William T. Williams: Variations on Themes

Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims

Here, spiral, serpentine, and curlicue elements intertwine with and intersect the diamond shapes, the conical vessels and the biomorphic forms as the arc-shapes and diagonal bars did with the diamond/trapezoid forms in the work of the late 1960s and early 1970s. On several occasions the diamond shapes are literally sporting frames around their edges. Can we read that as an indication that the biomorphic and serpentine elements now resist being restricted and restrained within such boundaries? In any case, these works clearly exist at the frontier of Williams’ evolution from the more stringent geometric structure of his early work and the increasing mobility and fluidity of his most recent works.

A transitional moment between these works and the more recent linear compositions executed in the 2000s can be found in work from the 1990s, in which heraldic, framed shapes are set on a long stem/support and reference the artist’s memories of family gardens. These works mark a period of intense emotional experience for the artist when he lost a number of his friends and relatives.26 At times, these compositions show more specifically figural elements (skulls, houses, fires, African sculptures) and the gardening metaphor draws on German Romantic traditions where the heroically deceased nurture surviving and subsequent generations within a community.

A full third of the works in this survey of Williams’ career were executed over the last decade and constitute the fourth compositional grouping in this exhibition. The intention was to signal the changes in his work beyond the signature geometric works of the late 1960s and early 1970s with their color and form to his current work that gives free reign to line and gesture. In the open, linear, lattice-like acrylic compositions of drawings such as Crystal Dreams (2008), specters of the framing box elements in the work of the late 1960s and early 1970s can be glimpsed in the “gate like” character of these images. This association is reinforced when we see these compositions rendered in cut foil paper, Sand Storms (2004) and Aaron’s Advice (2007), and water jet-cut metal, Aaron’s Light (2007).

The particular biomorphic shapes of the work of the 1990s reappear — alternatively vessel-like, as seen in Sand Storms (2004), or figural, as seen in the acrylic on paper Till Dawn (2008). At times these works are more fractured, stained glass-like in character as seen in Maryland Calls (2006) and Pine Top (2006)–referencing memories of the abstract stained glass windows Williams observed in church as a youth in North Carolina. There are at least two recognizable compositions in this series of work—one more heraldic and “gatelike” in character e.g. Congo Peacock, (2008), the other showing a type of pendant wreath-like extension, e.g. River Cry (2008). They can also be complex, baroque lattice-work structures as seen in Southern Express (2006) and Crystal Dreams (2008), which engage space in complex and marvelous ways. It is an embellishment of lines and forms that recently has been characterized by Rococo in contemporary art.27

In the context of his career and his generation, this enfolding emphasis on line as a spatial delineator and form maker also parallels developments in work of Williams’ contemporaries such as Minimalist/Color Field artists Frank Stella and Brice Marden. The reappearance of marks and shapes in their work in the 1980s and 1990s can be seen as an attempt to halt the eschatological destiny of reductive form, as well as a decision to come to terms with content without abandoning the initially restrained painterly means we identify with them. But given the fact that Williams has always been engaged with issues of content, this emphasis on line in his work clearly has a trajectory specific to the course of his artistic exploration and is not merely catching a trend in the art world.