William T. Williams: Variations on Themes

Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims

This exhibition focuses on four basic compositional and thematic approaches that Williams employed to express content by means of form and color. The first and most recognizable is a centralized iconic image of a diamond/trapezoid (and occasionally a circle or oval). These shapes occur singly or in multiples and in combination with intersecting arc/crescent shapes and diagonal bars/rectangles as demonstrated in the 1969 acrylic on paper First Dew and the four-serigraph suite HKL 7(1970). In contrast to the overall, relatively uniform arenas of color in Color Field painting, Williams introduces intricate spatial interplay, as the “flat” planes of his centralized forms are intersected, and disrupted by diagonal and arc-like crescent bands that transverse them, stop abruptly at their edges, and continue on another layer or intersecting element.

There is clearly a pattern of variations on a theme (versions of a form) within each composition, and the visual complexity of these works keep our eyes constantly engaged, moving around the compositions. This is particularly developed in The Tattoo Artist (1970) and Light for Nila (1974) where the interplay between the foreground elements and the background are more fluid and invade each other’s visual arenas in the composition. Whereas the paintings of his contemporaries featured flat, singular forms, the centralized diamond/trapezoid forms in Williams’ compositions—such as First Dew (1969) and HKL (1970) —replicate themselves, stacked or fanning back and forward in the compositions like cards shuffled by an experienced dealer.

These compositions demonstrate that Williams had already anticipated the activation of form and color and re-introduction of allusive form that some of his contemporaries would bring into their work a decade later. But most of all, these images demonstrate how skillfully Williams orchestrated the familiar modalities of contemporary art to his own purposes. He was clear about how his work was different, however, and observed to curator Joe Jacobs in a 1984 interview, that,

There was way too much imagery in [my] works [of the 1960s and 70s] for them to be really involved in Color Field, but my use of color made a lot of Color Field people interested in me 8 [emphasis by writer] My paintings…were anti-flat and anti-formal, that is going against formalism. They were irrational. Formalist to me had to do with a certain kind of rationale.9

This irrationality, or what Williams once described as “dissonance” was a means to a “more personal quality to his work” and to an alternative to “the impersonality of the prevailing reductive formalism.” 10 As he noted to this writer in 1988, “I wanted to enter the dialog of the history of art and bring back a heavily emotional attitude that had been ignored since the Fauve painters.” 11

The second compositional type in this exhibition builds on the tectonics of the early compositions as Williams embellishes the architecture of his heraldic diamond forms with patterns and textual effects within the individual segments of rectangles. Works such as Middle Passage (1984) and Southern Nights (1986), Pink Sardines ( 1986), and Union City(1986), all evidence painted as well as collaged elements. These works come a full fifteen years after a prescient composition entitled Buttermilk, which Williams painted in 1971-72. The repetition of simple linear glyphs in this painting carried Williams’ experimentation with content to the next level. It was an audacious alignment of minimalist serial imagery with pattern and decoration where abstraction regained its global scope accessing the essential African, Islamic and Asian sources. Williams’ own encounter with, and acknowledgement of, these sources can be seen in the early diamond shapes whose “heraldic form…might be characterized as African in origin.” 12