New York

William Baziotes

Joseph Helman

At the start of his career, around 1932-33, William Baziotes made a drawing that, in light of the gentle, haunting, lyrical works for which he later became known, one would never associate with him: a rather expressionistic flagellation scene. A mean old woman is whipping a pretty young girl, who seems to be enjoying it. The two figures are locked together in a single tight curve like a boomerang. What’s most striking about the image, as this survey of works on paper from 1930-62 makes clear, is that, the form is the ancestor of all those delicious, meandering curves and bends we see throughout Baziotes’s oeuvre, just as many of his surreally abstract shapes are, implicitly, figures, animal as well as human. Indeed, a late watercolor here shows a pale orange man and an amorphous blue woman, two figures at odds with each other but also somehow inseparable, as in the flagellation.

The softening of figures into fluid lines, with no loss of the sense of conflict between them, seems to owe something to Henri Matisse, particularly the French master’s late cutouts. It was Matisse who led Baziotes away from his expressionistic inclinations—he has been erroneously classified as an Abstract Expressionist—toward a more “poetic” modernism. For Clement Greenberg, who struggled early on with the distinction between “pure” and “poetic” modernism (most noteworthily with respect to Paul Klee), the pure tended to morph into the poetic, which seemed to arise as a kind of epiphenomenon of it. By the “poetic” Greenberg seemed to mean the playful emergence of imagery that is semiarticulate and dreamlike, as though from the unconscious. He encouraged artists to eschew such manifestations. but Baziotes preferred them to the emotionally blank perfection of the postpainterly work Greenberg supported. Thus Baziotes’s wondrously delicate, sensitive surfaces change into atmospheric landscapes and his more or less free-form shapes become creaturely images. Titles like Playing Animal, n.d., and Flesh Form and Web, 1959, acknowledge as much. Baziotes is as responsive to the concreteness of the medium as any purist, as the exquisite surface of the watercolors in this exhibition demonstrate. but for him the medium is a means to an emotional end rather than an end in itself. The surface is a kind of sea, as many of his titles suggest, in which all kinds of formless feelings live; it is the task of art to give them form without compromising them. Baziotes wants to articulate the psychically inarticulate—the emotionally “prehistoric,” to borrow the title of a 1957 work. Cryptic, fantastic, organic forms emerge from the atmospheric depths, each encoding an obscure emotion. They seem to grow before our eyes, even as they remain self-contained, bound by an exquisitely nuanced, barely visible line.

In his own refined way, Baziotes carries forward the idea that has informed what might be called metamorphic abstraction from the start: the belief that abstract means were adequate to the task of making manifest “subtle feelings we didn’t know we had,” to paraphrase Kandinsky, officially the first Abstract Expressionist. In a sense, then, Baziotes stayed true to the original principles of Abstract Expressionism, while Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who made the movement famous, dealt with the rather unsubtle feelings we already know we have. It was no doubt a personal triumph for Baziotes to transcend the feelings with which his colleagues flagellated themselves.

Donald Kuspit