Danny Williams

Barry Whistler Gallery

I find Danny Williams’ classical reworking of Cubist painting both perplexing and extremely satisfying. Seeing someone struggling with problems of interlocking triangles and planes of color, and groping with the problems of Cubist passage, I want to ask: why? Wasn’t this all resolved at least half a century ago, if not by the almighty Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque, at least by the Russian Constructivists? But these questions ultimately fall to the wayside in the face of Williams’ work. Williams is neither a neo-Cubist reflecting evidence of an earlier revolution (like Sherrie Levine), nor a naive “follower” or ignorant copyist; he may be conservative but he is a rigorous classicist. Neither an inventor nor avant-garde, he is a strong painter who takes big risks with color and pigment.

Thirty-six years old, Williams has been around for a while. Through intermittent shows in New York and Texas he’s gotten some attention, though not a lot; he has been primarily a painter’s painter, envied by his peers but not widely acclaimed. His paintings provide consistent and continuous sensuous pleasure—each is so carefully worked and reworked that you feel acutely both the struggle and the resolution.

When I look at a (primarily) gray, black, and ocher painting such as Apex Blues, 1984, for example, with its web of triangles and push-pull of planes, I see brilliant transitions in subtle layering. It’s a house-of-cards kind of picture; you couldn’t move a single element without upsetting the whole. Close up, the surface shows almost unnoticeable variations in tonality, the kind of quiet moves you don’t necessarily have to see to appreciate the painting, but which show how Williams talks to us.

Though every painting here revealed the same degree of struggle, I can’t say that I loved every piece in the show Williams’ strenuous working and reworking of a canvas’ surface sometimes results in overworking. Some have also accused him of making “pretty pictures,” a criticism that seems accurate vis-à-vis a few of the works shown here. The orange, blue, and yellow Hot Voodoo, 1983–84, lapses into a lyrical abstraction suitable for a School of Paris decorative award. I don’t believe the artist’s intentions lapsed here; Williams simply seems to have tried too hard, and the clashing colors and over-painted planes don’t relate to the overlying web of linear forms. The picture lacks coherence or resolution, or both.

But his successes outweigh his failures. Perhaps most enlightening for those who’ve followed Williams’ slow changes over the last decade or so, this show presented an important new turn in the work. A recent group of paintings consists entirely of linear compositions that forgo his previous reliance on Analytic Cubism. The drawn images sometimes suggest still life arrangements that grow out of a flat and usually near-monochrome background. By slowly moving away from orthodox Cubism into a more personal iconography Williams graduates from a long and fruitful apprenticeship. In Interior, 1986, for example, a series of linear triangles, circles, and ovoids emanate with refreshing and playful innocence from a black-and-pink background, while still retaining Williams’ highly worked surface tension.

Such finished paintings were complemented by a group of small charcoal sketches in which Williams plays with recognizable imagery. Whether these drawings anticipate paintings in the same vein is unclear, but these intriguing sketches are the most direct personal statements from Williams’ hand I’ve seen.

Susan Freudenheim