New York

William Willis

Howard Scott Gallery

The image that immediately caught my eye in William Willis’s show was a painting in a near-grisaille palette. Subtle and small—only eight and a half by nine and a half inches—it shows a group of overlapping planes, generally rectangular but with careful rhymes of V shapes and diagonals. Off to the left, a skein of rounded forms runs over the edge of the canvas, making the side of the stretcher bar into a weblike frame. A triangular projection, a slight curve, and an area of volumetric shading turn one of the foremost rectangles into a pitcher, which in turn pushes other forms into implying tumblers and perhaps a carafe—a still life. Looking at this painting, my first thought was of Cubism and the compositional harmonies of, say, Juan Gris. But those works have a lively clarity of color that Willis avoids. Still Life with Yoni-Lingam, 1996–2000 (gee but this tiny image took time to make), is perhaps closest in spirit to the work of Giorgio Morandi: muted, meditative, intense.

Where does Willis fit? Born in 1943, he is a decade-plus younger than the Pop painters and close to a decade older than ’80s artists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle—all of whom aimed for a dynamic currency, a responsiveness to their moment, that seems to concern Willis not one bit. Sandwiched between those generations, he is nearer in age to painterlike Chuck Close and Jennifer Bartlett, who, at a time when painting was thought to be no longer enough, pulled conceptual content and formats into their work as compensation—another trope alien to Willis. Instead he looks back to older artists. I’ve already mentioned Morandi, but Willis’s art has an American grain: It was apparently a work by Charles Burchfield that got him interested in painting when he was young, and his images will also make you think of Arthur Dove and Milton Avery. Another strong influence is Eastern philosophy, suggesting Willis’s susceptibility to a vein of thought in American art and culture of the midcentury.

To some extent a space was established for artists like Willis by the art market of the ’80s, with its fondness for all kinds of painting and its ahistorical jumbling of styles and manners. He is not so far from an abstract painter like Bill Jensen, though the innate modesty of his work makes him seem more out of the way. Never involved in the powerful art movements of his day, Willis also, I would guess, embraces a contemplative, interior kind of approach quite alien to the media-informed attitudes of many younger artists. But if his fundamentally conservative work may not be where art is going (wherever that is), it is beautifully executed, and extends a once vital and still potentially rich strain of American art.

David Frankel