William Bailey is a curious painter. His work might be seen as a bridge, at least in the tradition of figurative painting, between the old and the modern masters. Bailey paints somewhere between Piero, Balthus, Morandi, his formidable contemporaries Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz, and painters of a younger generation like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, both of whom must have come under his guidance at Yale University, where Bailey has taught all of his academic career.
While he is unlikely to share the same direct and common link to Abstract Expressionist structure with Katz and Pearlstein, neither has Bailey been credited with Currin’s and Yuskavage’s appropriations of Old Master images and techniques as part of their subversive critique of popular culture. Bailey’s natural tendencies and greater interest lie in his ardent admiration for the ideal form of Platonic order. Bailey is more at home in the company of Piero, Balthus, and Morandi, which inevitably brings up the discursive nature of the spatial interval in their paintings that is perhaps more important than how the painting is actually made—it is a matter of attitude rather than technical procedure.
Piero stands for Bailey as a definitive master whose work fulfills the Albertian vision in every respect, but was never part of the seething caldron of the Tuscan metropolis. This disposition could certainly apply in Balthus’s case as well, especially at the height of cubism and surrealism during the 1920s and 1930s. Bailey resisted the pervasive excitement of second-generation Abstract Expressionists who worked under the influence of de Kooning’s figurative painting of the 1950s. (I am sure that de Kooning’s landmark exhibit at Sidney Janis in 1953 entitled Paintings on the Theme of Women was the catalyst of the resurgent interest in the figure at that moment.) The same can be said about Bailey’s detached view of the evolution of Minimalism in 1960s and 1970s, and of Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s.
One might relate Bailey’s compositional motifs to Morandi’s still-lifes, particularly the adjustable set-up in which Morandi could raise the horizon line to eye-level, creating the monumental presence of his objects. What ultimately sets Bailey apart from these European masters—besides his obvious and well-known refusal of direct observation and photographic sources—is the fact that he is an American painter, in spite of his refined taste and knowledge of Italian painting. I would propose that in Bailey’s paintings, the reduced simplicity of forms and tonal ambiance of his color evoke the Shaker’s minimal and ascetic sensibility.
For Balthus the psychological suspension of adolescence is based partially on his incomplete illustration of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, published in Minotaure in 1937, shortly after his trip to England to visit William Stanley Hayter. The children in his paintings have created their own morals as well as their own culture, and this is made visible in his uneven and crustily painted surfaces. On the other hand, Morandi’s poetic quietude rests on the slow moving yet agitated brushstrokes through which the forms emerge. In other words, both of their processes yield to a perpetual flux and open-endedness, whereas in Bailey’s work one feels a sense of closure and completion revealed by his uniform and controlled brushstroke. In addition, Bailey’s chosen objects are configured with utmost rationality and care, as if they belong to a purely mental construct.
Between the gatherings of figures and objects such as pictures, vases, funnels, and cups in their familiar environments, there appear intervals that are never activated. And they could be activated only insofar as the objects are placed either near each other or far apart, or else only as far as the tilting of the tabletop could be taken into account. Like a chess game, each move is well measured and contemplated before every advance. As a result each spatial interval itself could only be made visible to the extent of its given function. In some ways, one can even perceive Bailey’s work as a motionless theatre where empirical experience is not in the script; it indeed belongs to a metaphysical domain.
Bailey’s new body of work at Betty Cunningham contains eight still-lives, two large figurative canvases, many small single figure studies as well as works on paper. As the Greek philosopher Archilochus once said: “The fox may know many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Instead of contextualizing Bailey’s consistent output as an integral web of current art trends, let the past poetic practice be revived, rethought, and faithfully be a reminder to us that what will eventually be of any value depends upon the singular belief of its maker.
TOMASSIO LONGHI is a contributor to the Rail.