by no means spent—and Pop Art was introducing popular visual culture and media images into the realm of “fine” art. This already complex scene was also dominated by other artistic tendencies, designated as “Color Field” and “Minimalism,” in painting and sculpture which were positioned at the vanguard of American art.  In addition to burgeoning interest in socially responsive art centered around anti-Vietnam war sentiments, civil and gender rights were also asserting themselves on the art scene with accompanying expectations about style and content for its practitioners.

For Williams, then, the challenge was how to navigate the oft en contradictory aspects of these artistic movements and find the unique path for his career.  Temperamentally, aesthetically, and generationally, he felt a closer affinity with Color Field and Minimalism. As he noted to Juan Espinosa, “Abstraction offered more possibilities for expression.” 1 These two distinct, yet complementary, stylistic approaches encompassed a specific vision of modern art as a progressively reductive exploration of color, form, shape and texture deployed in and of themselves without any associative meanings. This art tended to feature singular iconic images laid out in flat, even, unmodulated, painted surfaces. As opposed to allusive elements, these basic elements of painting—form and color—constituted “content” in the strictest interpretation of this formalist criticism and theory. 2 For Williams, a recent graduate of Yale University in the late 1960s, neither this formalism nor expressionism completely fired his imagination or his creativity. He was, as described by April Kingsley, one of the “perceptive artists of the 1970s” who “realized that less was not only more but that it was rapidly desiccating into an academy. Art that was only about process or pure form, or information came to seem as empty as success without effect.” 3

Williams found his path, then, in exploring an engagement of advanced critical modes while introducing content relevant to his own life and experience into his work. 4 In that process, he has noted the role that memory plays in providing the content for his work. To that end, it is important to note his pre-cognition of the viability of this strategy as he had already glimpsed the potential of abstract elements such as color in nature or light patterns on water to convey meaning as a youth growing up in North Carolina and Far Rockaway, New York. Furthermore, a sense of the transcendent potential of shape and form was to be observed in the abstract stained glass windows in the church he attended, and the patterns and contours of the fabric pieces assembled by his grandmother in her quilts. 5 A word of caution, however: Williams would be quick to steer us away from the “specificity of narrative details” and focus our attention on the “intense, emotional quality of memory.” 6