William King (1925–2015)

William King in his studio, 1954. Courtesy of Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

I THINK OF BILL KING as an old-fashioned artist, in the best sense: someone whose hand, eye, and mind were always perfectly coordinated and constantly active. Every kind of material—wood, steel, plaster, vinyl, clay, you name it—seemed to give its all under his hand, and every kind of human material—farmers, acrobats, cocktail-party guests, musicians—was apt as subject matter. Somehow, social observation always translated fluently into formal invention. Instead of pushing a preordained style, his visual wit could assert itself through any figurative idiom, from broad realism to near-abstraction; but probably his most familiar works were something like 3-D cartoons of ludicrously elongated figures (the tall, rail-thin King was a rather elongated figure himself, come to think of it), whose instantly legible postures told you everything you needed to know about an attitude. Of me he once carved in wood and painted a portrait relief that I always thought made me resemble a sort of comical Reverend Dimmesdale, if such a thing is possible. With King’s sociable, communicative work, one could feel for a while that the fatal divide between art and everyday life might be far more porous than one had thought.

A Floridian by birth, King came north in 1945 to attend Cooper Union, graduating in ’48. There he met his first wife, Lois Dodd. The couple were among the founders of the Tanager Gallery, a mainstay of the ’50s Tenth Street scene—now mainly remembered as the milieu of the second-generation Abstract Expressionists but also home to many artists (including fellow Cooper alum Alex Katz) who were giving new life to modernist figuration. I got to know Bill around 2000 through his fourth wife, now his widow, the painter Connie Fox. They were united in a Buddhist ceremony in 2003 by the novelist and Zen priest Peter Matthiessen. I remember thinking, “Hmm, a couple in their seventies, who’ve already been living together for twenty years, getting married—what could be more romantic than that?” It must have been in the blood. King once told Ada Katz, speaking of his ancestors, “I imagine there was a streak of Romanticism going through them, like any mid-nineteenth-century Americans, a flaky humor—Mark Twain. I think it’s sort of like a Russian story or a Grimms’ fairy tale.” The romance, the humor, the fantasy live on in his art.

Barry Schwabsky is a critic based in New York and is the author of, most recently, a collection of poems titled Trembling Hand Equilibrium (Black Square Editions, 2015).