The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

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DEC 18-JAN 19 Issue

Thornton Willis: Improvisational Structures

Thornton Willis, Panama City, 2017. Acrylic on canvas 18 x 14 inches. Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery.

New York
Elizabeth Harris Gallery
October 27 – December 22, 2018

Too often we think of the South as a land of writers, not visual artists. The truth is, southern artists such as Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Thornton Willis shaped American art in the twentieth century. All came to New York, where they found themselves, that is, found a style or series of styles that came to define chapters in the history of American painting.

But among these Southerners, Thornton Willis stands out by defying definition. Elusive and unwilling to fix himself in a single modality, Willis always brings to mind a host of other painters, but in the last analysis, he is only like himself. His career has been immensely long: he was born in 1936, grew up and studied in various places in the South—Florida, Alabama, Mississippi—and moved to New York in 1967, at the high tide of Minimalism, a movement with which he has important affinities and differences. The artist closest in spirit to Willis is Sean Scully (b. 1945).

Willis' early work, his “slat” paintings of the late sixties, evince links with the gestural style of the Abstract Expressionists. Those paintings composed of horizontal bands untidily massed on the canvas, point the way to the more sharply defined geometry of his “wedge” paintings of the seventies and eighties and the “triangle” paintings of the nineties. The gestural element in the sixties work becomes attenuated over time, but it never disappears. It is as if Willis accepted the harness of geometry but was unwilling to suppress entirely a wilder, more passionate painterly voice. This is the essential tension of his work, a tension eased by witty allusions to Op art and its visual trickery.

Thornton Willis, Three Men Standing, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery.

As a title, Improvisational Structures contains the fundamental paradox of Willis' recent work: like a seasoned jazz musician, he has a repertoire of melodic lines from which he can stray whenever the spirit moves him. Hence structure does not clash with improvisation—each complements the other. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Panama City (2017), where Willis teases us with illusory depths, geometric juxtapositions, and visible brushwork. The presence of the hand in this brilliant piece is a kind of signature, the precise point where Willis asserts his individuality.

Equally fascinating are two deceptively simple canvases: Three Green Totems (2018) and Three Men Standing (2018). Willis tricks the viewer's eye into homogenizing the three stripes: we see three identical stripes in each, the only difference being—in the Three Men painting—a matter of color. But haste, and our tendency to connect broken lines (the process gestalt psychology explores) makes us overlook what really matters. There are subtle differences among the stripes, brushstrokes, and slight variations in length. A Willis painting seems "easy," but it only discloses its secrets under close scrutiny.

The twenty paintings included here are a tribute to Thornton Willis' fortitude. Their small format, either 20 by 16 inches or 18 by 14 inches, contrasts sharply with the large paintings he made decades ago. But packed into these is an unquenchable artistic energy. Perhaps the title of one The Courage To Be As Oneself sums up Thornton Willis in 2018.


Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

All Issues