New York

View of “William King,” 2014. From left: Infant, 1973; Waif, 2010; Citrus, 1998; Early Settler, 2010.

View of “William King,” 2014. From left: Infant, 1973; Waif, 2010; Citrus, 1998; Early Settler, 2010.

William King

View of “William King,” 2014. From left: Infant, 1973; Waif, 2010; Citrus, 1998; Early Settler, 2010.

Sixty years after William King’s first New York gallery show, his art looks as fresh as ever. The twenty-seven sculptures and six drawings that were on view in this survey ranged in date from 1946 to 2010, and showed a surprising consistency of attitude given the variety of materials (wood, various fabrics, ceramic, vinyl), sizes, and art-historical referents employed, not to mention the various artistic trends and movements King has seen come and go, from Abstract Expressionism through postmodernism to whatever we call what we think is going on at the moment. As for those trends and movements, he always shrugged them off; his deepest sympathies seem to be with the socially conscious figurative modernists who showed alongside him at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in the 1960s through the ’80s—Robert Gwathmey, Jacob Lawrence, and Robert Andrew Parker among them—and with Elie Nadelman’s synthesis of classicism, modernism, and folk art. Unlike that of just about any contemporary American sculptor I can think of—unless you want to declare Alex Katz an honorary sculptor on account of his painted cutouts, which suggest a distinct affinity between the two artists, whose student days at Cooper Union overlapped—King’s work shows him to be a keen observer of ordinary people. His critical eye for attitude and character is never cruel, always comical; with his inventiveness and mastery of line, and especially his peculiar sense of figuration, he could have been a cartoonist for the New Yorker—though I hope that in saying that, I do not seem to play down the seriousness of his endeavor. No cartoon, after all, could reveal his eager fascination with materials.

A typical King figure is a standing man, nearly all legs but with just a little square of a torso, in a peculiar pose with hands in pockets and elbows stretched out and back. What self-importance this fellow has, and whatever the scale of the particular sculpture happens to be, those long legs give the feeling that he is looming over an interlocutor like an indifferent god—and yet the solid part of the figure is merely an armature. He is a fantasy in fabric; it really is true that clothes make the man. One version, titled Citrus, 1998, shows a dandy in a zingy orange suit and ostentatious headgear overshadowing his face. The longest and tallest of these characters here, Cupid, 2008, flashes a man-eating set of teeth more likely to inspire fear than love—and yet somehow he does this innocently, as if he were quite unconscious of his own aggressive intentions. Likewise, even a child, in King’s eyes, is riven by uncontrollable impulses. Infant, 1973, a crumpled canvas that hung on the wall, recalls the remnant of a burst balloon, more helpless before its own twists and tangles than before the world.

For King, shapes and materials are a language—a means with which to talk about ourselves and our world. To that extent, he’s a traditionalist—in his art, seeing, making, and communicating are all of a piece. But he’s also more of a Romantic than you might think. Looking at these works, I couldn’t help but remember Friedrich Schlegel’s call to “make poetry lively and sociable, and life and society poetical; poeticize wit and fill and saturate the forms of art with every kind of good, solid matter for instruction, and animate them with the pulsations of humor.” King has heard that call and fulfilled it.

Barry Schwabsky