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William Baziotes, Dwarf, 1947, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 1/8". © Estate of William Baziotes/SCALA/Art Resource, New York.

WHEN I WALKED INTO the first gallery of the “Abstract Expressionist New York” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, I was stopped in my tracks by a green dwarf, waving to me from the back corner of the room. Actually it was a painting of a green dwarf—Dwarf, 1947, by William Baziotes (1912–1963)—looking like a bit of a freak among the various Surrealist- and automatist-inspired works that filled the gallery and that are conventionally understood to be the precursors of the New York School classics that were to follow. The museum’s long-established narrative of that period is almost annoyingly well known and more or less universally accepted. I had expected to have a satisfying experience in the exhibition regurgitating to myself my appreciation of the A-team that has long dominated the story of American painting’s breakout years, but this diminutive humanoid turned my thoughts in a different direction.

Baziotes has been somewhat eclipsed in that story, although he was a central participant in the significant organizations, events, and broadsides that gave the downtown art scene its first feelings of traction. He developed under the same basic influences as his cohort, but his sensibility was always a little off in relation to the main currents of the time, and although he lived into the 1960s, he died at fifty, never arriving at the distillation of imagery that characterized the mature work of Rothko or Newman, the unprecedented energy and rambunctiousness of de Kooning or Pollock, or the late, hard left turn of Guston. Baziotes’s vocabulary of forms was more redolent of the natural world than those of his peers, and more animated—even playful. He remained close both to his Surrealist roots and to prewar American modernist painting, uninterested in the large scale and transparent approach to process that now define the period in which he was most active. As he developed, he explored a different kind of transparency, with an atmospheric touch that can seem to foreshadow artists like Olitski and lesser “lyrical abstractionists” of the later ’60s. I doubt that many people think much about Baziotes now, which is in many ways understandable, however unfortunate.

But back to Dwarf. This thing fits neither the big historical plotline nor one’s usual sense of this artist’s accomplishment. It is not a large painting, only about three feet tall, and its subject seems to emerge from a haze of marks and smudges, a personality coalescing out of countless small decisions. This figure is painted rather thinly and quite methodically, devoid of the gestural or graphic flourishes we normally associate with an automatist and expressive approach, although it manages to get its arms (actually, its arm) around these tendencies nonetheless. Zigzag lines, concentric rings and other nested geometries, and innumerable daubs and smudges in a limited but very nuanced palette (basically green, gray, and a rather sickening purplish blue, with many glimpses of discarded and reconsidered chromatic choices in the underpainting) form an aggregate image of a little gimlet-eyed monster, waving with a raised stump of an arm. The creature has only one eye (open in a bleary thousand-yard stare), a lopsided head (with faint linear hints of an irregular crew cut), and a “mouth” that is either filled with alarmingly huge fangs or surrounded by tribal tattoos—the figure-ground relationships allow for ambiguous reading. Its “body” sits on the bottom edge of the canvas, legless and footless, turning the support itself into the dwarf’s space of residence. He/she/it is either priapic, pregnant, or martially aroused, depending upon whether one interprets the gray ovoid shape embedded in the “stomach” as a sectional view of a necrotic cock and (enormous) balls, as a chamber with an egg floating in it, or as the barrel and magazine of a machine gun pointing directly out of the picture. It could also be a metallic shield. Everything about the painting is ambiguous without being tentative. Its strangeness calls up chimerical art-historical metaphors: a collaboration between Dubuffet and Bonnard, or a late Picasso reworked by an unknown member of the Hairy Who . . . weird conflations that don’t ultimately convey the painting’s oddness at all.

It is impossible to know what Baziotes thought he was doing in this work, which leaves a void of intention that we are free to fill with our projections. It seems unlikely that he began with the thought “I will now make a painting of a little green dwarf”; the painting must have revealed itself in the making, and what it reveals now depends upon our use for it. The alarming anatomy and the fuzzy, unnaturally acidic color encourage otherworldly reference frames, both cartoonishly demonic and science-fictional. The painting is a window or a lens, open to a parallel dimension where our protagonist seems held by a force field, captured in a frozen moment of frustrated communication, the jester from a court of unimaginable strangeness. Staring through this invisible membrane, one slowly begins to wonder, Who is really the captive, and what is truly the cage? We and what we see balance each other. The dwarf is like us: asymmetrical, unformed, unreal, and yet somehow lovable.

Carroll Dunham is a New York–based artist.