New York

Neil Williams

Emmerich Gallery

Neil Williams’s paintings at the Emmerich Gallery exhibit a clear family resemblance to Frank Stella’s work. The shaped, flat canvases, the divisions of the surface into planes and bands of color that respond to the directive of that shape, the plasticity suggested by the direction of the colored surfaces—all would indicate that Stella and Williams share not only a common vocabulary, but also a common vision. But where Stella labors to expel from his paintings any trace of “composition,” of balancing one element off against another, or any intrusion of manifest illusionism, Williams’s pictures are highly composed. Surface decoration is balanced against illusionist depth, areas of color are balanced against one another across a divide of black, and the paintings, for all their modernity, finally read as sophisticated late Cubism.

Center in Point, like the other paintings in the gallery, is a shaped canvas from whose surface emanates the sensation of three-dimensional, geometric forms; cubic objects set at oblique angles to the wall seem to inhabit the painting at the same time as they form the decorative surface of the picture. Center in Point seems to be composed of a box on the right side, the forward surface of which is banded in violet, blue, yellow and white. The top of the box is formed of a black parallelogram. At the imaginary edge of this box the colored bands bend down to the left and suggest the presence of another box seen in isometric perspective. A black trapezoid again reads as a shadowy opening and a green plane capped with a red plane suggests a flipped-open top. Across the careful divide of black, the high intensity of the red/green area complements the cooler bands of color, which form a tonal succession, from the dark value of the purple to the higher values of the yellow and finally the white.

One is aware here of a use of black that first emerged in Cubist collage. At that time shading was pried from the objects to which it would formerly have given plastic substance. It ironically became a decorative counterpoint to the surfaces it no longer described. Transformed into symbols of three-dimensionality, the areas of shading were expanded into flat shapes which almost attained the weight and presence of objects.

In Center in Point, Williams has reintroduced the same ambivalent use of flat black. But as it shifts between an apparent density—as the surface of the picture from which the folded bands of color rise in a playful bas-relief—to a shadowy illusiveness—in back of the flat surface of oblique bands—one senses that decoration is being balanced off against illusion. The two are made to work in relation to one another, making a sensation of wholeness impossible. The fussiness that becomes apparent in Williams’s drive to compose finally gets in the way of one’s experience of the color and scale of the paintings.

Rosalind Krauss