The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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MAY 2022 Issue

Thornton Willis: A Painting Survey, Six Decades: 1967–2017

Thornton Willis, <em>Transition II</em>, 2009. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 70 x 62 inches. © Thornton Willis. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.
Thornton Willis, Transition II, 2009. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 70 x 62 inches. © Thornton Willis. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.
On View
David Richard
April 4 – May 13, 2022
New York, Uptown & Chelsea

Thornton Willis prefers the direct approach to painting. His constructive sensibility, a preoccupation with the architecture of space, lays out the basic proposition that painting is a vital projection of actual line, shape, and color. This keeping it simple makes his paintings eminently accessible to the viewer, whom he addresses as an existential equal. A working philosophy of his painting would go something like: “What is plainly stated is plainly shared.”

A remarkable exhibition of the artist’s work over six decades has been assembled between the two spaces of David Richard Gallery. Sensitively chosen and installed by gallery managerDavid Eichholtz, this grouping of paintings represents the first comprehensive survey of Willis’s work in New York City. The artist’s larger works are featured in the gallery’s spacious uptown venue, while a concentrated survey of large to medium-sized works are assembled downtown. These are spiritually ambitious works, centered as they are upon an ideal of expressionist abstraction that elevates the individual as the ultimate gauge of reality. Willis shares with painters such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman a profound existentialist belief in humanity as coequal witness to whatever manifestation of an authentic self the artist can realize via their painting. Unlike these progenitors’ most iconic works, however, Willis’s motifs are in constant evolution, a tendency that ties him to an era of intense experimentation (particularly downtown New York in the 1960s and ’70s) of painting’s structural possibilities as seen in the works of his historic contemporaries such as Al Loving, Mary Heilmann, and David Novros.

Thornton Willis, <em>Full House</em>, 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 96 inches. © Thornton Willis. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.
Thornton Willis, Full House, 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 96 inches. © Thornton Willis. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.

Entering the gallery’s capacious uptown space, one is immediately struck by the scale of the canvases, most around the 8 by 8 foot range, which clearly approximate the evental “arena” dimension relating a body’s proximity to a painting in Harold Rosenberg’s famous 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters.” Willis himself has spoken in the past of direct links between his painterly ethic and that presentational aspect of the Abstract Expressionists. A spirit of active engagement therefore emanates throughout the gallery as one moves from such different paintings as Diptych (1979) and Locomotive (1999). The first presents large quadrants of blue-gray boldly scaffolded by vertical and horizontal bands of cadmium red and orange. This format suggests a classic Mondrian grid, yet something grittier and more contingent is revealed in how Willis uses this motif to channel his alternating fast, slow, fat, and lean brushstrokes. The compressive effect of its brightly hued and energetically painted grid on an almost achromatic field is quietly implosive. Locomotive on the other hand, made twenty years later, directs its energies via intersecting diagonal vectors so that a taut visual expansion occurs. Multiple readings can be gleaned from its intersecting diagonals which triangulate the outer limit of the canvas, as well as an interior subset of rectangular proportions, all of which is carefully balanced by a primary triad palette. Illusions of architectonic scaffolding arise here again, but so do allusions to multicultural patterns of abstract distribution as seen, in just two examples, in a traditional Arapaho parfleche bag or in the geometric house embellishments of the Ndebele people of South Africa. Willis’s encompassing vision in such a work reactivates the notion that abstraction retains the power to transcend the cultural tradition within which it’s conceived, and thereby sidestep the reduction of its art to a merely derivative footnote. Perhaps more closely aligned with a specific time and place is Transition II (2009) into which one can read the ever developing, layered cacophony of the New York cityscape. Having lived and worked in SoHo since the late 1960s, Willis has witnessed entire swaths of New York deconstructed and reimagined, often in unplanned, awkward juxtapositions of old and new, which seems to have offered the artist a local analogy for his own exploratory constructions. The artist’s remarkable achievement here is to almost totally avoid any cliché attribution of skyline ziggurats in favor of an insistently planar overlap of undersaturated blues and bright yellows mounting around a dominant light red orange center. And one senses in the actively painted surface of each plane the vital hand of Clyfford Still as if guided by the ghost of Kazimir Malevich.

In Chelsea, the artist’s stylistic shifts can be viewed in a more compact way. Such recurring tropes as his open grid form (Willis refers to these as “lattices”) and the diagonal vector maps are seen in Blue Sky with Lattice (2008) and Black Bear (1998). One of the artist’s iconic wedge paintings from the 1980s, Full House (1981), is heavily painted in stark blue and yellow and so chromatically linked to the war in Ukraine: a coincidence of history but interesting to consider in light of when the painting was originally conceived. It is, after all, a rough contemporary of Stewart Hitch’s Reagan Youth painting (Hitch was a friend of Willis), in which that artist made an unambiguous titular correlation between abstract symbolism and political propaganda. Something both aspirational and tragic similarly resides in Full House’s upward soaring wedge which exerts the solidity of Gibraltar but also the teetering instability of a stock exchange graph.

Thornton Willis, <em>Hot Shot</em>, 1983. Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 inches. © Thornton Willis. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.
Thornton Willis, Hot Shot, 1983. Acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 inches. © Thornton Willis. Courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photo: Yao Zu Lu.

Two more works here, titled Hot Shot and Brown Zinger (both 1983) represent a phase when the artist simplified his geometric tendency to a unified zig-zag motif. The effect of this broad, unified gesture quickens the artist’s edgy, dramatic sensibility to the extent that its run-on structure almost slips from the viewer’s field of vision. Each is held in check, however, by strikingly complimentary fields of bright cadmium red and bluish gray, respectively. Willis’s recurrent ambition to effect a pictorial equilibrium via such a complementarity of graphic and chromatic pressures is made most evident in this formally simplified format. If one were to sieve such contrapuntal visual technique through a linguistic matrix, then a summary philosophy of Willis’s work could be said to represent a paradoxical hybrid of the declarative and interrogative existential voice. It constantly inveigles: “Take it or maybe leave it, it will still be here when/if you decide to acknowledge your yielding relation to this world’s stubborn immanence. These abstract paintings are what they are because you ultimately are what it is.”


Tom McGlynn

Tom McGlynn is an artist and writer based in the NYC area.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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