Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Art Space Talk: Thornton Willis

Thornton Willis observes abstract painting as an abstraction of personality and nature. In that sense, his paintings are a reflection of himself and his experiences. Thornton is known for being a powerful painter, but his most recent work reveals the strength of his painterly technique and knowledge that derives from decades of exploring his artistic practice. His work is bold, but at the same time it conveys a sense of delicacy. His triangular forms seem to map-out his experience as well as our collective experience-- the essence of the human condition.

Full Spinner, oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2007

Brian Sherwin: Thornton, I've read that Mel Price was your mentor during college. After your studies Mr. Price, a close friend of painters Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, encouraged you to pursue your career in New York City. Can you recall any unique experiences of those early years? Also, can you explain how Mel made an impact on your study of art?

Thornton Willis: It is true that I studied painting with the Abstract Expressionist painter Melville Price at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, in the early l960’s. Price was an inspirational example of what it meant to be a painter of integrity. From Mel I learned that the idea was to "live the work." To "be in" the painting and to see the work as an extension of one’s self, and it has always been with this attitude that I approach my painting.

Mr. Price had been in New York City during the 10th Street years and had been a member of the "Club." He was friends with the "First Generation of Abstract Expressionists" he knew their work and they knew his. When New York artist Theodoros Stamos came to the university to give a lecture I asked him if he thought I would have a greater advantage if I were to go to New York to study painting. Stamos replied " not necessarily, so long as you’re working with Mel Price." When I graduated Mel encouraged me to go to New York City.

Counter Cluster, oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2007

BS: Thornton, in the early 1980s, you were often grouped with such painters as Elizabeth Murray, Bill Jensen, Alan Uglow and Sean Scully. Art critics have stated that in recent years you have†tried your best to†keep a lower profile in the art world. If this is so, may I ask why?

TW: Well, Brian, I didn’t intentionally keep a lower profile through the l990’s; it was a result of circumstances. For example, most if not all of the galleries with whom I had some affiliation in the 70’s and 80’s were closed by the early 90’s. These included Bykert, Paley & Lowe, Oscarsson Hood, Twining, and Sidney Janis Galleries. The art market was going into a real depression along with the economy. That was when the galleries closed down in Soho and began their eventual move to Chelsea. Some of the other artists you mentioned went to Europe, which was somewhat sheltered from the recession here. Many artists were hurt during that downturn and painting took a hard hit.

We had just had a little baby girl and I decided to stay home and raise her and paint until times got better for painters again. (I keep waiting for that day.) But I did show in numerous group shows during that time here and in Europe. I have never stopped painting.

Preacher, oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2006

BS: Thornton, what are you working on at this time?

TW: The paintings I am working on now are based on a system that I began developing in the early 90’s. In l993 I had a one person show at Andre Zarre Gallery in Soho and the paintings from that show, the ideas and the system have continued to evolve. I am also putting a show together of some earlier work, including the early "Slat" and "Wedge" paintings. The exhibition opens October 13th at the Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (I like the artists and galleries in Brooklyn) The show will include major work from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s as well as some paintings from the 90’s and a few current paintings and works on paper.

Lowdown, oil on canvas, 80" x 69", 2006

BS: Thornton you have received several honors and awards-- including, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (painting fellowship), The Pollock-Krasner Foundation (painting fellowship), and the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Fellowship. How do you feel when you have learned that you have been chosen for honors, awards, and grants? Do you feel nervous? Excited?

TW: Brian- it is a very wonderful experience to be given a grant; it has to make you feel encouraged and energized as an artist. You always know that lots of other fine artists went up for the same grant and it is very flattering when I have been fortunate enough on a number of occasions to receive much needed financial support for my work. The feeling or the emotion I have is mainly one of gratitude.
I also try whenever I can to nominate artists for the grants I have received and written many a letter of recommendation. Right after 9/11, The Pollock-Krasner Foundation called me about artists living near the World Trade Center and how to contact them for much needed emergency money. Actually I wish there were more grants for more artists.

Redeemer, oil on canvas, 79" x 62", 2006

BS: Thornton, you have exhibited at several prestigious galleries and spaces-- The Museum of Modern Art (NY), AndrĂˆ Emmerich Gallery, Elizabeth Harris Gallery... and several others. Can you recall your first exhibition? Where was it? How did you feel going into it? Also, do you have any suggestions for younger artists who are seeking gallery representation?

TW: The first solo show I had after graduate school and moving to New York was in 1963 in Washington D.C. at the Henri Gallery. The Henri Gallery was actually the first gallery in Washington to show contemporary art. A friend of mine, Ed McGowan was showing with her and he introduced me to Henri. She liked my work and gave me the show. I remember it well, but I remember even more the first show I had in New York, maybe because the paintings that I did in that first year in New York were so pivotal for me?
The first gallery I showed with in NYC was the Paley and Lowe Gallery in Soho. They sponsored my first one-man show in New York in l969 where we showed a number of large "Slat" paintings at the sculptor Alan Saret’s alternative space at 119 Spring Street. Paley and Lowe was new gallery and they opened with a group show simultaneously while my show was up at Alan Saret’s space. Mr. William Paley, then President and CEO of CBS, acquired the one painting I had in the group show. I was amazed when I heard about it, and for many years, until his death in the mid-90’s the painting hung in the CBS building (it is now installed at the Museum of Broadcasting on 53rd Street which he founded before he died.)

But finding gallery representation for an artist at any age can be very difficult in New York. It is mainly a matter of being prepared to take advantage of opportunity when and if it arises. And making some of those opportunities happen for you. That is why it is good to show in groups with friends or with artist with whom you have an affinity. It is also good to show in galleries where the dealers are really interested in the art. Showing at Sideshow is a pleasure because Richard was an artist before he became involved in running a gallery. Elizabeth Harris is the kind of person who really sees art and loves it.

Fighter, oil on canvas, 80" x 63", 2005

BS: Thornton, You have taught and done guest lectures at several prestigious educational institutions-- Princeton University, Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie-Melon University, Pratt Art institute... just to name a few. Can you tell us about your educational philosophy? What is your instructional method like? Also, how did you balance the role of being both an art educator and practicing artist?

TW: Brian, the schools you mention are schools whose art departments invited me as a visiting artist or guest lecturer with the exception of Princeton University. My contact with the art students at Princeton came as a result of my friend, Sean Scully who was teaching there at the time. He brought a group of his students to my studio and we talked informally for more than one session.
Teaching painting and drawing is something I have done but I have not had what one would call a pedagogical career. When I have taught it has been at the college level over a semester or more. My ideas about teaching art are based on the individual student: I try to understand what each is thinking about what they are trying to do and why. Since this kind of individualized teaching is very difficult to do, and almost impossible to balance with my own work, I stopped teaching some years ago.

Also, there was quite a long time when many of the schools around the country had eliminated Painting from their programs. This was in some ways a result of accepting the notion of Post Modernism. (Every decade someone tells me a new theory of why "Painting is dead") But I think that this has been slowly changing as I meet young painters. The idea that the basic tenets of Abstract Expressionism, coupled with Cubism, are ongoing and the backbone of mainstream painting is coming once again to the forefront is a good thing.
Downtown Slam, oil on canvas, 40" x 30", 2002

BS: Thornton, Jed Perl said the following about your art, "Abstract painting is an abstraction of character and personality as much as it is an abstraction of nature." Do you agree with this statement? If so, do you care to add to it? How can a viewer learn to understand and appreciate abstract art?

TW: Yes, Brian, I do agree with Jed Perls' statement. In order for a painting to have meaning it must be an honest reflection of the artist’s personality, otherwise it is illustration. I think that the best way that we can understand abstract art is to look at as much art as we can. Look at Pollock, deKooning, Kline, Rothko or Rembrandt and look some more. Try to figure out what they are doing.

BS: Thornton, you have said the following about your art, "In my paintings the forms are locked in this flux. It is part of the dynamic of the work and meant to be so. In this work, figure and ground, positive and negative are all equal." You have also stated, "The best painting is always "open-ended." It asks questions, and partners with the viewer to bring the experience to closure, or it might excite another painter to respond--this is what I aim for in my work." Can you go into further detail about your artistic process and goals as a painter?

TW: Process and systems are part of what my art is about. That is, I invent, find, and borrow ways of making painterly statements, which reflect my person to the extent that I am able to reach into that core of my being. It’s a kind of self-analysis that requires a balance between the rational and the intuited.

My painting has been primarily influenced by the two major movements of the 20th century, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. But I have been, and still am like a sponge with a sense of discretion. I absorb what I choose for whatever personal reasons. What I hope to accomplish is a dynamic and powerful painting that takes a very special place in the world of objects in that it reflects life and personality through its esthetic properties. That’s my goal. It has nothing to do with the reverence or irreverence of past or present social or cultural convention, (which seems to be the primary aim of some current art in the popular marketplace) other than the fact that we are able to practice and make our art represents a kind of political freedom.

Konstrukt, oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2003

BS: Thornton, do you have any further advice for young painters? Or for painters who desire to explore abstraction?

TW: I once had a Jazz musician friend who often said, "There ain’t no vice like advice." I suppose there may be some truth in that saying. Even so, I think the advice to anyone who wishes to pursue abstract painting is to look at the great art of the 20th century and to learn and know as much about the history of what we call abstraction in painting as possible. Then of course hard work is usually required to learn how to make the work that he or she wants to make.
To sum up, focus on what you are interested in. Then go see as much of that kind of painting you can find. Museums and galleries can be a place to learn and obviously you should read and inform yourself. Continue to educate yourself and paint as much as you can. I think that is what artists have always done.

Cayote Dreams, acrylic on canvas, 90" x 72", 2002

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the art world?

TW: There isn’t much I can say about my painting except that it always changes and it does after all speak for itself.

As for the art world, it is as real as Hollywood and at least as fashion conscious. I think that we are aiming for something less ephemeral, less slick, and less easily packaged. I believe that it is important for the artist, painter, poet, dancer, etc. to keep in mind that it is the art that drives the art world and not the other way around. Artists and other people of intelligence have the power to bring deeper content to our culture.
You can learn more about Thornton Willis by visiting his website: You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page:
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

I knew Thornton and Vered when I lived in SoHo, during the period when he was painting the Wedge series; visited his studio a few times around 1980, just about the time that PoMo and Reaganomics raised their ugly heads. Thornton is a very pleasant, soft-spoken, self-effacing guy and a sincere, hard-working painter - AbEx to the bone. It's great to know that he survived all that and is still at it, and successful. Sometimes the good guys don't finish last...

Anonymous said...

I just saw the Thornton Willis show at Sideshow gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and it is a knock out. It is a kind of mini-retrospective with a few examples from each decade. The process paintings he did in the l960's look really fresh like they were done today. This is a museum quality show and better than most of what is in the museums and Chelsea spaces. Willis is a true master and a must see show for anyone who claims to be interested in painting. This painter lived and worked through a period of art that they are still writing the history books about. I am a big fan.