William T. Williams: Variations on Themes

Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims

This exhibition focuses on works on paper and, in the context of Western art, it is assumed that working on paper reveals some aspect of the artistic process that is lost, or rather concealed, by the expectations for painting; that it is more informal and idiosyncratic, even lyrical than the formality of painting. It is also a medium in which the mind and the hand of the artist, as well as the process and material, are often more evident and revealed than in the formality of painting. Williams noted to the author that process and craft /construction are, for him, essential to artistic development, and that he is aware that as artists develop their sense of touch and experience, the actual craft /construction of the piece becomes less evident and more integrated into a holistic visual statement where mind work and hand work meld seamlessly.28 For Williams, the repetition of form, and the process of doing, are an integral part of his process of determining what works and doesn’t in his oeuvre.

Process is clearly evident in the surface textures achieved by his handling of the acrylic medium in these works. Not only does it enliven our sense of his process, it also allows the artist’s hand to suggest personal and autobiographical nuances that can come out of “touch” and “gesture” in the art making process. This can be seen, particularly, in the etchings from the Ellington suite of the 1970s. Each image evidences the extensive coloring and drawing that Williams created on each image as it was pulled from the plate. The resulting variant effects and relationships —with regard to shape and color— are such that the final image, in effect, became a monoprint, each unique from one another.29 We see the evidence of the basic structure more clearly in Ellington #1 (1976) where the distinction between “figural” and “background” elements is more easily read.

In Ellington #16 (1976) and Ellington #28 (1976) the striations of the “coloring” and “drawing” on the images begin to obscure that relationship and change our perception of the boundaries between the shapes by “over-coloring” them so that they create new shapes of different sizes and contours.30 We can also look to elements as subtle as the abutments, spaces and linear separations in Williams’ imagery. This is seen in the uneven white channels between the color forms in the 1970 HKL serigraphs that subtly determine our visual experience of the inter-relations of elements within the compositions. They direct our attention to a similar, if more subdued, technique in related paintings executed in 1969 such as Trane (Studio Museum in Harlem Collection), Elbert Jackson (Museum of Modern Art Collection) and Sophie Jackson.

As seen in his early work, Williams has had a predilection for layering and creating multiple visual experiences in a single composition, as seen in the 2008 serigraph, Bee’s Quest.31 In the recent acrylics on paper and serigraphs, this is manifested in the intricate “splattered” backgrounds. This can be seen in contemporaneous paintings such as Last Voice (2007), where there are not only several layers of drawings, but also embossed surfaces that create tentative, halting, linear courses where the voyage of the white, yellow or blue line is temporarily detoured; thinned but never thrown off course. Today it is easy to overlook the revolutionary effect that acrylic paint had on art when it came into wider use in the late 1960s as Williams began his career. Its fast drying properties and its physical malleability provided a greater sense of flexibility and speed in execution for the artist.