William T. Williams: Variations on Themes

Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims

In the chronicling of this moment, it had gone unremarked that at the time Williams was showing in the same gallery as painter Robert Zankanitch, who along with Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff , became known as the “Pattern and Decoration” group with a parallel agenda of moving beyond the “impersonality” of Minimalism and Color Field painting and propelling abstraction to its next incarnation. 13 What is missing as evidence of Williams’ precedence in this development is a series of paintings on linoleum executed in 1968—described by April Kingsley as “radical” and “spangled” 14—that were lost in a flood in the artist’s studio. 15 Along with the “geometric illusionism” of the iconic diamond compositions discussed earlier in this essay, this lost body of work provides evidence, according to Kingsley, of how Williams was “way ahead of his time.” 16

By the mid 1980s, Williams’ embellished abstract vocabulary is characterized by a more consistently geometric rectangular framework and the individual segments—set at diagonals, as well as a more dynamic and active orientation. They feature a variety of lively, decorative lines/traces that create repetitive movements that contrast and interplay with the solid segments, and the geometry of the compositions. Multiples of s-curves, free squiggles, loops, dashes, dots, lozenges, stylized leaf motifs, etc., not only fill the rectangular segments but also “break out” to invade or transverse the diagonally oriented segments. As noted earlier in this essay, they reference assemblage practices in the fiber arts manifested in multicolored and multi-variant bed and wall coverings that are quintessentially American and created by a large community of creators including Williams’ grandmother. We see, therefore, a reconciliation” of formalism and expressionism. 17 As Williams noted, “I was interested in what would happen if I took the geometric structure of an earlier painting and added pattern.” 18

Although it might not be readily evident, these compositions relate to Williams’ “shimmer” paintings of the 1970s, such as Redfern of 1973-74 . This was the moment when Williams was working intently to distance himself from the stylistic norm of the moment, to move away from what Valerie Mercer described as “mark-making systems that unite brushstrokes with form to build the kind of all-over organizing structure that has long been associated with modern painting, beginning with the art of Cezanne.” 19 In the “repetitive, textural” application of shimmering, monochromatic, pearlescent paint, these paintings evoke the ocean near the home where he was raised when his family relocated to Far Rockaway, Queens. 20 His works on paper Orlando and Madagascar, both of 1983, are closest in spirit to the paintings. While works on paper rely on color to create Williams’ desired effect of “engaging surfaces,” 21 the paintings are luminescent, enigmatic fields of diagonal brushstrokes that create visual waves as hypnotic as the color patterns of the 1980s.

The signature diamond shape also appears in a third series of compositions dominated by conical vessel shapes, orbs, serpentine elements and biomorphic presences, as seen in three 1991 lithographs published by Oberon Press: Caravan , Blues Walk, Blue Monk and Perdido. 22 The diamond shapes are now more attenuated in form and even the obliqueness of the angle of the “diamond within a box” 23 format illuminates its function as a framing element that can be seen as an allusion to portraiture, which artist Allan McCollum would describe, almost twenty-years later, as “surrogates” for actual human presences. 24 The conical vessels in these compositions are perhaps covert references to conventional still life compositions,25 and the biomorphic forms are reminiscent of those created by the Swiss/French modernist sculptor Jean Arp.